A look at some our recent Game of the Year winners—Spelunky, Metal Gear Solid V, Dishonored 2—suggests that baked-in narratives are less important to us than personal stories plotted by physics and AI. That's broadly true, but not to the total exclusion of videogame storytelling, of characters and dialogue and, to give an overarching definition of what we mean by 'story' in this case, 'sequences of events which may be influenced by the player but are not authored by them.' The setting, the conflict, the reasons characters act (through us) and the consequences for those characters. You know, stories.
Some say games are bad vehicles for this kind of storytelling, full stop. Others argue that while the stories in games are often bad, it's the fault of the storytellers, not the medium. And yet another camp argues that games are the greatest storytelling medium of all time. In listing our favorite stories, we will resolve exactly zero of these contradictory views. Unconcerned with theory for the moment, we just want to celebrate the stories that stuck with us, and recommend a few games for those who love to be told a good tale. Here are our favorites, as picked by regular PC Gamer writers Samuel Horti and Richard Cobbett, as well as the whole team:
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade is an important game, not just because of the subject matter it tackles—a young woman’s struggle with psychosis—but also because it proves that modern-day audiences are willing to listen to developers that want to tackle difficult themes.
Pict warrior Senua is on a journey to retrieve her lover’s soul from the depths of the Norse underworld of Helheim, and she’s prepared to go up against the gods to do it. Her battles with towering, undead Vikings mirror her struggles against her inner demons, and through sparse writing and long, lingering close-ups of Senua’s face you really feel her pain. She bares her soul to the player, and it’s utterly moving.
The inner struggle is the one the game wants you to focus on, but there’s still subtlety on the surface, too: you can look back at the end of it and think about how Senua’s outward journey reflected her inner torment, making connections that weren’t obvious at the time.
The Thief trilogy
The first Thief game tells a neat noir story complete with dry narration from a cynical protagonist and a femme fatale who hires him for a dangerous job. The end result of its tangled plot has him stealing from a god of chaos and changing the world. Thief grows from a simple mash-up of hard-boiled fiction and steampunk into something much more complex. Over the course of the next two games it explores the religious consequences of a god's death and the Mechanists who rise in his absence, and by the third game follows those explorations of chaos and order by focusing on corruption within the Keepers, the group dedicated to balance Garrett left behind at the start of that first game.
There's a neatly cyclical quality to the three Thief games, which end where they began—not just with the Keepers, but with a scene of a child being caught pickpocketing. Only where once Garrett was the kid, now he's the adult deciding the fate of that child. So many videogame heroes get dragged back again and again, long after their story is done, so Garrett having such a complete arc is a pleasant rarity. The reboot's Garrett could never live up to it.
What Remains of Edith Finch
The overarching tale of the Finch family is full of intrigue, but it’s the individual stories of each family member that stand out. Returning to the family home as the titular Edith, you poke around the abandoned house, slipping in and out of the memories of the various characters as you gradually piece together a moving tragedy.
Each is told as an inventive mini-game. You transform into a shark, chop fish on a production line and listen to poetry while flying a kite. The simple mechanics provide the perfect window to learn about the personalities of each family member. These vignettes are moving, and deceptively layered and rich, changing your perception of what you’ve heard before while also advancing the overarching plot. The game offers a masterclass in environmental storytelling, too, with each object in the house giving you a new insight into the family.
Quite simply, it’s the pinnacle of the first-person narrative game genre, and toppling it will take some doing.
Mafia and Mafia 2
The first two Mafia games each contain their own compelling stories, built from familiar cinematic influences—but the first is my favourite, telling a more sympathetic tale of cab driver Tommy Angelo being drawn into the criminal underworld, before finally trying to escape it. The cutscenes look like they're being acted out by Gerry Anderson puppets by today's standards, but it felt like careful attention was paid to the writing, cinematography and use of music in Mafia's story—plus the smoke effects are still nice. The shock ending, which we won't ruin here, ties into Mafia 2 in an utterly dazzling way.
