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For me, the story is the most important element of the game. Having fun combat and overall enjoyable gameplay is also key, but whenever someone asks me what I think about first, it's always going to be the story.
When it comes to video games with great stories, it's actually hard to narrow it down to just ten. There are many games from different generations and of different genres that remain some of the best written video games of all time. When putting this list together, I wanted to gather a selection of games from different genres and corners of the world.
For example, JRPGs are often a go-to for people who love games with rich, complex storylines. However, there are a lot of people out there who want to play more stylistically realistic games that still have excellent stories to tell. I've got games here from America, Japan, and even Poland, all available for you to play!
Final Fantasy VII
Have a taste of Jenova's memetic legacy and pick up the original Final Fantasy VII. There is a long awaited remake on the horizon that fans are eagerly hoping comes out in the next few years, but this PS1 classic is available on everything from PC to the app store if you want to experience the original.
Final Fantasy VII remains timeless because it's one of the first games that decided to take its story and turn it in one specific direction—teaching gamers to cry. Fans were shocked when—20-year-old spoiler ahoy—Aerith is killed by Sephiroth. The developers weren't afraid to take the game's story in a dark direction. They wanted to tell a story that would make an emotional impact and would be remembered for decades.
As a bit of fun trivia, have you ever wondered why this series, regarded as one of the strongest JRPG series of all time, is called Final Fantasy? Square Enix, then named Square Soft, was once a small group of people who were all united by the same dream—making video games. However, their first few attempts did not get very popular and did not sell well. The company was on the cusp of going out of business. With the prospects they had at the time, they only had enough budget and support to make one more game. It was their last chance the team had at pursuing their dreams if the game wasn't a hit. Thus, they named it Final Fantasy, since if it didn't take off, it'd be their final time living their fantasies of making video games.
Considering Final Fantasy is almost like a household name of gaming now, it's hard to imagine they were in such dire straights. While Square Enix has grown massively and is a lot more than just one small team of dreamers, it's still heartwarming to think of the humble origins the games had.
If you want to get your hands on a newer title in the series, Final Fantasy X also has one of the greatest video game stories. The jury's still out and there's infighting over Final Fantasy X-2, a sequel that went down some very strange rabbit holes, but don't let that steer you away from the original Final Fantasy X. With a heartbreaking romance as a key part of its story, this PS2 title has been remastered in HD on PS3 and PS4, making it easy to nab if you want to pick it up.
The Legend of Zelda—Ocarina of Time
It's hard to choose just one entry of the Zelda series since so many have fantastic storylines; however, if I had to, Ocarina of Time stands out as one of the best in terms of story. Like most Zelda games, it's classified as an action and adventure game, but don't let that lead you to believe there won't be a good story involved. While RPGs usually jump out as some of the best storytellers, Ocarina of Time manages to tell an incredible story even as an action game. It is absolutely one of the best written video games of all time.
There are many games in the Zelda series, but most games stand alone as individual stories. If you aren't familiar with these games, you can pick up just about any of them and jump right in, even if you've never played one before. Ocarina of Time was so incredibly well received that they released a direct sequel to it, Majora's Mask. The game was first released on the Nintendo 64 way back in 1998. The original chunky cartridges for the N64 aren't very abundant anymore, but the game was remade for the Nintendo 3DS in 2011.
A lot of fans advocate that Ocarina of Time's Link deserves another adventure and should have another game. After all, when you break down the timelines of the games, there are several different versions of Link out there.
Even the latest installment, Breath of the Wild, manages to tell a stirring tale in its open world setting. It's no exaggeration to say that Breath of the Wild is easily one of the best Nintendo Switch games created so far. While many of these games are quite a few years old, don't be deterred by the age of any of them, whether they're somewhat recent or very distant.
If you want a sci-fi storyline that will make you laugh, cry, and perhaps occasionally scratch your head, the Xenosaga trilogy is a PS2 classic you absolutely need to try.
