Games stick with us for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you became addicted to the cycle of progression; powering up your character, unlocking new gear, leveling up. Maybe the gameplay held enough variety and excitement to keep you hooked for hours. Perhaps you wanted to see every corner of a game’s expansive open-world.
For many gamers, it’s the story that ropes them in. Some gamers only play games for their story; they want an interactive narrative that they can be a part of and be whisked away by. For this list, we have avoided the games that have more story than gameplay, and instead focused on those with excellent stories that are also mechanically strong and well-designed experiences. These are the stories that have gripped us won't let go.
Updated on October 29th, 2021 by Hodey Johns: Since this list was first released, great games kept coming and even more great games were being discovered. The way games interact with their audiences creates a bond that is stronger than purely literary bonds. Of course, that's only when these narratives are placed into the hands of talented and capable visionaries that understand how to utilize the many tools gaming has. This list is full of stories done right and has been reordered with five more entries added to the total. There was some thought about removing titles to make room for others, but each of these titles tells a tale too magical to leave out.
30 The Wolf Among Us
|Release Date||October 11, 2013|
|Platform(s)||PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One|
|HowLongToBeat Time||9.5 Hours|
Sometimes using established stories can limit a story. Fans often treat source material as sacred, not to be tampered with. But a bold developer can sometimes take a classic tale and treat it like a canvas to the delight and imagination of the gamers.
The spin placed on Little Red Riding Hood done by Telltale Games makes The Wolf Among Us something special. It's a short game with a lot of DLC after gaining a cult following with a story that keeps characters in the spotlight. It's one of the very best games to take on road trips.
29 Portal 2
|Release Date||April 18, 2011|
|Platform(s)||PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360|
|HowLongToBeat Time||8.5 Hours|
Predicting that a sequel to the phenomenal Portal could live up to the expectations would have been a risky bet. Yet what fans got was a game that amplified the puzzles and logic of the first game and wrapped it up in a hilarious and engaging story.
Portal 2 took the bold step of introducing new protagonists and antagonists and it paid off in spades. The key to this success was never losing sight of Chell or GLaDOS for the first game. The story revealed in Portal 2 is a must-play experience for anyone calling themselves a gamer.
|Release Date||February 9, 2016|
|Platform(s)||PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch|
|HowLongToBeat Time||4 Hours|
Fans are sharply divided over whether or not Firewatch is a good game. It is very short, limited on action, and devoid of screen-rattling moments. But nobody disagrees that the landscape is beautiful and the story is one of the ages. It's a game that feels like autumn in all of its good and bad ways.
The exposition occurs over walkie-talkies, using a dialogue between Henry and Delilah that is both relatable and revealing. The fluid way they transition from humor to heavy subjects had the world beyond the gaming community realizing that gaming can tell a story as well as any book.
27 Disco Elysium
|Release Date||October 15, 2019|
|Platform(s)||PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S|
|HowLongToBeat Time||21 Hours|
Story-driven games can fall into the trap of retelling a fairy tale. The hero is a knight in shining armor and the villain is a demon straight out of hell. Disco Elysium wins by exploring the grey areas of the world. Harry is a mix of good and bad and it is up to the player to decide which of those he gravitates toward.
The world around Harry is just as complex as the detective himself. Motivations are not singular or transparent. Gamers will come across villains that they sympathize with instead of monsters cackling from the shadows. These eventual enemies can be just as memorable as the main character.
26 Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
|Publisher||Sony Computer Entertainment|
|Release Date||May 10, 2016|
|HowLongToBeat Time||15 Hours|
Naughty Dog has come an awfully long way since the days of Crash Bandicoot. Its games have always been good, but through the Uncharted series, the developer helped to pioneer a movement that led to the rise in popularity of narrative-driven video games. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is not only a cinematic masterpiece, but also serves as a fitting end to one of gaming's very best heroes.
Each of Nathan Drake's four fantastic outings features wonderful storytelling, but it's his last that truly highlights his personal growth while also providing a bit more insight into his past and his relationships with those closest to him.
25 Final Fantasy X
|Developer||Square Product Development Division 1|
|Release Date||December 17, 2001|
|Platform(s)||PS2, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch & PC|
|HowLongToBeat Time||46 Hours|
There have been some fantastic Final Fantasy games over the years, but not many of their stories are as captivating as the one in Final Fantasy X. It has a little bit of everything; from an ill-fated romance to a son's neverending struggle to earn his distant father's approval.
With the exception of perhaps Kimahri, each of the party members in Final Fantasy X offers something significant to the game's narrative. They're also incredibly complex, and the storytelling techniques used to relay their tale were pretty groundbreaking for the era. When combined with Nobuo Uematsu's sensational score, it makes for an unforgettable experience that JRPG fans would be foolish to miss.
