It might be strange to consider the idea that video games weren't always thought of as effective storytelling mediums, especially during the industry's early years. But today, it's practically laughable to say that they aren't. It could even be argued that they surpass conventional avenues such as literature or film by involving the audience in a way that other mediums simply cannot.
But what cannot be argued is that gaming has undeniably grown to claim a stake of its own as an art form, and the list below showcases some of the best stories ever told utilizing it as a medium. From action and adventure to drama and mystery, these are some of the titles that truly pushed the envelope when it comes to the storytelling.
10 Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Dark fantasy adventure title Hellblade is not for the faint of heart. Though its plot takes heavy cues from Norse and Celtic mythology, following the exploits of title character Senua as she endeavors to save her dead lover's soul from the goddess Hela, it, more importantly, delves deeply into her struggle with psychosis.
The game depicts Senua's condition in unique and extraordinary ways, going so far as to flatly lie to the player about certain mechanics to express that even the most fundamental rules of the game's "reality" are not reliably perceived.
9 DOOM 2016
No one would've surmised from DOOM's original release in 1993 that it would ever become known for narrative achievement, but here it is, more than twenty-five years later, doing just that.
DOOM's 2016 reboot serves as a picture perfect example of "minimal exposition, maximum impact" storytelling. It takes very straightforward concepts and plot directions, but executes them extremely well. The Doom Slayer is cast as a one-note silent protagonist, but in a way, the gameplay itself is all the expression of his character that's required. To quote Samuel Hayden, "It works."
8 Dark Souls (Series)
If the plot of a video game can be likened to a book, then Dark Souls is more of an abstract, narrative poem. Though apparently minimalist in terms of storytelling, it masterfully utilizes the tools of implication, interpretation, and aesthetic design.
The cryptic and oppressive world of Dark Souls is expressed most keenly through its characters, each with their own existential crisis hinging on its cyclic hopelessness, and their own coping mechanisms or responses to it. Players will inevitably see themselves mirrored in one of them over the course of their journey. Hopefully not by Patches.
7 The Walking Dead (Telltale Series)
Telltale's signature gameplay formula shows just how far video games have come as a storytelling medium, as its very basis is the marriage between plot and gameplay. The player shapes the narrative by simply playing the game. The game is, essentially, the story.
Telltale's The Walking Dead was one of the first titles to really get audiences to sit up and take notice of this by channeling the franchise's immense popularity. Its choice-oriented, dialogue intensive gameplay showing both gamers and non-gamers alike a new way to get engrossed in a gripping narrative.
6 Silent Hill 2
Most survival horror titles of the time were very action-forward, pitting trained and armed protagonists against physically manifested terrors. Silent Hill, however, took a much more cerebral approach to horror, and utilized vulnerable characters. The series' second installment is often regarded as the finest in terms of narrative.
Beyond the brilliant aesthetic design and gameplay, Silent Hill 2's layered plot follows protagonist James Sunderland and his quest to reunite with his lost lover. The twist ending, in particular, was pulled off remarkably well.
5 The Last Of Us
While post-apocalyptic zombie survival isn't a particularly new concept, The Last of Us put a unique spin on the zombie virus as a fungal spore. But its emotional, character-driven plot is what set it quite thoroughly apart from its contemporaries.
Grizzled smuggler Joel is tasked with sneaking teenage girl Ellie outside of the quarantine zone, and it's revealed that her immunity to the fungal infection may be key to finding a cure. The real emotional core if the game forms around the developing bond between Joel and Ellie, with Joel's almost fatherly protectiveness really drawing players into his role.
4 Life Is Strange
Life Is Strange is an episodic and practically cinematic graphic adventure. The plot closely follows teenage protagonist Max as she discovers her ability to manipulate time. and utilizes it to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a friend.
The game explores many themes, including the concept of incurring the butterfly effect by altering a series of events. Though the contemporary slang utilized by some of the characters can be slightly off-putting, it's a very minor complaint when compared to how well written they are.
3 Half-Life (Series)
Gordon Freeman may be a man of few, if any words, but he's undoubtedly a testament to the fact that sometimes a protagonist doesn't need any. Half Life turned a lot of conventional first-person shooter tropes onto their heads.
It brought almost unprecedented depth to the genre, not only presenting but explaining and exploring the lore behind its concepts of interdimensional travel, alien life and government conspiracies – a rarity for shooters of the time. It's also notable for doing away with conventional cutscenes, with the player experiencing all of the action and exposition in first person.
2 Metal Gear (Series)
Hideo Kojima's brainchild has grown quite a bit since its genesis in 1987, and today lays claim to one of the most complex and totally unique mythologies in gaming, with the stealth action drama hosting a massive base of incredibly dedicated fans.
To say that the narrative structure of Metal Gear is a little complicated makes for one serious understatement. Mostly through the eyes of super soldier and spy extraordinaire, Solid Snake, the game's divergent history setting is rife with big thematic concepts such as loyalty, betrayal, and genetic superiority, to barely scratch the surface.
1 Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy games are well known for lengthy, epic dramas with deep characterization taking place in unique, fully-realized worlds. Practically all of them can be described as such. But Final Fantasy Tactics was arguably the most ambitious and richly detailed.
Ramza's journey is one of warfare, revolution, cloak-and-dagger political intrigue, conspiracy, religious dogma, betrayal, and much more, all with nearly Shakespearean characterization and dialogue. It is doubtlessly one of the most amazing and complex stories ever told in gaming, and gamers do themselves a serious disservice by ignoring it.