Video games with good, even great plots and storytelling (SPOILERS)

As a counterbalance to this thread:

What are some video games that do a really good job of telling a good story? I expect Shadow of the Colossus to pop up here, but I’ve never played it as I’m PC-only.

Before someone comes in and says that all games have substandard storytelling or plots, I want to nip that argument in the bud by saying that many great films or books have gaping plot holes (Casablanca: a letter of passage won’t help Laszlo if the Vichy don’t feel like honouring it; the notorious eagle problem in Lord of the Rings; and so on). Nominations here don’t have to be utterly flawless and in line for awards for literature, but they do have to have both great storytelling and a genuinely good plot to be told. We’re also just talking plot and storytelling; awful gameplay or crippling bugs don’t exclude nominations.

Open spoilers!

My first nomination is the Witcher series, particularly the first one. The setting is well fleshed out, and unlike almost all major games it really feels like the game was built around the plot, rather than a plot being shoehorned into gameplay concepts. Each game is somewhat episodic in that each act has a side story along the main plot (in 1, the Beast of the outskirts; the Lady of the Lake; and so on), but they are very much intertwined (each act very much builds on the main plot threads as well as side threads), and events and choices in each act/area really do change later developments. The overall plot comes together to be suitably epic, does a good job of tying a number of threads together, and is grand enough to be difficult to summarise in a single sentence.

In the Witcher 2, these concepts are taken even further in that the 2nd act has mutually exclusive areas and storylines to play through depending on a major choice in act 1, and you really can’t uncover the whole story in a single playthrough. That’s both a strength and a weakness for the game.

The storytelling is way above average IMO, with writing and voice acting better than most games.

My second nominee is probably fairly controversial: Saints Row 2. This is a great game with an over-the-top setting, with characters that are larger-than-life yet still have considerable depth. Result: you get sucked in and suspend disbelief even though the setting should seem silly enough to distract. Similar games (GTA?) rely mostly on cardboard cutouts and stereotypes. SR2 goes farther – for one brief example, the stereotypically “gangsta” character, Pierce, has a fondness for classical music, and when he’s first planning a heist, he’s got a well-thought-out, intellectual plan that should lead to nobody being hurt – it’s instead the protagonist who cuts him off with “let’s just go in and shoot everybody”. Pierce is, in fact, the voice of reason and sophistication, which subverts his stereotyping.

Each storyline, for the separate gangs you’re fighting, has a number of twists and turns and do a good job of pulling you in. Overall, the plot is appropriate for the setting – a giant corporation manipulating gangs into gang war with the aim of lowering property prices, getting land at a steal, and getting huge profits as a result.

I thought the story was well told, frequently hilarious, with great characters and a functional plot.

Other nominations?

Planescape: Torment pulled me in like few games have. You are immortal, wake up in a morgue with amnesia, and set out to find out who you are. It gets even better.

I’m largely ignorant about recent games, but I thought the Gabriel Knight series of the 1990s had good plots, stories, and characters/dialogue. Each one involved the title character and his sidekick Grace solving a mystery that involved supernatural elements but were set in fairly well-researched real-world locations. For instance, the first game involves a series of murders in New Orleans that seem to be the work of some sort of voodoo cult.

The GK games are also among the few adventure games where the player characters (in the second and third game you alternate between Gabriel and Grace) have well-developed personalities and not just back stories.

Shenmue I and II are part of what I suspect would be my favorite story in video games, but we never got Shenmue III. They still have great story telling though.

Shadow of the Colossus and the Portal games don’t really have a huge quantity of plot, but they have the quality and tell their stories very well.

And of course Grim Fandango. That could make a good movie.

An unusual suggestion: Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits. It doesn’t have the most original plot or characters, but the way it’s told, especially in the context of the gaming medium, was one of the most personally compelling I’ve ever experienced. I wanted to get past the gameplay quickly just to find out what happens next. That, IMO, is a sign of something done REALLY right when it comes to storytelling.

Quite a few of the blockbuster titles have good-to-excellent plot lines. The Halo series is one example. Master Chief himself is kind of boring in a “flawless superhero” kind of way, but the story isn’t really about him in my opinion. It’s about how he brings out the best (or the worst) in everyone he crosses paths with.

