Script written by Johnny Reynolds
We enjoy video games for many reasons, but it's the powerful stories that draw us in here. For this list, we’ll be looking at the video game narratives that made the biggest impact on us through wonderful characters and thought-provoking plotlines. And to be fair, we’ll be sticking to one entry per franchise. Our countdown includes “Red Dead Redemption 2” (2018), “Grim Fandango” (1998), “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” (2004), “Silent Hill 2” (2001), and more! Which video game story is your favorite? Share your love in the comments below.
#20: “Chrono Trigger” (1995)
Square’s 1995 classic is still fondly thought of as one of the best RPGs ever made. And its incredible narrative is a big part of that legacy. It follows the young Crono and his friends as they travel through different time periods to stop a horrific dystopian future from becoming reality. From the time of dinosaurs to a post-apocalyptic hellscape, we marveled at the scope of its setting. Each unique time period was more fascinating than the last. It helped that each period was also populated by engaging characters, whether they were potential party members or NPCs. With surprisingly deep characters, just the right amount of weirdness, and a true sense of adventure, there’s no SNES game quite like it.
#19: “Celeste” (2018)
On the surface, a story about a young woman climbing a mountain may not sound that distinctive. But it is so much more than that. Madeline sees the mountain as a metaphor; if she can conquer it, perhaps she can conquer the problems plaguing her back home. Throughout her journey, she struggles against her own negative thoughts and experiences, which have manifested into an evil version of herself. “Celeste” has been rightfully praised for how it positively handles mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression. It’s a story of determination and learning to accept oneself, both the good and the bad. That’s not to mention a cast of kooky yet endearing supporting characters that help make Madeline’s tale a story worth telling.
#18: “Grim Fandango” (1998)
If you’re a fan of classic crime noir films and novels, then “Grim Fandango” is definitely up your alley. You play as Manny Calavera, a grim reaper and travel agent for the Department of Death. But when he learns that rewards for his recently departed clients are being stolen, he embarks on a journey to uncover the truth. Set across four years, Manny’s adventure features a wonderful sense of imagination due to the combination of Mexican culture and a conspiracy plot straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Tim Schafer’s writing and direction are phenomenal, personified by complex characters constantly churning out magnificent dialogue. We can only hope the afterlife is this entertaining.
#17: “Final Fantasy IX” (2000)
The “Final Fantasy” franchise has multiple entries with strong stories; “Final Fantasy VI” and “VII” could have easily gone here. But the entry that just edges them out, at least in storytelling, is “Final Fantasy IX.” Set in a wartorn fantasy world, it follows Zidane, a charismatic thief, and Garnet, princess and daughter to the power-hungry Queen of Alexandria. As the Queen seeks to conquer her neighboring kingdoms, the two join other adventurers to stop her. At times, the characters would have us laughing while at others, we’d be wishing we could do anything to lend them a hand. They make the plot soar to wondrous heights, and we would’ve loved following any one of them in their own narrative, let alone all of them.
#16: “Mass Effect 2” (2010)
The entire trilogy is an absorbing tale, but it’s the middle chapter that’s the most compelling. BioWare came back incredibly strong with “Mass Effect 2,” having the decisions players made in the first game carry over. While the emphasis on player impact certainly made it groundbreaking, the worldbuilding and characterization deserve all the praise in the world. Two years after their climax with the Reapers, we pick back up on Commander Shepard as they gather a group of allies to finally stop them. Every character you can recruit is diverse and captivating, which makes the possibility of losing them entirely heartbreaking. No matter the path your decisions take you down, you’re sure to be in for a spectacular ride.
#15: “Portal 2” (2011)
We thought all we needed were clever puzzles and a murderous AI. While “Portal 2” delivered on both again, it also brought a lot more. In the single-player campaign, we got to explore the troubled history of Aperture Science. Through recordings of founder Cave Johnson, voiced wonderfully by J.K. Simmons, we uncovered the demise of Aperture as well as the origin of GLaDOS. Additionally, Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley and Ellen McLain’s return as GLaDOS are both excellent portrayal’s that strengthen an already darkly comedic plot. The expansion on the facility’s lore is something we didn’t know we wanted until Valve gifted it to us. And after experiencing it, we haven’t stopped craving a third entry to give us more.