Mafia 2, meanwhile, focuses on Vito Scaletta and his best friend Joe some years later. Vito gets into the mob to clear his family's debts, following a memorably boring sequence where you work at the docks, doing legitimate and repetitive work until you choose to walk away. The story ends somewhat abruptly, though some might argue that elevates its closing moments, but the friendship between the two main characters is what I remember loving about Mafia 2, as well as believing this story was actually taking place across two decades.
You’d think that if you take a murder mystery, chop it into bits and deliver all those parts in the wrong order then the resultant story would be a mess. And in most cases you’d be right. But not in Her Story. You flick through a database of police interviews with a young woman, pulling up clips by searching for keywords and watching them on a battered CRT monitor. Each video reveals a piece of the jigsaw, and it’s your job to slot them all together in your mind.
The minimalist presentation wouldn’t work without astonishing acting and tight, punchy writing. Through a single screen the game depicts more drama than most blockbuster movies. Each clip you watch changes your mind about the case, and then the next clip makes you realise just how wrong you were again.
It’s a showcase of ambiguous storytelling done right. Even if you watch every single clip, and therefore know what every jigsaw piece looks like, the overall picture will still be blurred by your own interpretations and preconceptions. It means different things to different players, and you learn something new every time you play.
While it’s the first game that gets all the attention for its fantastic concept, it’s Bioshock 2 that’s secretly the high point of the series. Under Jordan Thomas and his crew, a story once primarily about a city became a story of its people. The victims of Rapture. The next generation, emerging as butterflies from a cocoon of poverty and deprivation. It told real stories of people who followed a dream, only to realise that they were in service to someone else’s. And then of course there was Eleanor—Lamb of Rapture, and far superior as a character than Bioshock Infinite’s Lamb of Columbia. Through actions rather than words, you guided her nascent morality in a world where morality was routed in human concern rather than big plot twists, as the ‘dadification’ of gaming arguably reached its zenith. This wasn’t your story. It was your merely your privilege to begin hers.
To the Moon
An emotionally draining game that has caused many a tear to drop on our keyboards. To the Moon's premise seems overly complex at first: in the future, a company can travel into your mind and implant new memories in a way so that present time-you believes them to be true. But really, it’s a story about one man’s dying wish to visit the moon, hence the title.
The game take’s place inside the memories of that man, called John. You travel backwards through his mind step-by-step. So at the beginning of the story you pick up mysteries, and as you go back in time those mysteries unpack themselves piece by piece (wait until you know what that rabbit means—you’ll weep). It never hits you over the head with anything, which means you feel clever for picking up on its nuances.
But its intelligence is not what sticks with you. The memorable bit is the game’s exploration of love, loss and regret, all three wrapped together in something that’s a comedy one minute (it’s seriously funny in places) and a tragedy the next.
Realms of the Haunting
This obscure British gem has enjoyed something of a resurgence of late, and justifiably so. While the script is more than a little on-the-nose and the basic concept is a fairly stock haunted house setting giving way to a fairly stock battle between good and evil, it’s not really the plot itself that makes ROTH so special. It’s the details, some of which may actually contain the devil.
Few fantasy or horror games have presented such a wonderfully fleshed out world—the sense of stepping into something bigger than you could ever comprehend, with every scrap of it meticulously detailed and woven into a grand tapestry. Ignore the relatively primitive 3D engine. The joy of ROTH is in the descent to understanding, dealing with powers, and the moments of compassion that emerge from it, like being faced with a trial from a seemingly implacable god willing to bend the unbreakable rules of his domain because your situation is so dire as to have drawn his impossible pity. It was a world that dripped with fantastical history long before the likes of Dark Souls were a glint in their creators’ sadistic eyes, and remains a beautiful obscurity that badly deserved its sequel.
