The greatest video game stories are the ones that stay with you. Like all the best films, TV shows, and books, some of the finest games over the last few decades have succeeded by marrying incredible gameplay (which should always come first), with engaging and thoughtful narratives.
The following games are the ones I’ve played and revisited over and over again throughout the years, predominately for their compelling stories, rich worlds, and fascinating characters. You might have your own favourite stories for massively different reasons, and that’s awesome. For me, these are the video game stories that I still find myself mentally chewing over long after the credits rolled.
– God of War (2018)
God of War’s 2018 reboot was a stunning success on every front, marrying first-class visuals with tight combat, smart puzzles, and an engaging narrative that re-imagined one of gaming’s most one-note protagonists as a deeply conflicted, tragic figure struggling to come to terms with the horrors of his past.
Making Kratos a single parent was an absolute masterstroke from Cory Barlog and Santa Monica Studio. It allowed us to see the brutal slayer of Gods from an entirely new perspective as he attempted to guide his young son through a dangerous new world, all while trying to show him that giving into violent impulses can have dire consequences.
God of War has always been a game about ripping, tearing, and killing your way to victory. 2018’s entry showed us that no matter how hard you try to run from the awful things you’ve done, the only true way forward is to accept that it’s part of who you are, and try to better in spite of it.
– Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 may drag in a few places, but for the most part it’s an absolutely stellar Western set in one of the most gorgeous and immersive open worlds of all time.
Set a few years before the events of the first Red Dead Redemption, this prequel carries a note of melancholy throughout. We all know that the Van Der Linde gang, a genuinely likable band of merry outlaws, won’t survive until the credits – hell, even without the benefit of knowing they’re in a prequel, most of the characters seem to be aware of it too.
Watching the gang slowly unravel as they’re whittled away piece by piece by the rise of a new kind of America is gut-wrenching, but the decline and eventual dissolution of the group is handled so brilliantly that each inevitable death or departure hurts just as much as the last.
In the middle of it all is Arthur Morgan, a good man in spite of everything, who slowly realises that he doesn’t belong anymore. Watching him come to terms with that and attempt to make amends for his past makes for one of the most beautiful and ambitious character arcs in gaming.
On the face of it, the brightly coloured pixel perfect platforming of indie darling Celeste doesn’t exactly look like a game that’s set on tackling issues like crippling anxiety, but appearances can be deceiving.
The true genius of Celeste is that its central message is baked into the actual gameplay itself. That message, at least to me, is that the only thing holding you back from overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle is your own self doubt.
Madeline, the game’s hero, decides it’d be a fine idea to climb a mountain. Something we’re told she’s never done before. The story is woven into a series of ultra punishing platforming challenges, and as Madeline ascends ever higher, her anxieties and panic attacks begin to manifest themselves in increasingly terrifying ways,
She eventually realises the way to overcome the voices in her head that tell her she can’t do something isn’t to try and suppress them outright, but to reason with them, acknowledge that they’re a part of her, and succeed in spite of them. It’s a genuinely inspiring message, conveyed with love and care.
– Telltale’s The Walking Dead
Like The Walking Dead TV show, Telltale’s The Walking Dead pretty much went downhill after its first season, but that doesn’t detract from the emotional rollercoaster of pain, scares, and misery that Telltale put as all through with its first title.
You know what actually? It’s less of a rollercoaster and more of a ghost train with one or two little dips that offer brief moments of respite and joy. For the most part though, it’s intense and incredibly, unashamedly SAD.
Lee Everett is an unlikely hero who slowly bonds over the course of the game with a young girl called Clementine. The pair’s relationship is still considered to be one of the finest double acts in gaming, and with good reason – their banter and genuine affection for one another is deeply endearing, which makes their final moments together all the more painful to witness, let alone control as Clem is forced to make an impossible choice.
No matter what decisions you make throughout the course of the game (and there are some real corkers), the chances are that you’ll always question what you’ve just done, and if it was really the best move for you and Clem. Basically, The Walking Dead makes you feel like crap, but it does so beautifully.
– The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a staggeringly massive game that tells the epic story of Geralt’s race to find his adopted daughter before the villainous and terrifying Wild Hunt can get their shiny gloved hands on her.
It’s a sprawling, immersive fantasy tale that effortlessly juggles an incredibly large cast of characters and hundreds of in-depth quests across a gorgeous world that takes us everywhere from war torn, mud splattered ruins and cities full of debauchery, to snowy mountainous peaks and wide open oceans.