24 Life Is Strange 2
|Release Date||September 27, 2018|
|Platform(s)||PS4, Xbox One & PC|
|HowLongToBeat Time||16 Hours|
The episodic game of Life Is Strange 2 might not be filled to the brim with action, but it's an incredible work of art and storytelling nonetheless. The game focuses on the choices the player makes, which will ultimately determine the outcome at the end.
After a misunderstanding with the police and a strange explosion, two brothers Daniel and Sean are forced to flee as fugitives. During their hunt, Daniel discovers that he has a special ability: he can use the power of his mind to move objects. Puzzle-solving and dialogue choices aside, the characters alone and their touching bond are what make this game so good story-wise.
23 Final Fantasy IX
|Release Date||July 7, 2000|
|Platform(s)||PS1, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC & Mobile|
|HowLongToBeat Time||39 Hours|
Final Fantasy creator and original director Hironobu Sakaguchi was once quoted as saying that he’d rather tell a good story than make a fine action game, and there is no better story in the series than that of Final Fantasy IX. Where the game succeeds is in its characters' personal stories and relationships.
Every member of your party is a charming, endearing person with a story worth knowing intimately. The game’s overall plot might not be original, but the heart that was poured into its characters and their relationships is second to none. You’ll play through this game 20 more times just to enjoy the journey you take with this wonderful cast of characters.
22 To The Moon
|Release Date||November 1, 2011|
|Platform(s)||Nintendo Switch, PC & Mobile|
|HowLongToBeat Time||4 Hours|
Even by today's standards, To the Moon is a relatively short game, but it more than makes up for this with its fantastic story. You'll be placed in the shoes of a pair of doctors as they travel through the memories of one of their dying patients in order to fulfill his final request. It's full of touching moments and is a must-play for fans of narrative-driven titles.
The game was built using RPG maker and features an art style reminiscent of some of the best role-playing games of the nineties. Granted, the gameplay does leave a little to be desired, but the story is expertly written and is perfectly complemented by Kan R. Gao's hauntingly beautiful soundtrack.
21 The Walking Dead
|Release Date||April 24, 2012|
|Platform(s)||PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC & Mobile|
|HowLongToBeat Time||41 Hours|
Due to the simplicity of their gameplay, a lot of emphasis is placed on the storytelling in Telltale Games' The Walking Dead series. Thankfully, the overarching narrative is more than capable of carrying the titles on its back, thanks in large to the sheer strength of its characters.
Though players initially take control of Lee, later installments will see them walking in the shoes of a young woman named Clementine. Watching her grow and mature is an absolute joy, while the harsh and unforgiving world in which the games are set provides plenty of tension. You'll also be able to shape the narrative with the choices you make and some will even have consequences much further down the road.
20 Chrono Trigger
|Release Date||March 11, 1995|
|Platform(s)||PS1, SNES, Nintendo DS, PC & Mobile|
|HowLongToBeat Time||23 Hours|
Games involving time travel can very easily devolve into an incomprehensible mess of poorly woven narrative threads and nonsensical ideas. This isn't a criticism that could ever be levied against Chrono Trigger, however; a game that many consider to be the best JRPG ever made.
Despite taking players to multiple time periods and allowing them to change the future through their actions in the past, the game's narrative is incredibly easy to follow. The characters are all incredibly likable too, and each has their own motivations for joining the fight against Lavos. It was also one of the first video games to feature multiple endings and allows players to finish the main story at numerous points.
19 Ghost Of Tsushima
|Developer||Sucker Punch Productions|
|Publisher||Sony Interactive Entertainment|
|Release Date||July 17, 2020|
|Platform(s)||PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5|
|HowLongToBeat Time||24.5 Hours|
Veteran gamers are always wary of games that produce great graphics because they often try to add a lot of polish to a thin story. This was not the case with Ghost of Tsushima, a game that leverages its graphics to tell a tale of a land ravaged by invaders.
No further words need to be spoken, but those that are tell tales of forgotten lore, broken families, the purpose of faith, and the reason and ways people fight against impossible odds. Players will not soon forget the world of Tsushima after looking at it through the eyes of samurai warrior Jin Sakai.
18 The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
|Developer||CD Projekt Red|
|Publisher||CD Projekt Red|
|Release Date||May 19, 2015|
|Platform(s)||PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, Nintendo Switch & PC|
|HowLongToBeat Time||51 Hours|
The third installment of the popular game and book (and now Netflix) series, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the best and most iconic medieval fantasy RPGs to have come out in the last decade. Toe-to-toe with Skyrim, it introduces players to a much darker and more sinister world of monsters and magic.
