Games stick with us for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you became addicted to the cycle of progression; powering up your character, unlocking new gear, leveling up. Maybe the gameplay held enough variety and excitement to keep you hooked for hours. Perhaps you wanted to see every corner of a game’s expansive open-world.
For many gamers, it’s the story that ropes them in. Some gamers only play games for their story; they want an interactive narrative that they can be a part of and be whisked away by. For this list, we have avoided the games that have more story than gameplay, and instead focussed on those with excellent stories that are also mechanically strong and well-designed experiences. These are the stories that have gripped us won't let go.
10 Mass Effect
This one applies to the whole original trilogy, though it certainly improved mechanically as it went along, with tighter combat controls and better level design. But it’s the story we were all there for.
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Mass Effect delivered the kind of story that–were it written 30 years prior as a sci-fi series—would have won a good few awards. Its world is vast but never difficult to comprehend; its characters and races all have enough unique design, politics, history, and religion to make them unique and worth your time to explore and understand. The plot itself is one of truly epic proportions, with this cyclical larger-than-human-comprehension design to it, reminiscent of Lovecraft and science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke.
9 Metal Gear Solid 3
The Metal Gear Solid series is all about the storyline. While it came to define a genre that really didn’t exist before the first game’s debut in 1987, it has always been infamous for its complex plot of sinister villains and political paranoia, as well as extended cutscenes that swallow up the rest of the game (looking at you, MGS4).
The third game in the series, however, undoubtedly hit that sweet spot with regards to plot. The rivalry between the man who would become Big Boss and his former mentor, The Boss, was gripping. The way that the game had a tight ludonarrative understanding of itself was truly brilliant.
8 Yakuza 0
Japanese developers don’t shy away from campness. This is something some gamers loathe, and others applaud (I applaud it, personally). The Yakuza series is in a unique position wherein it enjoys a distinctly heavy amount of ludonarrative dissonance; its side quests, mini-games, and combat encounters have little-to-nothing to do with the game’s main plot. But the developers know that, and they enjoy it. So, while the game might have all kinds of campy and silly mini-games to enjoy, its plot is one of betrayal, brotherhood, loyalty, and growth into manhood. Every game in the series has a wonderful story to enjoy, but 0 really hits that tone just right, offering impeccable voice acting and unbelievably smart localization. Its story is worth plaything through (and crying to) several times.
Another wonderfully campy Japanese series, Danganronpa (meaning ‘bullet refute’ in English) is a narrative-based game in the ‘visual novel’ genre, blending life simulator elements with trial-based scenes reminiscent of Phoenix Wright.
In this game, your protagonist and his peers have all been locked inside a school and are slowly being killed off. After each grizzly death, a trial is held and you must determine the culprit. Although the heavy anime art and aesthetics might point to a jolly cartoony game about school friends, it has some wonderfully executed twists and turns to enjoy. It keeps the narrative going with all the speed and impact of a freight train. This is an underrated series that should be far more beloved.
6 NieR: Automata
The underground smash hit of 2017, NieR: Automata tells the story of two androids caught in a war between their own kind, engineered by the enigmatic humans, and the robots who invaded Earth eons ago. While the game’s combat (designed by combat veteran developers Platinum Games), is sleek and fun and flashy, it’s the story we’re all in it for.
NieR: Automata might not be the prettiest of games on a technical level, but it makes up for that in spades with its intense and thought-provoking narrative that leans heavily on deep philosophical debates (a key character is even named after French philosopher Blaise Pascal).
As our protagonists, 2B and 9S, discover more about their origins and the truth of the war, it becomes very difficult to put the controller down. It's something you shouldn’t do even when the credits have rolled. Just pick back up and start again, trust me.
Speaking of philosophy, you may not like the musings and writings of Ayn Rand (I certainly don’t), but they did lead to the existence of this fantastic story-driven experience.
Set in an underwater city build to exist as separate from all other societies, BioShock tells the story of Jack, a man who has become trapped in the city of Rapture after it has fallen into disrepair by riots following scientific experiments gone wrong. You must uncover the history of the city, its creator and residents, and also begin to face the nature of narrative in video games as a whole. Yes, this game gets extremely meta as it goes on, bringing into question the role of the player taking control of the protagonist.
It’s a fantastic narrative to be enjoyed by anyone who needs a good story and mystery to motivate their progression through a game.
4 The Last Of Us
Here’s a game whose mechanics and design are built around survival in a fairly linear fashion. You move from location to location, avoiding or killing zombie-like enemies, looting to find materials, crafting weapons, and simply getting from A to B in one piece.
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Without its stellar story, this game would not be the milestone we deem it to be today. The Last of Us put paid to the statement that a game’s narrative can drive its plot when its gameplay only has so many tricks up its sleeve. That’s not to say the gameplay is bad, but the game’s story is what won our hearts, in the end. Telling the tale of a man who must keep a valuable young girl alive, bonding with her and learning to warm up his cold, cold heart along the way, their relationship is what keeps us from turning off this game. We’re not sure where the story will go from one step to the next, but we only hope that our protagonists Joel and Ellie will be safe and happy in the end.
3 God Of War
The game that took home the Game of the Year prize in 2018 was a narratively-focussed single-player experience exclusive to the PS4. God of War is a sequel/reboot of the classic blood-spattered action franchise, containing far less blood and far more narrative, dialogue, character growth, and plot progression.
The genius of this game comes with its refusal to sacrifice gameplay and world design for storytelling, proving that gamers can have their cake and eat it, too. Here is a game with a tremendously private and intimate story of a father and his son both coming to terms with the death of the boy’s mother, all while delivering a rich world to explore and deep combat to enjoy. Here is the pinnacle of the art of meshing storytelling with gameplay.
2 Persona 5
Speaking of meshing styles together, with Persona 5, developers Atlus have managed to blend two disparate genres together: the life (and sometimes dating) simulator, and the dungeon-crawling RPG. This is an intense and long story of a game, with 100 hours of story content to experience — not a single hour of which could be accused of being filler.
Set in Tokyo, the story of Persona 5 tells the story of a young boy, codenamed Joker, who sets out to right the wrongs of corrupt officials, artists, and businessmen by changing their hearts. When he’s not doing this, he’s surviving school exams, making friends, and falling in love. The game juggles two narratives: that of the Tokyo teenager and that of the world-saving protagonist. Ambitious and completely successful.
1 Final Fantasy IX
Honestly, this could have been any Final Fantasy game, but IX is this writer’s favorite, precisely because of its story, characters, and setting (and music, art design, combat, relationships, tone and style, animation, and pace and just everything, honestly).
Final Fantasy creator and original director Hironobu Sakaguchi was once quoted as saying that he’d rather tell a good story than make a fine action game, and there is no better story in the series than that of Final Fantasy IX. Where the game really succeeds is in its characters personal stories and relationships. Every member of your party is a charming, endearing person with a story worth knowing intimately. The game’s overall plot might not be original, but the heart that was poured into its characters and their relationships is second to none. You’ll play through this game 20 more times (as I have done) just to enjoy the journey you take with this wonderful cast of characters.