It’s that time of year again where all I want to do is curl up under a blanket, read books, and play Nintendo. I enjoy both pursuits for similar peace of mind. I play a lot of games for my age and station in life. While certainly not all boast strong writing, games as a medium are a credible source of fiction-driven entertainment. As the industry grows, we’re seeing it reach much more complex and sometimes cinematic levels.
But games as taletellers is not new. Since the beginning of gaming, there’s been story. Sure, there was plenty of Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat (and even then, they bothered to include background fiction–usually in the manuals), but there was stuff like Ninja Gaiden, which introduced cutscenes to your typical action game.
Here are ten video games with strong narratives and writing. These are just a few selections of many good examples out there, old and new.
10. Secret of Evermore
A very underrated game from the Super Nintendo era. The story line is great: a boy obsessed with B movies is pulled into an alternate dimension, one that exists in the imagination of 5 lost dimensional travelers. He explores the imaginary world as he seeks a way home. There is plenty of wit to the writing, and the scenario is inventive and unique amongst the game’s peers. The boy’s trusty dog changes breeds depending on the part of the world he’s in, and proves endearing and a handy plot trigger for some interesting story events.
A short add-on to Half-Life 2 that has since spawned its own franchise. The level design and gameplay is ingenious, and the writing is snappy, clever, and very funny. You are a blank-slate test subject trying to escape from a strange research complex using a device that creates two-way wormholes. The Companion Cube (pictured, with birtday cake) is probably one of the most personality-laden inanimate objects in the history of video game storytelling, MacGuffin or otherwise. Portal is even available on Macs now.
8. Assassin’s Creed 2
The guts of the storyline isn’t that unlike The Da Vinci Code or The Thousand: ancient secret societies duke it out over who controls the hidden keys to humanity’s self-knowledge. The game is fun as can be. You’re a badass aristocrat assassin during post-Medici Italy. Like its predecessor, which took place in first-millennium Jerusalem and Damascus, this once is centered around exploration, this time of Italian cities such as Florence and Venice. It’s intricately rendered, and there’s a lot to do and see. All that is fun and great, but the best part is the story. It has a sci-fi twist with the assassin, Ezio, living out memories in Desmond’s (your modern-day character) mind through a machine. There is also a very deep subplot that is completely missable–you piece it together by finding hidden areas in ancient ruins then completing some damn tough puzzles–concerning Adam and Eve and aliens. It’s out there, but well done.
7. Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions
This game has seriously absorbed hundreds of hours of my life. It is essentially chess with an ultra-complex ruleset and an almost Shakespearean storyline. It’s a fairly hardcore title, clearly intended for stat-loving grind nerds. But still, the story, which concerns two warring families vying for domination of a civil war-torn religious nation, features plenty of intricacy, backstabbing, and plot twists. The pixelated cutscene early in the game of the rebel Gustav being run through by the traitorous Wiegraf still sticks with me as one of the most personally memorable video game moments of all time.
BioShock made a big splash when it first came out. It’s a first person shooter set in a fairly unique world, called Rapture. Rapture is a ’50s-era undersea utopia, and the game occurs with the city in shambles. The society’s overdependence on genetic modification has left the place decrepit, and overrun with crazied “splicer” addicts. The story, which takes many, many cues from Ayn Rand novels, and was penned by a former screenwriter, is largely told through voice recorders picked up by the player while exploring the abondoned Atlantis. Perhaps most controversial are the Little Sisters, children who harvest the genetically modified sludge from corpses with long, glowing needles. As you encounter them, you have the option of freeing their souls, or harvesting them for personal gain. The decisions you make affect the outcome of the game.
5. Chrono Trigger
It’s a pretty lighthearted and fun story, but also fairly complex. The game involves time travel, and the storyline and encompassing world feature different branches and aspects that change depending on the order and time periods you do stuff in. This game was a huge deal when it came out, as it was created by the guys behind the two largest Japanese RPG series at the time, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. And the characters were designed by anime bigwig Akira Toriyama. It was also a crown jewel in the slew of great SNES titles released during the system’s twilight. The gameplay is fun, and the storytelling is excellent. The game also has 14 different endings, and can be played in a repeating loop. Pretty epic.
4. Mass Effect
The sequel to this game is actually much better (but the endgame is a letdown), but the story really shines in the original. It’s kind of a space opera, staring scrappy humans as the newcomers to the established galactic community. This series features some of the most in-depth and varied dialogue branches of any game out there. In fact, key to the experience is the time spent in conversation with characters, creating various storylines based on what you do or do not say. The sequel even takes into account your choices, and bases further story points (and casting availability) on the story you create as you play. It opens the door for multiple unique experiences, and Mass Effect is leading the charge on a growing trend in video game storytelling I expect we’ll see a lot more from in future.
This game has some pretty mind-bending puzzles. I definitely found myself stumped a lot. It also has a bright, Impressionist painting art design. What got a lot of people’s attention, however, was how deep and sad a story they conveyed in a short, downloadable game. Basically you are Tim, who is looking for his princess. The game begins in World 2, with no indication of where/when the first world was. As the story progresses you literally piece together the backstory (by finding jigsaw pieces) and learn that the princess isn’t being held by a monster, but running from one. One that may be Tim. This game is included in the Humble Indie Bundle 2, so you can name your own price and get it along with 4 other games, and the proceeds all go to children’s charities.
2. Final Fantasy VI
This is an all likelihood my favorite game of all time. It is the most character-centric game I can think of. Most games of its type involve building a party of 5 or 6 characters then following a more or less cliched plot line of saving the world from maniacal tyrant. This game features 14 playable characters in your party, each of whom has a nuanced and in-depth backstory. And the maniac? He’s there, but he manages to destroy the world about halfway though the game, changing things irreversibly and unexpectedly just when you were becoming accustomed to the geography and character of the game’s large world. The story tackles some pretty deep issues (suicide, torture, genocide) in a serious, respectful manner and at times reaches quite powerful notes. It also features one of the best soundtracks to any game or movie I’ve ever come across, which does a lot to bolster the heavy emotional themes at work.
1. Mother 3
The sequel to another game that deserves to be on this list, EarthBound. Mother 3 features easily the most poignant plot in any game I’ve ever played. A series of occurrences leaves Lucas’s mother dead and his twin brother, Claus, missing. What follows is a journey to find his twin, while the idyllic world around him changes and industrializes. The game is based on a trilogy of fairly dark novels criticizing wartime Europe, by Agota Kristof (read my review here). Much like its predecessor, this game is colorful and quirky, yet features a dark and fairly literary final battle. The whole game’s pretty heart-rending.