Video games have a mixed reputation when it comes to writing, and it’s not entirely undeserved. There are some badly written games out there. Of course, plenty of novels are badly written too, and no one questions books as a storytelling medium.* When done correctly, video games offer a form of interactive storytelling that’s difficult – if not impossible – to replicate in any other medium. If you find yourself with some downtime and in search of a good story, look at these titles.
Who doesn’t love a story of magic and technology butting heads? Arcanum takes place in a Tolkien-esque high fantasy setting where technology has advanced into the steampunk industrial revolution. Orc unions run the factories, gnome robber barons wear top hats and monocles, and of course, zeppelins take to the sky.
Arcanum’s main story focuses on technology supplanting magic, which sounds like an overused trope, but this time there’s a twist!* Instead of meekly rolling over, magic messes up technology as well. Put too many steam engines in one place and your fireball spells will be more like firecrackers. Surround a zeppelin with wizards, and the propellers will go comically flying off in random directions.
The worldbuilding in this game is fantastic. There’s a whole bunch of history if you go looking for it, but none of it is required in order to enjoy the story. Many NPCs have interesting tales to tell, and they react differently to you based on what kind of character you’re playing or even what clothes you’re wearing.*
Arcanum’s writing really shines in its side quests. Many present poignant moral choices. Do you lead the striking workers in a glorious last stand, or do you smuggle away their leaders so they can fight another day? Other quests go deep, uncovering evidence of a sprawling gnomish conspiracy to do… something.*
The only problem is that Arcanum’s mechanics don’t quite match its writing for quality. It’s buggy, and travel takes forever. The best thing to do is download a character editor and give yourself teleport. That way you won’t have to spend hours looking for someone to talk to, and you can use the editor to get back any vital quest item you accidentally sold.
2. Mass Effect II
Better known than the first entry, Mass Effect is an epic space opera where you take the role of one Commander Shepard* on their quest to save the galaxy from the Reapers. You fight aliens, explore ancient ruins, and even get your own spaceship. What more could a protagonist want?
One of Mass Effect’s iconic mechanics is the dialogue wheel. When responding to an NPC, you always get at least three options. These range in tone from Captain Picard style diplomacy to sociopathy that Admiral Cain would proud of. The impressive part is that no matter which options you choose, it feels natural. This is difficult in video games that give you multiple options, because each option has to work in a given situation but also be distinct from its counterparts. The voice acting helps too, especially Jennifer Hale’s.*
The entire Mass Effect series has at least decent writing, but it really stands out in ME2. One reason is that the characters are better realized in the second installment. They have more personality* and better defined motivations. One of the major disappointments going into Mass Effect III is that none of the characters introduced in ME2 are playable, a major loss for the series.
The game’s writing is at its best in the finale. Without spoiling anything, it rewards you for getting to know the characters on your crew. All that time you spend hearing their problems and learning what they’re good at pays off in a big way. The stakes for success or failure are also engaging, personal, and epic in scale at the same time.
3. Banner Saga
This game is often described as Oregon Trail with turned based combat, but a more accurate description would be Viking Ethics Simulator. The tactical combat is fun, but the real meat is in the story decisions. You have many options, and trying to be a good guy will cost you. Can you afford it?
The game takes place in a Norse-inspired world of horned giants and dead gods. The story begins when a race of sapient stone humanoids invade, scattering all before them. You play the leader of a small band fleeing to safety. Already Banner Saga goes against the grain. It’s not common for a video game to be about running away from a fight.
Throughout the story, you are asked to make difficult choice after difficult choice. Do you risk the stone men catching up with you in order to gather more supplies? Will you send a few soldiers on a suicidal rear guard mission to increase everyone else’s chance of getting away? The game is full of decisions like that, and they only get more intense the further you go.
Banner Saga is also exceptionally plotted. It makes excellent use of foreshadowing, planting the seeds of plot arcs that pay off dozens of hours later. The dialogue and narration beautifully capture the bleak atmosphere of a dying world, further enhancing the experience.
The characters grow as well, evolving and changing as you advance through the game. Depending on the choices you make, the spoiled prince could turn into a wise leader, or he could end up bitter and myopic. No pressure.
If you’ve been on the internet anytime in the last eight years, you almost certainly know the cake is a lie by now. Portal is a delightful first person shooter where instead of killing people with bullets, you open up holes in reality. You then use those holes to solve puzzles.
The gameplay is excellent, but where does the writing come in? After all, the main character is a silent protagonist, and no other humans are around. Enter GLaDOS, the game’s crazed AI villain. She talks at you throughout the game. First she’s a prodding experimenter putting you through test after test. Then she slowly gets more antagonistic until it’s clear she wants nothing more than to smear you across the wall. For science, or course.
It cannot be overstated how well written GLaDOS is. She’s funny and terrifying at the same time. Her verbal jabs and philosophical rambling provide the perfect backdrop to your character slowly working through how to solve each portal-based puzzle. Automated gun turrets also speak to you and each other. They sound adorable, right up until they murder you with their machine guns.