#14: “Spec Ops: The Line” (2012)
War is Hell as anyone will tell you. Or you could just play “Spec Ops: The Line.” The story follows Captain Martin Walker, leader of a Delta Force team sent into Dubai, which is currently being ravaged by sandstorms. Their mission is to locate survivors following the disavowal of a U.S. Army battalion for committing war crimes against civilians. But that mission goes sideways quickly. While it failed to make a commercial impact, likely due to looking like many other military shooters, its story and themes have been praised by many. Walker’s mental state slips further as you play, and the narrative expertly traverses PTSD and the horrors that some soldiers carry out. Gameplay may not have been remarkable, but the plot definitely was.
#13: “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” (2003)
We’ll always be interested in the prospect of “Star Wars” games as they usually give us access to awesome force abilities and lightsabers. Who wouldn’t want that? While “Knights of the Old Republic” drew us in with those elements, it kept us playing with a brilliant story. Set 4,000 years before the movies, it chronicles a Sith lord, Darth Malak, and their attempt to wage war against the Galactic Republic. As a customizable Jedi, players experienced the “Star Wars” universe as they never had before, collecting interesting companions and digging into their mysterious past. The plot takes some jaw-dropping turns you won’t see coming and greatly expands on one of our favorite film universes.
#12: “Disco Elysium” (2019)
It isn’t often that an indie game earns a slew of story-based awards and gets a TV adaptation deal within a year of release. But “Disco Elysium” is not your average indie game. We control an amnesiac detective as he tries to solve a murder, all while trying to uncover his past and understand the rich history of the carefully and beautifully constructed world. Instead of combat, you get through each encounter with a unique conversation system of dialogue trees. Thankfully, every character, whether major or minor, feels completely tangible thanks to the fantastic writing and, at least with the “Final Cut” version, stellar voice acting. “Disco Elysium” has as much depth (and, in some cases, more) than many AAA games.
#11: “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” (2004)
The storytelling in the “Metal Gear Solid” series is so intricate and engrossing, we mourn its current state every time it comes to mind. The franchise reached its peak with “Snake Eater,” which saw the future Big Boss trying to prevent World War 3 by destroying a superweapon. Set in 1964, it serves as a prequel to the rest of the series, enlightening us on character and organization ties. The move to a jungle setting was a smart one and, combined with the signature stealth mechanics, provided some thrilling sequences. It was one of the most cinematic games of the time filled with plot twists, fourth-wall breaks, and even a tragic romance. What more could you want?
#10: “NieR: Automata” (2017)
PlatinumGames knows how to deliver fast-paced action-heavy gameplay. But with “NieR: Automata,” the developer showed it could also provide thought-provoking narratives. It tells the story of a proxy war between Androids and Robots, created by humans and aliens respectively. The plot thickens when you find out those in command are not what they seem. It initially follows Androids 2B and 9S, who explore Earth to combat the machines. However, the game requires multiple playthroughs with each one unveiling more of the story. Without giving every plot detail away, “NieR: Automata” subverts expectations when it comes to both video game endings and character deaths. Exploring existential themes like what it means to be alive, this is one sci-fi game not to be missed.
#9: “Undertale” (2015)
After falling into an underground world full of monsters, you’re tasked with finding a way out. As you’re also being hunted as the final piece to their escape, the stakes are pretty high. But they never feel that way thanks to some of the best dialogue and funniest characters we’ve seen in a video game. At its core is a message of peace; you can choose to slay or spare nearly every beast you come across. In actuality, most of them don’t want to fight you anyway. And choosing to spare them means uncovering a silly quirk that’ll make them happy should you indulge them. As different playthroughs and choices can result in different outcomes, there’s plenty to gain from a visit to the Underground.
#8: “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” (2016)
We’ll always love the “Uncharted” series for encapsulating the call of adventure and glory. The finale to Nathan Drake’s story pulls that off flawlessly while sending the hero into darker territory. Following the return of his long-lost brother Sam, Nate sets off to complete the work the two never got to finish: tracking down Henry Avery’s lost fortune and the famed pirate utopia, Libertalia. Everything that had drawn us in about the original games was operating at full capacity here. But it was the focus on how greed can corrupt both men of the past and the modern day in different ways that truly fascinated us. Nate had always been a devil-may-care character, and it was wonderful seeing that explored with a more serious tone.
