The 25 greatest video game stories

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Lucas Siegel
Sep 29, 2017

September 2017 is SYFY's 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back.

Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!

Many classic video games have just the tiniest shell of a story, one that’s there just to get you from point A to point B. But as consoles and computers have become more powerful, so has the ability to use this interactive medium to tell a great story.

For the games on this list, story wasn't at all an afterthought and is central to the enjoyment of the game itself. A list like this could easily contain 100 entries at this point, as the revolution of the video game industry to tell stories in every genre and give us more unique and complete tales than many films and TV stories continues to progress. These are 25 of the best video game stories we've seen told in the last 25 years.

Alan Wake

What happens when a psychological thriller author gets stuck in a story scarier than he could ever write? That’s the basis of Alan Wake, which will have you questioning everything that happens in the story as much as the titular character does. As the story progresses, you realize that Alan’s writing is what will make him more powerful; it is a literal case of the pen being mightier than the sword. The episodic storytelling used brought out the story even better, giving fans chunks of the story to digest and frankly panic over, a little at a time.

Bastion

While the base plot of Bastion is pretty simple - kid collecting crystals to power a life-saving device after the apocalypse - it’s how it was presented that made it special. While “the Kid” is silent, a narrator tells his story, as if you’re reading a storybook while playing it out. As you’ll see amongst this list, the true control over the story – the Kid has to make a few major choices that change the ending – is what makes this one special. The fact that there’s no “right” choice to make gives it all more weight, too.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Paul Dini had been writing the adventures of Batman for over two decades when Batman: Arkham Asylum came along, making him the perfect choice to finally give us a Batman game worthy of the Caped Crusader. His story is one that fits a certain Batman mold: the gauntlet of villains. That’s been used several times in the comics and other adaptations, but it keeps being used for a reason! Batman is so well-prepared, he has to take on a sequence of ever-increasing threats to have any real menace. As The Joker leads the inmates in running the Asylum, Batman uncovers a plot that brings his villains together, and forces him to team-up with some unexpected allies. It’s a fun, classic take on and old Batman chestnut, and sets up years of great stories in the sequels.

BioShock

The first BioShock sat on our list of top 25 plot twists, as the end of the story reveals that you may not have been in control all along. In the game, you’re exploring the underwater city of Rapture as Jack, guided by competing voices who are both allegedly helping you along the way. As it turns out, Atlas, one of the voices, is forcing you to complete tasks using a hypnotic trigger phrase. Would you kindly remember how great that twist was? Adding such a fun, twisty story to an already fun game to play elevated it to another level.

BioShock Infinite

The third game in the BioShock series took to the skies of Columbia, for a poignant story of class wars that works as remarkably prescient social commentary. It’s hard to discuss such advanced and mature topics in a video game about shooting things, but Infinite pulls it off through an innovative use of alternate timelines and “Infinite” worlds. Get it? Like the first game in the series, there are a couple of massive twists about the main characters in this game that you should only find out about by experiencing them yourself. Go play this game, now.

Braid

The story of Tim trying to save a princess from a monster is not nearly as simple as it seems. Told in a twisted timeline, Braid unravels piece by piece as you solve puzzles in the game. There are some crazy twists to the story, but the fact the story can be interpreted several ways, and the way fans have looked for deeper meaning in it is what really sells it. It’s a deconstruction of the classic video game structure (and a fun game, too).

Chrono Trigger

Look, we like crazy, twisty, time travel-involved stories here, OK? There’s something so simplistic and pure about the story of Chrono Trigger, told through a time-hopping lens, that makes it memorable and beloved. Your story unfolds across thousands of years, following many fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but never gets too confusing to follow. Chrono Trigger is also funny, often taking moments to laugh at its own ridiculous and over-the-top story elements.

Deus Ex

Once again, we have a story of social inequality leading to a dystopia, a common theme for science fiction to explore. With additional layers of a genetically engineered virus, anti-terrorism units, and a challenging notion of what humanity and free will truly mean, Deus Ex opens up a world that, should humans follow a certain path, could be just around the corner. The story continued into sequels and prequels that get more in-depth in questioning the nature of humanity, but it all started here.

