The best video games stories ever (Part 1)
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1Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
There’s a reason that Nathan Drake has hung around for quite so long, and it’s not just because he’s a dab hand with a grappling hook. Yes, the gameplay has always been an action-packed spectacular, full of explosions and gun fights and near-misses, but at its heart, it’s also a fantastic narrative. It’s hard to pick which one of Nathan’s adventures is the greatest story, but we put it to a vote and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves came out on top – narrowly beating the latest adventure Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. From its blighter of a train scene opener, to its complex love triangle, brilliant baddies and undead monsters thrown in for good measure. It’s full of twists and turns, and makes you feel more like Indiana Jones than you probably deserve to.
2Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The new action-thriller from the award-winning team at Infinity Ward, the creators of the Call of Duty® series, delivers the most intense and cinematic action experience ever. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare arms gamers with an arsenal of advanced and powerful modern day firepower and transports them to the most treacherous hotspots around the globe to take on a rogue enemy group threatening the world.
As both a U.S Marine and British S.A.S. soldier fighting through an unfolding story full of twists and turns, players use sophisticated technology, superior firepower and coordinated land and air strikes on a battlefield where speed, accuracy and communication are essential to victory. The epic title also delivers an added depth of multiplayer action providing online fans an all-new community of persistence, addictive and customizable gameplay.
Who says ultra-violent video games can’t have captivating stories? Hotline Miami gives purpose to all its gory mobster killing by taking us down an acid-soaked rabbit hole, all seen through the hazy eyes of our silent, unnamed protagonist (who fans have named Jacket, thanks to his trademark varsity duds). Jacket’s day-to-day in 1989 Miami involves waking up, checking his answering machine to hear cryptic messages, then driving to shady mob hangouts to murder everyone in sight. Oh yeah, and he always dons an animal mask before the killing starts. As you do. Hotline Miami’s plot thickens as you start to lose your grip on reality, eventually reaching a psychedelic viscosity akin to a cocaine-and-blood-based batter. Jacket is plagued by visions and nightmares, unsure if the instructions he’s receiving are even real or who might be manipulating him. And even after the credits roll, the story’s not over. Not by a long shot.
4Final Fantasy 6
While later Final Fantasy titles improved the graphics, the plot never got better than in the sixth entry. FF6 tells a sprawling tale about the death of magic at the hands of unethical progress, and it has one of the biggest ensemble casts this side of War & Peace. It allows players to see any of a dozen characters as a fulfilling lead, and all would work in that context. Moments like an impromptu opera performance, the discovery of hidden lineage, or a heroic sacrifice are sprinkled throughout the game, but it’s the bad guy that really steals the show. Kefka is one of the most detestable villains we’ve ever met, and the script does an amazing job of building up the heartless bastard. If FF6 is actually Kefka’s tale, then it’s a well told one indeed.
You would expect great storytelling from a game that stars a novelist, and Alan Wake’s tale delivers on that front. Taking inspiration from the best of Stephen King and David Lynch, Alan Wake sends a troubled writer and his wife to the Pacific Northwest, searching for peace, but only finding horror. The game does a great job of make the naturalistic world feel alien while Alan searches for his lost wife, running into any number of damaged people looking to do him harm.
Like any good novelist, Alan takes symbolism seriously, as he uses light to battle the shadows that literally and figuratively want to consume him. It gets even more interesting when floating words become his enemies. The actual prose you find in the game is proof enough of the quality writing, as is the excellent episodic pacing of how the plot unfolds. Alan’s never sure what’s real or not, but he knows he loves his wife, and that might be enough to see him through.
Undertale is a weird, weird game. There are monsters and goat-people and magic. But there’s also a touching exercise in empathy (or the lack thereof). It’s a challenge to condense the very strange story into one or two lines, but the most important thing to know about Undertale is that, beneath its peculiar, scrappy surface, its heart is made of pure sweetness. One of the most powerful abilities in video game story-telling is how the player’s actions can impact the narrative. Some games have used that amount of self-directed choice to reach for profundity, only to fall short. Undertale stands out for its many alternate endings, each of which manages to pack an emotional punch.
Time travel doesn’t have the best track record as a narrative tool. In Chrono Trigger, though, the device shines as a source of storytelling finesse. The game starts simply enough at a town festival, but soon the unassuming Crono and his friends are thrown into a massive adventure where he makes friends with cavemen, cursed knights, and robots searching for humanity. And you find a way to connect to all of them. The ever-shifting world Chrono travels has much to teach about the human condition. Technology may change, but people always have the same capacity for love, greed, devotion, hate, and honor no matter the era. And the storytellers knew when to create quiet moments to let the players get close enough to see some characters in a whole new light. Keeping tracks of timelines might be complicated, but the characters’ motivations never were.
This science fiction tale follows Simon Jarrett trying to figure out how he wound up in an underwater research facility where things have gone very, very wrong. Rather than turn to combat, the game uses stealth and puzzles to tell Simon’s unsettling story. The less you know about the plot points going into Soma, the better. But what you should know is what sets this apart from others that set the same tone. Many horror games create tension by forcing the player to fight off more powerful opponents and manage meagre resources. The suspense in Soma is entirely down to the story and how it is told. Because let’s be real: staring down the meaning of consciousness and life and what makes us human can be downright terrifying. No aliens or monsters needed!
9Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
GTA’s rags-to-riches stories are always compelling, and San Andreas did it better than any of them. Over the course of the epic story, our lead goes from a penniless thug to one of San Andreas’ most respected citizens, ultimately becoming a wealthy mogul with a house in the game’s equivalent of the Hollywood Hills. You might start out beating up thugs in a neglected Los Santos neighborhood, but by game’s end you’ll be hijacking VTOL jets off of aircraft carriers. But what really drives the game’s story are its characters. Carl, for all his gang-banging thuggery, is the most moral character the series has produced. Carl’s buddies, gang leaders Wu Zi Mu and Cesar, are genuinely likeable, and James Woods’ acerbic Mike Toreno steals every scene he’s in. Meanwhile, Tenpenny, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, is so cartoonishly and irredeemably evil, it’s impossible not to want to see him get his comeuppance in a wildly satisfying high-speed firefight at the very end.
Grim Fandango isn’t the new kid on the block any more, but it still stands the test of time as a brilliant and unique game creation. It imagines the afterlife as a purgatory not unlike our own world. Take our debonair protagonist Manny Calavera, for instance: He’s a Grim Reaper who doubles as a travel agent, arranging the journey that fresh souls will take on their way to the peaceful Ninth Underworld. Throughout your journey, you’ll encounter a memorable cast of heroes and villains alike, all of whom will irrevocably impact Manny’s passage through the Land of the Dead. Classic film noir tropes are everywhere: the femme fatale, the gaudy crime lord, the fact that smoking is the national pastime. But Grim Fandango also offers an originality all its own, thanks to its inspirations from Aztec mythology and Mexican culture.