What’s a story, and what does it mean for a videogame to be a medium of storytelling? The purest definition I’ve heard of a good story is one that invokes an emotional response. The following games all effected me emotionally on one level or another. Some spoilers follow, but major plot twists are left out.
10: Red Dead Redemption
It’s more than just Grand Theft Auto in the west. With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar created a western sandbox game that oozes historical and setting flavor, and brings you into the world. The NPCs may be caricatures at times (well, all the time), but the game never lets up of it’s central conflict: can you escape your past?
What really nails this game down though, it the post endgame content. After beating the game, you still have access to roam free throughout the map and pick up any goodies you might have missed, but there’s one last mission to do. It’s subtle, but it drives home all the themes of the game in true Western style.
Psychonauts is an ingenious platformer, with your character delving into the subconscious of various characters, each one it’s own themed level with different rules (some favorites include the Milkman Conspiracy, which involves twists of perspective and gravity and use of props to fool men-in-black, the Napoleonic Warfare boardgame level, that involves shrinking down to different areas of focus (and at the smallest level, you can see the largest level through a window), and the kaiju level, where the scenery is a city and you fight tanks and planes as the ‘giant monster’.) In addition to fantastic level design, there’s a few cathartic easter eggs hidden about- each person’s subconscious has their own secrets locked away.
8: Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy’s first outing on the Playstation 2 was a strong one, with great graphics, game play, and story. While a little odd in places, the essential themes of familial tension, sacrifice and loss make this one a winner.
7: Dragon Age
The Bioware brand of console roleplaying games are much more interactive than the traditional JRPG railroad. (Final Fantasy X, above, for example, offers minimal ability to affect the plot, and only in minor details.) Your choices are legion, their affect on your ending, massive. There are also a fair number of choices that have in-game consequences (most notably, your choices in the Dalish/Mage’s Tower/Orzammar affect your end-game troops for the battle sequence, and you have life or death control over your followers). Dragon Age also has strong dialogue between the various secondary members of your party, which is always enjoyable and rewards tinkering with different groups. The different Origins allows one to explore the setting from different angles, and there’s a strong sense of accomplishment in being the most badass person in Ferelden.
6: Dead Space
The survival horror sci-fi game Dead Space succeeds due to its strong environmental cues that hint at goings on, and the player’s ability to piece things together. The scattered logs, the communications from the other members of your team, and the tension of knowing you’re going to have to go into a very, very, dangerous place make this one a hair raiser. A horror game should keep the tension high as much as possible, and Dead Space knows how to make that happen.
5: Planescape: Torment
Torment is the model by which dialogue-driven games need to hold themselves to. Set in Planescape’s city of Sigil, Torment embraces the weirdness and wonder of the City of Doors, and gives us an unusual protagonist: the Nameless One, who cannot truly die, but has forgotten his previous lives. The greatest joy is discovery of yourself and your character’s history, discovering the things you stashed away for yourself to find, and learning the stories of your companions (which are tragic, and your fault.) Also, the end boss can be defeated by talking to it.
Bioshock’s central twist is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in video games. One minute you think you know everything, the next, your entire world has been turned on its head. This is a game that must be experienced to be appreciated. And it doesn’t hurt that it has beautiful level design and great gameplay.
3: Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI stands strong to this day as Final Fantasy at its best, gameplay and storywise. More recent titles have successfully shaken up the core mechanics and have improved sound and graphics, but FF6 is solid from top to bottom. Featuring emotional lows (the Opera performance, the destruction of the world), and emotional highs (reuniting with long lost friends, getting your airship) this is a game that knows how to pull on the heartstrings.
2: Mass Effect
Another Bioware title, where Dragon Age establishes you as the most badass person in Ferelden, Mass Effect establishes you as the most badass person in the galaxy. The essential emotion of Final Fantasy VI is loss, the essential emotion of Mass Effect is triumph (and there’s a lot of it.) From the very first mission, it’s established that the stakes are high, you can trust no one, and that you get the job done.
Coupled with that is good party banter, good gameplay, hard choices (that have callbacks in Mass Effect 2), and a great ending sequence (the elevator’s broken, so you make your way on the outside of the space station on foot).
My number one game is going to come as a surprise for a lot of people. It’s not of a genre typically associated with story-telling; when we think storytelling and videogame, we tend to think ‘RPG’ and either Final Fantasy or Bioware. It’s completely linear; there’s absolutely no impact of the player on the plot. But the story is a damn good one, and the interactivity of the medium puts you right in it.
It’s a story of a heroic last stand. To me, the heroic last stand is the best story that can be told: the doomed hero who stays behind to save the day. This is why Wrath of Khan is such a great movie. (Cut out Spock’s death scene, you just have a good movie.)
Halo: Reach is the story of a doomed planet and the doomed squad of Spartans. It’s a story of not one, but four heroic sacrifices. The game puts you in the position where these sacrifices matter, which is why is stands as such a strong example of video game story telling. It’s a damn good story with emotional resonance, and its presented well in the context of the game.