Xenosaga has a complex story, but it's incredibly well crafted. There are so many moving pieces at work; organizations with their own agenda, a healthy dose of space government corruption, and antagonists with very real motivations behind their actions.
Over the course of the trilogy, you fall in love with each and every one of the main characters. It's actually incredible. In the first episode, there may be some cast member who you're lukewarm about, but by the time each person's story is fully told, it's impossible not to adore them, or at the very least, understand them.
Xenosaga was originally supposed to be six episodes, but Namco cut the series short and told them to wrap it up in the third game. Some of the events in the final installment do feel a bit rushed, but the development team at Monolith Soft still did a beautiful job of telling a heart-wrenching tale.
Xenosaga was perhaps a little too early for its time, since it touches on some very big philosophical topics, and even has some religious references that turned gamers off in the early 2000s. However, it is a game with rich symbolism and a storyline with brilliantly, subtly foreshadowed twists and surprises. You do need to enjoy a good story to play through these games though. The first episode has a few cutscenes that last for over 30 minutes; when you hit those, make some popcorn and simply enjoy this incredible space odyssey unfolding.
Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid is a series that has spanned many generations of consoles. I was pretty late to the party and started the series with Metal Gear Rising: Revengence on the PS3. Enamored by Raiden's nice hair and heeled combat boots, I had to check out more of the series.
Metal Gear games take action and role playing elements and fuse them together in a way many fans would describe as perfect.
It's hard to choose just one Metal Gear to highlight as the very best in the series. Much like Xenosaga and Zelda, it's a series that's worth playing more than just one title for. You can get a great sampling of what the series has to offer from one game, but why stop there?
The first three installments of the series do tend to be the most popular among fans, especially from a storytelling perspective. Metal Gear is another series that exemplifies the fact that you don't need to be an RPG to be a game with amazing story.
What do you usually expect from a video game story? Initially released in 2010 on Xbox 360, then coming to PC in 2012, Alan Wake jumps out as unique since it's very grounded in the real world. In fact, it is so rooted in the real world that you'll probably notice some familiar brands popping up as you explore Alan's story. You'll come across Energizer batteries, Ford and Lincoln vehicles, and even some Verizon branded phones.
If you played Final Fantasy XV and ripped your hair out at the overdone branding of Nissin Cup Noodles, rest assured, Alan Wake does it tastefully and logically. Their goal with including these brands is to make the world feel as real as possible, not just to make a few bucks on product placement that doesn't make any sense.
Let's focus more on the story though. Alan Wake has incredible pacing and structure. As we learn about who Alan is, we quickly discover that he's a psychological thriller author who has been struggling with a morbid two years of writer's block. Any of my fellow writers out there will probably connect with him just about immediately. His wife disappears mysteriously during their vacation and the story follows his quest to find her, but the events of his life are starting to take similar turns to the plot of his latest bestselling novel.
Think this all sounds little bit like Stephen King and his book Misery, which also features a novelist as its main character? You wouldn't be entirely wrong. As a fun bit of trivia, there are more King references in Alan Wake than just the quote at the beginning of the game. The hedge maze is a reference to The Shining and King himself was a major inspiration for the game.
Now, we're back into the PS1 era, but don't be deterred. Much like Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger is a classic that shouldn't be skipped because of its age. This RPG was also developed and published by Square Enix, and is sure to put the squee in Squeenix.
The gameplay in this one is very much what you might expect from an RPG of its era; you've got an overworld map and some very fun, strategic combat with the active time battle system. If you've played some of those early Final Fantasies, you've got a pretty good idea of what you're getting into here.
However, if you're playing a game with sprites, you're probably playing it for the story. This is where Chrono Trigger shines. This game puts story first and foremost, and involves every mechanic of the game in the story, even thrusting you into some combat encounters where you're forced to lose. There's fantasy, time travel, and an amazingly well-developed cast of core characters.
Despite its age, Chrono Trigger remains one of the best written video games of all time.
Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday. The epic countdown until the release of Mass Effect 3 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The anticipation. The excitement. The fanart.