Fallout 2

While the gameplay of Fallout 3 is unquestionably better, the story in Fallout 2 progressed the series more significantly. As the Chosen One, you’re seeking to essentially start society anew with the help of the “GECK” – the Garden of Eden Creation Kit. What follows is a “hero’s journey” based story that unfolds without drastic twists, choosing instead to have you experience a plot of hope and good overcoming evil. Sometimes, we just need a good old-fashioned victory.

Final Fantasy VII

The story of Cloud, Shinra, AVALANCHE, SOLDIER, Sephiroth, clones, the Lifestream, faked memories, and a planet in crisis is one for the ages. While Final Fantasy VI will often be looked to as the pinnacle of storytelling in the series (even if the villain there is a little too mustache-twirling), the cinematic nature of FF7 edges it out for us. Are we still weeping over Aeris? Yes, yes we are.

Grim Fandango

Oh, LucasArts adventure games, how we miss you. Long before the point-and-click reinvention at the hands of Telltale, LucasArts (along with Sierra Online) had this method of gameplay on lock. In this mashup of Aztec mythology and film noir, the story unfolds across four years of the Day of the Dead, and explores themes of love, worthiness, and redemption. The story told, combined with the pure style of the game, gets it onto this list.

Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2 is on this list… Half-Life 3 confirmed? OK, goofy, relentlessly hopeful memes aside, there’s a reason fans so desperately want more of Gordon Freeman. While the story here may seem like a checklist for modern FPS stories - police state, zombies, dog companion, a sudden but inevitably betrayal - it’s important because Half-Life 2 did these things so well, and long before they became standards.

Heavy Rain

Jason? JASSSOOOOOON!? Film noir seems to translate especially well to video games, and the mystery of the Origami Killer… ahem… unfolds with a moral complexity rarely seen in video games. The player is given the agency to direct how the story progresses, and the ending changes drastically depending on their choices. Main playable characters can die while the story continues, taking the branching story idea to a new level.

Kingdom Hearts

“What if we crossed over Disney franchises and Final Fantasy?” That’s the one-line concept of Kingdom Hearts, and probably everything you need to know to determine whether you’d be in or not. The story is admittedly a little hard to follow through the franchise, as it’s told wildly out-of-order and sometimes seems to contradict itself (and has some of the goofiest subtitles you’ve ever heard like “Birth by Sleep” and “358/2 Days”). The basic gist, though, is that hero Sora teams up with Donald Duck and Goofy to save every Disney world from the Heartless. It’s a story of friendship and love overcoming all, the way most Disney tales are, and features Mickey as the King of all creation.

Mass Effect 2

I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite game on this list. A story about the resurrection of a soldier in a sci-fi epic about space gods and agents of chaos has no business being this excellent, and yet, here we are. The way the story is presented, we see Shepard (as male or female, but personally, #FemShep for life) build a team of disparate individuals, eventually including straight-up enemies, as they seek to find a way to save every being in the galaxy. There are difficult decisions (which affect not just this game, but the next), and real friendships are formed. Many gamers played this game multiple times, spending hundreds if not thousands of hours with these characters, and the journey never gets any less amazing.

Planescape: Torment

Playing as an ageless character who remembers virtually nothing about his many pasts had the potential to be a mess. Instead, Torment uses it as an opportunity for the player to determine “the nature of a man.” It forces you to confront and question “good” and “evil,” and the perils of failing to truly atone for your past. The story is meant to make you think differently about morality than any other RPG had before or has since, and it achieves that at every turn.

Portal 2

Who doesn’t want the secret origin of GLaDOS?! The first Portal game is definitely known more for its innovative gameplay than its storyline, but a tragic backstory for a maniacal AI is far more compelling than it has any right to be. Suddenly, GLaDOS is a figure you can empathize with… even while she’s still debating whether or not to try to kill you. It gives additional depth to the entire Portal (and thus Half-Life) universe, as well.