Red Dead Redemption is the best by far.

Fallout 2 is the next closest.

God of War 2 had a good story.

The first Bioshock game had a great plot and an unexpected twist; it’s rightly regarded as a classic. Bioshock Infinite is also awesome although the twist doesn’t have the same weight (IMHO) as the original.

The story in all the Fallout RPGs has been consistently strong and rewarding, too.

It also has a strong flavor which helps build the world and story past and present. The use of audiologs has gotten rather silly these days, but Bioshock did them very well. They contributed to the feel of the game as a “living mausoleum”, the world of Rapture had died and all you had left were the tattered remnants and the last words of those who once lived.

Very similar, in some ways, to what Diablo1/2 did (and 3 failed at): there’s a story, but the feel of the world is much more critical.

Excellent observation, I agree entirely.

I gotta give some props to Halflife 2, for its compelling, dystopian sci-fi setting.

Also, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, the best story ever for a strategy video game.

OOooohhh… do I really get to be the first to mention Star Control? AKA The Ur-Quon Masters.

The first gamewas little more than an unusual combat/strategy game. A region of stars connected by travel lanes, combat could be either automated or played out in 2-d space. Fun little game that nobody plays anymore, unfortunately.

Star Control II was only superficially similar, in that some of the same species were involved. However, the gameplay changed dramatically. You would still fight spaceship-vs-spaceship combat in a 2-d arena, but now each species had a backstory. And a home planet, somewhere in a huge map of the galaxy which included real-life star names and constellations. You were the captain of a mystical Precursor starship who returns to Earth to find it contained within a force shield and threatened with a choice between extinction and slavery of the entire human race to horrible tentacled death-monsters from spaaaacccceeee! You went on to locate and seek the aid of a dozen or so fully fleshed-out alien races, all of which play their part in the great over-arching plot of the game that is so fleshed out that it really feels… well, real. It’s like reading a story from the golden age of science fiction, but actually being IN the story and guiding the plot. The good aliens aren’t always good, the evil aliens aren’t entirely evil, and you have to make some very, VERY difficult moral choices to survive (or not, as the case may be.) This game is well regarded as a classic of gaming, and with good reason.

Then they went a little too far and created Star Control 3, which featured many of the same races and a few more as well. This kept the space combat from the first two games but tried to expand it to ‘2.5d’ space, which was rather hit or miss. They also got rid of the resource-gathering aspect of the second game and replaced it with a tedious, spreadsheet-like planetary expansion game that wasn’t very much fun at all. However… the story. Oh, man, the story was something else! It’s been ages since I played it, but as I recall it went even deeper than the previous game. Excellent tale of ancient races and incredible evil powers mankind was not meant to know.

By all means, if you’re looking for a game with a good plot… give Star Control’s universe a spin. You just might like it.

They’re evil undead zombie pirates in spaaacceeee! They’re not going to be freshly bathed and wearing tuxes!

“Knights of the Old Republic.”

Mother 3. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you recoil in horror. It is…the story it tells is so strongly told. It holds your heart in a stranglehold. It is the only game I’ve ever pirated, and you all should pirate it too.

Final Fantasy Tactics.

(Also, seconding Knights of the Old Republic and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.)

Going back a bit… Ultima VII had pretty good story, if predictable. The story of Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle rocked. When I finished that game, I couldn’t wait to see how the rest of the trilogy was going to pan out.

Then they released VIII and IX

Man, I never get to be the first to point it out. Still, let me add some weight behind this. Grim Fandango is easily the best story telling in a game that I’ve come across. And I’ve played as many as everyone else.

Grim Fandango, in case no one mentioned it.:wink:

Someone already mentioned the Halo franchise here and I did in the other thread, but I’ll mention it again.

Star Control II is phenomenal at its story telling and its plot. It’s also just phenomenal all the way around.

As long as reading isn’t a problem for you, a number of JRPGs have good storytelling and plots, FF VIII amongst my favorites.

Metal Gear Solid

and Metal Gear Solid 2