Grand Theft Auto IV
GTA IV dialled back the wacky, fun stuff of San Andreas—military jets, jetpacks, getting fat from eating burgers—in favour of a sober story set in a stunningly realistic interpretation of New York, Liberty City. This meant that, as an open world game, GTA had less moments of large-scale, thrilling chaos than we'd eventually see in GTA V, but the flipside of that was a more interesting story. GTA IV is a pretty sincere tale—and it has a few thematic links with Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, which also has a protagonist who can't really escape his past life.
Niko Bellic, an Eastern European veteran who comes to Liberty City to start again, soon finds himself dragged back into a life of killing. The tragedy of Niko is that you sense he knows it's the one thing he's best at. It's melodramatic but effective—a daring effort to bring GTA into the modern age with a more dramatic story.
The Yawhg is coming, and it isn't going to be good, and that's all you know. This fantastic little game sends up to four players around town to prepare for that coming disaster, and each simple decision—teach the king your seductive techniques or let him flounder?—can lead to terrible things at the end of the brief adventure (or rarely, something good). The writing is concise, unembellished, and biting; simple fantasy tales that may end with stolid brutality or newfound wisdom, whether you spend a week drinking in the tavern or meditating in the garden.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Danganronpa stands out from other visual novels because, rather than a game about making decisions, it's a game about making deductions. You play as one of 15 students trapped in an elite school where the only way to graduate (read: escape) is to kill a classmate and get away with it by lying and framing your way through a murder trial. If anyone pulls it off, the remaining students will also be killed, so everyone has a stake in every trial—doubly so if you've grown attached to the victim or the prime suspect.
The process of collecting, considering and presenting evidence makes for a far more interactive experience than merely navigating dialogue, and the trials work because Danganronpa has colorful and interesting characters you won't want to see die. They look like one-note caricatures at first glance, but you start to see different sides of everyone as antagonist Monokuma ratchets up the stakes with unique twists. It becomes clearer and clearer that everyone has something to hide, and the dread of suddenly losing a favorite character, or accusing one of murder, should not be underestimated.
A Mind Forever Voyaging
When did games get so political, people demand. Well, try 1985, with one of the most beloved text adventures not to involve hitchhiking around the galaxy or exploring an underground kingdom. A Mind Forever Voyaging is interactive fiction doing something that no other medium could do—to put you into a world, and let exploration tell its story. Yes, in many ways, this was the first walking simulator—its setting, a Matrix style recreation of a small American town, and you a sentient computer program charged with stepping into progressive simulations of the future under a popular senator’s Plan For Renewed National Purpose. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. Over the course of the game you experience America’s collapse around you, complete with now familiar sites collapsing into decay and your own family becoming victims of an oppressive theocratic regime. Can you stop it, despite your only presence in the real world being as a scrap of data on a computer?
Mass Effect 2
A solid space romp from start to finish. A lot of RPGs struggle to sustain forward momentum for more than a few hours at a time, but Mass Effect 2 does it for 30, constantly nudging you from one point in the galaxy to the next by presenting you with a series of interesting missions, each containing its own short story. It gets the balance just right between exposition and action, with enough big set pieces to keep you on your toes.
The characters are the glue holding it together. The series has some of the best personalities you’ll find in games (and Garrus might just be the best NPC of all time). Walking around the Normandy after a mission to hear the quips of each crew member in turn is a joy, and you can dig even deeper into their personalities in the companion missions, which provide some of the best moments in the entire series. Learning more about them, and forming these personal ties, lends more weight to the overall plot. Even though you might not care about the Geth or the Reapers or the fate of humanity, you care about your crew, and whether they make it out of the game’s bombastic ending alive.
It also has the benefit of being able to incorporate the decisions you made in the first game, which makes for a richer, more personal tale. It’s an excellent space opera that Bioware struggled to better in both Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda, and a game against which all their future titles will rightly be measured.