Shadow of the Colossus

Join Wander on a quest to restore the soul of Mono, and find yourself in tears at the noble sacrifice of your horse. The story of Colossus plays out very slowly, as the game keeps you focused on killing the giant beasts without ever telling you what the consequences may be (hint: they’re dire). With a small core cast, you’ll learn more about these individuals and their motivations than you might in most sprawling fantasy games, and the personal nature solidifies its space as unique.

Silent Hill 2

Still undoubtedly a survival horror game, Silent Hill 2 seeks to instill fear in the player through a plot full of doubt, personal loss, and some outright shocking (but sadly all-too-human) moments. There’s some real heartbreak in Silent Hill 2, especially depending on the ending you get, though all three of the original endings are pretty sad in their own ways. This is not an uplifting story, but it is a compelling one.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Another that was also featured on our “best twists” list, KOTOR’s story of a protagonist with no memory who winds up being the ultimate evil in the galaxy is brilliant. It plays on many Star Wars themes of nature vs. nurture and the possibility of redemption, while also giving you the chance to determine those things for yourself. This is largely regarded as the best Star Wars story outside of the original trilogy by any fan who comes across it.

System Shock 2

Another take on the Tabula Rasa story device represented many times on this list, System Shock 2 lets you fully develop your character from start to finish, truly playing the game and watching the story unfold in a unique manner every time. Plus, it offers up a deeper take on one of the best villains in gaming history: the malevolent AI, SHODAN.  Like other Irrational Games productions, the story deals significantly with matters of trust and people not being who they say they are. It’s the player agency that makes the twists in this one work, though.

The Last of Us

The ultimate example of cinematic storytelling being translated into an interactive experience, The Last of Us doesn’t let you determine the story like many of the games on this list, but it tells the best pure tale. This story of a surrogate father and daughter fighting for personal survival, forging bonds, and looking toward the survival of the entire human race is at times triumphant and others painful. It’s sometimes gloriously exciting and others contemplative to the point of (purposefully) depressing. The end of the game, and the choices the main characters make, is one of the most-debated moments in video game history.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

It’s at once the “same old story” of Link, Hyrule, and fighting off Ganondorf while seeking out the Triforce, while also feeling incredibly fresh and innovative. Ocarina of Time gives more depth and reason to Link’s quest than previous entries in the series. The story of the seven sages, and Sheik’s big twist, is engaging and pulls the player much more deeply into Link’s story than simply “save the princess” stories of old. The story coming full circle just provides more story options for the future as the franchise carries on as one of the most beloved in video game history.

The Walking Dead: Season 1

Telltale revived the point-and-click adventure in a major way with The Walking Dead, and they did so by adding on a massive twist: every decision you make, every line of dialogue you choose, every character you help, hurt, or kill, will come back to bite you (insert zombie pun rimshot here). The episodic nature of the game forced players to really think about every decision they made in the fate of Lee and Clementine, and the way those decisions carry from episode to episode (and later into the sequels) was such an innovation it was often hard to fully contemplate until you saw the results. Deciding whether to respond the way you think you really would or the way you think will get you the best result often leads to moral quandaries you might otherwise try to avoid.

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

If you’re going to play a game for 200 hours, the story better be fantastic. Luckily for The Witcher 3, it can make 200 hours feel like 20 with a complex but classic story of knights, witches, magic, gods, betrayals, transformations, and love. The story both hits and subverts most fantasy/adventure tropes, and as the player can choose which way matters of the survival of the entire kingdom and matters of the heart unfold, you have a hand in the great story’s path. There are shocking admissions of guilt and truly adult, mature storytelling centered on complex, whole characters. Don’t look for classic good and evil in The Witcher 3, or you’ll miss out on the capacity for either in virtually every character in the game.

These were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which video game stories you’d put on your list!

And be sure to check out our complete “25 Greatest” lists here.