The player must navigate the vast open-world as Geralt, hot on the trail of Yennefer. On the way, a myriad of quests, tough boss fights, and various secondary storylines help to build a rich and diverse world that any player hungry for lore and story would be delighted to dive headfirst into.
|Release Date||September 15, 2015|
|Platform(s)||PS Vita, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC|
|HowLongToBeat Time||7 Hours|
Undertale is a great example of telling a compelling story without splurging on high-tier graphics. Inspired by retro games, the look and controls of this game closely mimic old hand-held console games while bringing in a fresh, extremely touching story.
It's the story of a young child falling inside a mountain, which is protected from the rest of the Earth with a magical barrier. To return home, the child must interact with the inhabitants of the mountain, all of which are various kinds of monsters. Depending on the approach the player takes (pacifist or violent), the outcome of the game will be significantly different.
16 Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
|Developer||Konami Computer Entertainment Japan|
|Release Date||November 17, 2004|
|Platform(s)||PS2 & Nintendo 3DS|
|HowLongToBeat Time||16 Hours|
The Metal Gear Solid series is all about the storyline. While it came to define a genre that didn’t exist before the first game’s debut in 1987, it has always been infamous for its complex plot of sinister villains and political paranoia, as well as extended cutscenes that swallow up the rest of the game.
The third game in the series, however, undoubtedly hit that sweet spot with regards to plot. The rivalry between the man who would become Big Boss and his former mentor, The Boss, was gripping. The way that the game had a tight ludonarrative understanding of itself was truly brilliant.
15 Yakuza 0
|Developer||Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio|
|Release Date||January 24, 2017|
|Platform(s)||PS3, PS4, Xbox One & PC|
|HowLongToBeat Time||31 Hours|
The Yakuza series is in a unique position wherein it enjoys a distinctly heavy amount of ludonarrative dissonance; its side quests, mini-games, and combat encounters have little to nothing to do with the game’s main plot. But the developers know that, and they enjoy it.
So, while the game might have all kinds of campy and silly mini-games to enjoy, its plot is one of betrayal, brotherhood, loyalty, and growth into manhood. Every game in the series has a wonderful story to enjoy, but Yakuza 0 hits that tone just right, offering impeccable voice acting and unbelievably smart localization.
14 Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
|Release Date||November 25, 2010|
|Platform(s)||PSP, PS Vita, PS4, Nintendo Switch & PC|
|HowLongToBeat Time||25 Hours|
Another wonderfully campy Japanese series, Danganronpa is a narrative-based game in the ‘visual novel’ genre, blending life simulator elements with trial-based scenes reminiscent of Phoenix Wright.
In this game, the protagonist and his peers have all been locked inside a school and are slowly being killed off. After each grizzly death, a trial is held and the player must determine the culprit. Although the heavy anime art and aesthetics might point to a jolly cartoony game about school friends, it has some wonderfully executed twists and turns to enjoy.
13 Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction
|Release Date||April 13, 2010|
|Platform(s)||Xbox 360 & PC|
|HowLongToBeat Time||18.5 Hours|
The stories in each of the Splinter Cell games have been fascinating, but plugging in quick-time events for this installment was a risky, unexpected, and perfect addition for the saga of Sam Fisher. As expected, the plot had a lot to do with a terrorist coup.
It's what was unexpected that made this game so brilliant. The protagonist's life takes center stage as players finally get to dig deep into the life of America's greatest infiltrator. It's fan service to anybody that has been following the series since the beginning.
12 NieR: Automata
|Release Date||March 7, 2017|
|Platform(s)||PS4, Xbox One & PC|
|HowLongToBeat Time||21 Hours|
The underground smash hit of 2017, NieR: Automata tells the story of two androids caught in a war between their own kind, engineered by the enigmatic humans, and the robots who invaded Earth eons ago. The story is so deep that completing the game involves the same story retold from different perspectives each time, adding more complexity to an experience that is already rich with details.
NieR: Automata might not be the prettiest of games on a technical level, but it makes up for that in spades with its intense and thought-provoking narrative that leans heavily on deep philosophical debates. As our protagonists, 2B and 9S, discover more about their origins and the truth of the war, it becomes very difficult to put the controller down.
|Release Date||August 21, 2007|
|Platform(s)||PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC & Mobile|
|HowLongToBeat Time||22 Hours|
Set in an underwater city build to exist as separate from all other societies, BioShock tells the story of Jack, a man who has become trapped in the city of Rapture after it has fallen into disrepair by riots following scientific experiments gone wrong.
You must uncover the history of the city, its creator, and residents, and also begin to face the nature of narrative in video games as a whole. Yes, this game gets extremely meta as it goes on, bringing into question the role of the player taking control of the protagonist. It’s a fantastic narrative to be enjoyed by anyone who needs a good story and mystery to motivate their progression through a game.
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