The final trick in Portal’s writing arsenal are the little hidey holes you discover throughout the game. Hidden nooks were once used by other humans in desperate attempts to escape GLaDOS. They even scrawled little notes on the walls, which is where the famous line about the cake being a lie comes from.
The writing in Portal does a fantastic job immersing you in the story of a confused lab subject escaping the experiment. You find the first hidey hole when GLaDOS is still presenting as a benevolent, if slightly off-kilter, guide, and it’s really creepy. By the time you confront the rogue AI directly, you feel like you’ve built a connection with her through an extremely one-sided conversation.
Like Portal, Transistor features a silent protagonist and a number of characters who talk at her. Unlike Portal, this silence is not just a conceit of the game; it’s part of the story. Your character is a glamorous singer who has literally had her voice stolen. Part of the story is your quest to get it back.
The plot can be difficult to follow, because the game starts in medias res, and the other characters don’t believe in exposition. They all know what’s happening; why would they need to talk about it? Fortunately, if you can get past that, the dialogue is top notch.
The NPCs – from the dead bodyguard who lives in your sword to the end boss trying to reshape reality to suit his wishes – are all well characterized. They have defined personalities and witty quips that help move the story along. Even if you aren’t 100% sure what’s going on with the plot, the characters provide plenty to latch onto.
As mentioned, your protagonist is silent, but she’s still expressive. The game gives you a complete picture of who she is through facial expression, body language, and non-verbal vocalizations. Even though there’s no dialogue, she has a well developed character, which is a sure sign of good writing.
6. Homeworld and Homeworld: Cataclysm
Nearly unique among real time strategy (RTS) games, Homeworld and its sequels take place in the vacuum of space and are fully three-dimensional. Ships can move along the Z axis just as easily as they can along the X and Y. It’s a classic of the RTS genre, well known for its amazing gameplay.
Homeworld also has a great story. Because so much of the game is watching spaceships blow each other to smithereens, the writers have to employ a “less is more” approach. The dialogue is confined mostly to the beginning and end of missions, with an occasional line thrown in when you reach certain objectives. Even with these restrictions, or perhaps because of them, the narrative is gripping.
In Homeworld One, the story is about a tiny group of survivors trying to find the home of their ancestors. It starts with a bang, as your old home planet is laid to waste by a merciless space bombardment. Even though you never spend any time there in-game, the music and reaction of the characters make it feel like a real tragedy. As you travel across space, slowly building up strength and allies, it becomes a story of claiming your own place in the stars.
Homeworld: Cataclysm kicks things up even further. You begin as an insignificant mining clan taking its first steps out into space. Relatively minor threats like pirates and meteor showers are a big deal. When you come across an all-consuming biomass from the depths of space, your only option is to flee and let the more important clans handle it. Except it turns out they can’t. The Beast, as this Lovecraftian monster is called, continues to rampage across space until your little mining clan is the only one who can stop it.
Veteran storytellers will recognize that as a tried and true narrative structure, and it’s executed effectively. The transition from timid asteroid miners to hardened soldiers is easy to accept because it doesn’t happen all at once. Over the course of the game you make small improvements to your ships, building on what came before until you have a formidable fighting force.
While Homeworld has unquestionably strong gameplay, it’s the story that gives the gameplay context. When you blow up the enemy cruiser, it’s more than a bunch of particle effects on your screen.
7. Sunless Sea
The newest entry on this list, Sunless Sea is essentially a series of dialogue trees connected by a simple boat exploration game. Because the gameplay is so basic, the experience is mainly held up by the writing. That writing is solid, even if it is a little nonsensical at times. The game starts by saying that London was brought down to this Unterzee* when it was stolen by bats. That’s it. No other context. Stolen by bats.
Once you’re out in the world, you start running into the really weird stuff. On one island, you come upon a breakaway republic of rats fighting against their monarchist gerbil overlords. There’s nothing to tell you if these are human-sized rodents or not. Would you like to sell your soul to a bunch of sapient monkeys so you can help them finish their escape zeppelin? Of course you would!
In addition to being hilarious, Sunless Sea manages a very creepy atmosphere. One port has an altar you can click on to go completely mad. The game has a little note saying “do not do this,” but it’s probably just trying to trick you! What could possibly go wrong?
There are dozens of named officers you can recruit, and each has their own storyline to explore. You can have more officers than you can use on your ship just so you’ll have more story options. Of course, more story means more text. There’s a lot of text in this game, but it’s text that’s almost always fun to read. For one officer, a young foundling from the deep jungles,* the story is close to twenty pages of reading, yet it never once drags or feels boring.
As a serious bonus, Sunless Sea is committed to letting your character identify however they want. Rather than having you select a gender, the game asks by what term you wish to be referred, with many options ranging from Sir or Ma’am to Captain or Citizen. You then choose a silhouette for your character’s portrait. Some silhouettes are obviously gendered male or female, while others are more androgynous.
Letting you make that kind of choice is one way video games distinguish themselves as a storytelling medium. Even the most linear video game has some level of interactivity you don’t get from a book or film. When matched with good writing, games can weave incredible in-depth narratives. The audience becomes part of the story rather than a passive observer. Not all games take full advantage of these possibilities, of course, but the ones that do are more than worth your time.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.