The Witcher 3
What can we say about The Witcher 3 that hasn’t already been shouted from the rooftops? The Bloody Baron quest alone warrants its place on our list. To focus just on that would be a mistake though, as barely a moment goes by without a reminder that CD Projekt are playing in a different league to almost every other RPG studio out there. It’s in the plots, which effortlessly merge myth and fairy tale and fantasy. It’s in the humour that underlines everything. It’s in the cheeky imagination of a studio as happy to have you chase after a missing stone phallus as your long-lost adopted daughter. But mostly, it’s about seeing this wonderful world through the practiced neutrality of Geralt himself—a man who can’t stop his compassion and sympathy bleeding out through his stoic front, no matter how much it might make his life easier. What many games demand long cutscenes to tell, this one often handles with nothing more than a subtle eye animation, or an obvious opinion held back. The Witcher 3 tells great stories, but it’s how they all weave together and filter through their star and his unique perspective that really makes them special.
Analogue: A Hate Story
Investigating an abandoned spacecraft inhabited by untrustworthy AI is a videogame staple, and it's been done well (most recently in Prey). Analogue: A Hate Story is different. For starters it's a visual novel rather than an immersive sim, and also it's an exploration of the societal pressures on women in Joseon-period Korea.
The spaceship Mugunghwa (named after South Korea's national flower) is a multi-generational slower-than-light colony ship whose inhabitants, over the centuries, regressed to a feudal society that somehow collapsed 600 years before your investigation begins. In other games like this you might read emails about changing the passwords on the armory—in Analogue the logs tell the story of competing dynasties in a society where women are forbidden from learning to read and write (but do so anyway). It's historical fiction wrapped in sci-fi trappings that bounces the two off each other, you and your new AI companions examining and reacting to the text as you go. It's about how the past isn't as far behind us as we like to think, and has a thematic richness that honestly puts a lot of other games to shame.
Here are the ingredients: a spooky deserted island; a group of quirky teens who are better at banter than any of us; a mystery involving radio frequencies. Saying any more than that about Oxenfree's story is tricky, because it's a twisty one. Fortunately it's not just a great story because it will surprise you, but because of how it's told, which is in naturalistic dialogue any Kevin Williamson movie would be proud of. Characters talk over each other freely and you can interrupt them as well—when you make a dialogue choice you're never sure if Alex, the protagonist, will save it for the next gap in conversation or blurt it out immediately.
So many games have a scene where somebody interrupts someone else, but what actually happens is that character A stops abruptly, there's a significant pause, and then character B jumps in with a line obviously recorded in a different session, possibly in a different country. Oxenfree doesn't do that. Its dialogue has a flow that you can get caught up in, so you're already engaged even before its plot uncurls and rears up in your face.
What does it mean to be alive? Sci-fi stories have grappled with the thought for decades, largely telling the same sad story over and over again. Who would’ve thought that the developers of the classic Amnesia: The Dark Descent would follow up with one of the most gripping, mind-bending, horrifying takes of all in Soma? Maybe it just took inhabiting the body of a character inhabiting a dead body to give the premise the punch it’s been needing. Its optimistic ending is the biggest surprise, given that you’re repeatedly confronted with puzzles that risk the lives of junkpile robots also harboring a human consciousness inside them. They might look like rusting mounds of metal plates and bolts, but they’ll also tell you they’re happy and don’t want to die. What if a human with their guts hanging out told you the same thing? Renegade and Paragon alignments won’t help you.
Deranged monsters roam the halls (and you can turn them off now), but they too are confused, semi-conscious beings in unfamiliar bodies. They’re mostly a sideshow to the main attraction, the underwater research station built to harbor the remnants of humanity after a comet devastated the surface. In order to discover who you really are and save whatever you can of humanity on a glorified USB stick, you’ll need to descend to places without light or life in some of the most oppressive, uncomfortable underwater environments this side of Bioshock. But for every plot twist Rapture holds, Soma has two, and they’re all going to make you feel like shit.