Whether you’re progressing the story or indulging in a side mission, everyone you meet is genuinely interesting and well developed, complete with rich backgrounds, murky morals, and believable personalities.
The whole thing is elevated by a top notch script with some of the best dialogue in gaming, and sublime central performances. I’m sure Henry Cavill will do a great job in the Netflix show, but Doug Cockles will always be my Geralt.
– Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is perhaps best described as a game that plays you more than you play it, and the fact the developers managed this way back in 2001 is nothing short of genius, even it’s more an evil kind of genius than anything else.
It’s an intricately designed game where everything means something, and pretty much every single choice you make throughout your experience is silently judged. As you explore Silent Hill as James Sunderland in search of his wife, one year after her death, it becomes clear that the gruesome monsters you meet are manifestations of his own guilt, with some truly shocking creatures derived from James’ sexual hang-ups.
By the time the credits roll, it’s abundantly clear what kind of man James really is, and every scrap of sympathy you might have had with him at the start of the game has been completely torn apart, leaving you feeling hollow, angry, and just a little bit guilty yourself.
The first BioShock is widely recognised as being the first video game to make people realise that a game’s narrative could be more than “go to the castle and rescue the princess” – they could actually tell ambitious stories with the kind of twists that make you fall of your chair.
Back in 2007, I would never have guessed that Ayn Rand’s popular novel Atlas Shrugged, an allegory for objectivism, would be the spark for a new age of video game stories that weren’t afraid to grow up and take risks, but that’s exactly what we got in BioShock.
Even to this day, exploring Andrew Ryan’s crumbling Rapture, slowly attempting to piece together how it all fell apart through audio logs and immersive, often wordless, storytelling is an absolute joy that still sends shivers down my spine.
If you’ve yet to seek this one out, would you kindly do something to rectify that?
– Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
There was a time long ago (well, 2007) when a Call of Duty title existed that didn’t just have an excellent campaign, but one of best video game narratives of the decade.
Call of Duty games had campaigns before of course, and they’ve had campaigns since, but Modern Warfare represented a huge shift for the franchise going forward, telling an ambitious story that looked and felt like a big budget blockbuster movie.
The ambitious plot which saw the British SAS team up with the Russians to foil a plot to overthrow the Russian Federation meant we got a huge variety of missions that kept the gameplay fresh and surprising, while the characters and plot points introduced led to some absolutely unforgettable moments towards the end, and laid the groundwork for some huge twists in Modern Warfare 2 and 3.
– Batman: Arkham Knight
Batman: Arkham Knight may not be the greatest game in the Arkham series, but it certainly tells the most gripping story. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best Batman stories in any medium.
One of the most interesting things about Batman is that he’s a character defined his moral code, his strict “No Kill” rule that certain directors decided to ignore in favour of cooler looking set pieces.
In Arkham Knight, a triumvirate of villains appear to push that code to its breaking point. Scarecrow, the specter of Joker, and the titular Knight himself.
The three foes are effortlessly woven into a story that dives deeper into Batman’s psychology than any AAA video game starring a superhero has any right to. The result is a tale that holds up a mirror to Batman and asks just how far removed he really is from the villains he protects Gotham against.
It’s a difficult question, but one that Arkham Knight doesn’t mind taking its time to answer in style.
– The Last of Us
The Last Of Us is a breathtaking story that has it all; Epic set pieces, moments of true beauty, brutal violence, a society in rapid decline, hordes of monsters, and giraffes.
At its heart though, The Last of Us is a story about grief, and the sheer power of love as an antidote to that grief. As I’m sure we all know by now, the game’s deeply affecting opening moments introduce us to Joel and his daughter Sarah, before violently ripping them apart.
For the rest of the game, we get to see Joel and his new charge Ellie slowly bond in a world that’s gone terribly wrong as he mourns for his daughter. While we might root for the duo, in no way are they ever explicitly made out to be heroes. They, like everyone else, are simply doing what they need to do to survive.
As the game thunders to a close, it becomes increasingly clear that the connection Joel’s made with Ellie is pretty much all that’s keeping him together, and we see the truly heartbreaking lengths he goes to in an attempt to save Ellie from the same fate as Sarah, in an ending that’s still debated to this day.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.