Then the frustration, disbelief, and disappointment when they finished the game. Yep, I remember it all.
Starring Commander Shepard and filled with alien romance, the Mass Effect series tells great stories. There was some definite disappointment when the third game was over and no one knew if Andromeda was going to happen, but it's still a solid series. The elements of choice in every Mass Effect game, including romancing different partners, was just something other titles couldn't contend with.
However, unlike many games with this feature, each different romantic storyline is developed with equal care and detail. The choice mechanics are incredibly fun in the series and give each game excellent re-playability. If you love science fiction, these third-person shooters are for you.
As many of us may already know, you can choose between making Commander Shepard male or female when you play the games. But here's a fun fact, it turns out Mass Effect's Commander Shepard was originally designed as a woman by the development team.
I had a very strange first bit of exposure to the Silent Hill series. I knew it existed and was aware of its presence as a video game series, but it was actually the 2006 Silent Hill movie that got me interested in the franchise. Though the film sadly does not have many good reviews... at the time, it scared the pants off of me. It got me to start buying the games.
Now, I can't see fog without telling whoever I'm with that "it looks like some Silent Hill shit is about to go down here."
My friends who know me well have heard me say a variant of it far too many times, and usually roll their eyes in response.
Silent Hill 2 is a fan favorite, as it was the first game where the iconic Pyramid Head appeared. One of the things that makes Silent Hill a horror classic is that almost nothing is too taboo for the games. These games stay largely rooted in modern times, creating horrifying images that aren't too far divorced from real life.
If you haven't played all of the games yet, you should check out the most horrifying moments of Silent Hill history. You can find the exact flavor of creepy that'll give you chills when you play through the games.
As a lover of games with great stories, I actually didn't hear about Grim Fandango for many, many years. The game takes place in the Land of the Dead and has some of the most unique art you'll ever find in a video game. It first came out on PC way back in 1998—that makes it older than some of the people playing the game now.
The first release game was a commercial failure—a bit like Xenosaga and how it was cut short, if you'll pardon the comparison to a very different game. It's been nominated for many awards considering its unique setting and colorful cast, but even after the release of the remaster, it's never quite gotten the recognition it deserves.
Grim Fandango has a rich setting and interesting characters. It's a graphic adventure, so it's very story heavy. If you've made it this far down the list, that's probably exactly what you're looking for.
This game about the Land of the Dead came back to life in 2015 when Double Fine created a remastered version of the game and released it on just about everything. You can nab this game on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Windows, OS X, Linux, Andriod, iOS, and most recently, Nintendo Switch.
Basically, you can play this game on anything.
This series is actually based off of books. The game series gained critical acclaim with the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, though the earlier titles were quite popular too. This series pulls its unique source material from the novel series sharing the same name by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The books started coming out in Poland in the early 1990s, but didn't reach US shores until 2008 and onward. The books weren't translated until CD Projekt Red, the Polish game studio behind the series, released The Witcher internationally in 2007 as a PC game.
The Witcher has dynamic characters, a rich backstory for all of them, and a very interesting fantasy world. There are endless creatures spread throughout Sapkowski's creation, and they all have unique traits with very specific ways to defeat them. It makes for a game with truly exciting mythos to go with the exciting combat system and gorgeous graphics.
It was hard to pick a tenth game—I was honestly quite torn between The Witcher, Valkyrie Profile, and Bloodborne. These are all very different games with very different genres, particularly Bloodborne, since that game's story is largely found in the lore rather than in cutscenes. Then there's Valkyrie Profile, another JRPG, which is beautifully rooted in Norse mythology. Regardless, while they're all fantastic games, The Witcher jumps out as being incredibly well written.
As a gamer and a writer myself, I'm a big advocate for the fact that video games absolutely are not a lesser form of storytelling. When games put the planning and effort into having great stories, the tales they tell can be just as fantastic as movies and books. It's just so hard to limit oneself when considering the best written video games of all time, because there are so many old gems and excellent new releases to choose from.