#7: “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” (2015)
The third entry in CD Projekt Red’s “Witcher” series has received a ton of praise over the years, from its combat to its world to its creature design. As should surprise no one, the story is phenomenal as well. We follow the famous Witcher Geralt of Rivia as he searches for his adoptive daughter, Ciri. He isn’t the only one looking for her though; Ciri is also being pursued by the Wild Hunt, a nightmarish group of warriors from an alternate dimension. CD Projekt Red enhanced not only Geralt’s characterization, but also his relationships to his companions. Exploring the war-ravaged landscape was immensely entertaining, and the game’s side quests were so great, we couldn’t help but continuously venture off the beaten path.
#6: “Silent Hill 2” (2001)
We all appreciate a game that can scare the pants off of us. But when it also delivers an intriguing narrative that makes us think, that’s when you have something really special. “Silent Hill 2” follows James Sunderland, who finds himself in the haunted town after a letter from his deceased wife beckons him there. The sequel is the height of the franchise’s storytelling, covering heavy topics like grief and trauma. Plus, with the town’s monsters being physical representations of the negative emotions of those trapped inside, there are some seriously twisted enemy designs on display here. “Silent Hill 2’s” story still makes us uneasy all these years later, which is the highest compliment we can pay to a survival horror game.
#5: “BioShock” (2007)
Some may favor the mind-bending quality of “Infinite,” but we prefer the understated original. After your plane crashes in the ocean, your only option is to descend into Rapture, an underwater city in the midst of chaos. As you delve deeper, you piece together what has happened to this would-be utopia. Sure, insane citizens and imposing Big Daddies make for thrilling enemies. But what “BioShock” really excels at is environmental storytelling, whether it be through the various audio recordings you can find or the blood-stained walls of its environments. Rapture is one of the most captivating locations in video games and piecing together its downfall and your part in it was a genuinely riveting experience.
#4: “The Walking Dead: Season One” (2011)
Telltale Games were responsible for several great narratives set in already established worlds. However, the studio’s undeniable high point was when it explored the world of “The Walking Dead.” Each of Telltale’s releases forced players to make tough calls, and there’s no world that’s tougher to make decisions in than one in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Players follow Lee Everett, a survivor who looks after a young girl named Clementine. Depending on your decisions, and reaction time during cutscenes, your story could play out quite differently from others. But no matter what, you’d be confronted with tense situations and heartbreaking character deaths. Trust us when we say you’ll need a box of tissues by the end.
#3: “Red Dead Redemption 2” (2018)
Our ‘one entry per franchise’ rule means leaving out a lot of wonderful games. We all know the first “Red Dead Redemption” is great, but its prequel is just a bit better. This time around, we play as Arthur Morgan, an outlaw of the Van der Linde gang. With the time of the Wild West drawing to a close, the group plans to steal enough money to call it quits. Things can never be that simple though. Never before had a video game captured the spirit of the Western so well. Its impressive open-world map was overflowing with characters both dastardly and mesmerizing. At its center was an entirely compelling protagonist on a path to redeem himself.
#2: “God of War” (2018)
With the Greek pantheon defeated, we would’ve thought that Kratos’ story had come to a close. We’re so grateful that wasn’t the case. Now in the Norse Realm, this entry followed Kratos on a journey to fulfill the dying wish of his lost love. Along with his son Atreus, the God of War braved dangerous beasts, deadly deities, and parallel dimensions alike. Every element of this game deserves to be applauded, not least of which is the story that focuses on the strained dynamic between father and son. Through all their ups and downs, the relationship between them was one of compassion, loss, and responsibility of one’s power. Never would we have expected something so real and heartfelt to come from Kratos.
#1: “The Last of Us” (2013)
When it comes to narratives that prove games as worthy storytelling devices, there’s simply no topping “The Last of Us.” No video game story has so profoundly made us yearn to see characters succeed while simultaneously making us ache with the pain of what it means to be human. The tale of Joel, a grizzled man who’s lost too much, and Ellie, the girl that made him dream for the future, is one of the most lauded in the medium. It deserves every bit of praise we can heap onto it as it masterfully navigates themes of sacrifice, grief, and hope. That’s on top of being downright terrifying as well. It’s an unbelievable narrative that was continued in an even darker sequel.