No matter the form of media, good writing can be admired like good cooking. A suspenseful intro hook thrown in to simmer with an intriguing storyline, seasoned by a logical plot, as well as a satisfying ending is as much akin to a meal as I can think of. I believe it was Ray Bradbury who said something along the lines of “every story has but one (proper) ending,” and I found this quote to be more and more relevant throughout writing this list. In this list we will be examining some of the best written games whose aspects– in terms of writing– are very well-rounded. Good endings require an amazing setup, like propping up dominoes only to watch them fall elegantly and haphazardly into place. So please enjoy this list, gamer or not, because everyone enjoys when dominoes drop (i.e. the climax).
While Mass Effect may just be the latest blockbuster production to hit consoles, there is a specific reason it is included in this list. With many gamers carrying over their previous save from the first Mass Effect, they let their previous choices impact the sequel in ways not seen before. From the start, this is an achievement in writing (specifically in games), rather than continuing a story over starting a new one. You are left to live with the aftermath of the decisions that are made in the first game, in the second. Characters that died don’t return for this round. The narrative aspect of Mass Effect 2 was also highly praised, as it covered every nook and niche that players could find themselves in. Contact with familiar faces from the first game play out like fortuitous reunions between old acquaintances, and with depth like that it walked away with several Game of the Year awards, along with various writing awards and best RPG awards. With Mass Effect 2, writing is becoming ever more prominent in modern gaming.
A platform and puzzle video game developed by independent software developer, Jonathan Blow, Braid was released to the Xbox Live arcade in 2008, greeted with unanimously positive reviews and became the second best-selling Xbox Live Arcade title in 2008, selling 55,000 titles. While critics labeled its one primary shortfall as its short length, this title proved that games could come with stories at flash fiction length. Braid involves several time-based worlds, each of which involve their own mechanic to solve the puzzles. In a game about time, Tim is a man searching for a princess who has been snatched by a supposedly evil monster. The only relationship we know he has with the princess is that he wishes to reconcile something. As you continue through each world, you learn more about the central plot, mostly through text and the ending is left purposely ambiguous. Some have likened the game to Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with the way it interweaves its plot and narrative. Others have said the princess is analogous to the atom bomb. If you ever play Braid, carry this simple creed: “you must look back to go forwards.”
Set in an alternate history during 1960, the game takes place in the underwater city of Rapture, the inner workings of which were inspired by Ayn Rand and Objectivist philosophy and rhetoric. This time around, the game is more focused on setting than anything else. The once ordered civilization in Rapture now has become a dystopian society that you, the player, Jack, has crash landed near, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As he makes his way to the seabed and into Rapture, you begin to uncover the inklings that led to the downfall of Rapture. The underwater realm is filled with a cast of characters that fit the assumptions one would associate with an underwater city, and a half-dreamt nightmare. Big Daddies resembling old-fashioned diving suits, and splicers seeking ADAM from the Little Sisters, commonly accompany the corridors of Rapture, and as the plot begins to thicken you see how this society corrupts under its rules and morals, you realize what’s been shrugged off is that questions are actually implicit commands.
With the advent of the Writer’s Guild of America accepting and commending outstanding writing in 2007/2008, it came as a surprise to those not in the know that Bioshock or Portal were not among those nominated, and even some that were nominated, such as Dead Head Fred, didn’t seem to offer much credibility that the WGA was accepting of video games as a medium for writing. With the small and dedicated team at Valve that worked on Portal, however, it may have come as no surprise, for you needed to be a member of the WGA to be nominated. Portal was lauded for its story, ensuing meme, gameplay, characterization, and its short format, as it was crowded onto a disc within the Orange Box. Its story is centered around Chell and GLaDOS, a simple protagonist vs. technology in strictest terms of literary conflict theory. But this conflict is not immediately apparent, only seeming blatant after never receiving your cake. The quote that spread like wildfire after Portal’s release: “the cake is a lie,” began to become a meme, meaning you were reaching an empty, unattainable goal. The characterization in Portal is that of sheer brilliance, featuring only two characters: a test subject and a somewhat sentient, passive aggressive AI. GLaDOS is our antagonist here, promising you cake, insulting you, and criticizing your every move while Chell increasingly struggles to make it through the next test chamber. As the credits roll and GLaDOS can be overheard in musical overtones, a thought occurs– you’re still alive.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
In a game where you can easily get lost between the subplots and side-stories, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is an architectural writing masterpiece. While you may get sidetracked for several days on a sidequest, the main storyline is still at play, laying the groundwork and framework for all your voyages into the environment. Non-playable characters may lie to you, or react to you differently, depending on your race and gender, a subtle, but powerful undertone. Starting off as a lowly prisoner who gets a chance shot at escaping his cell, you begin to tackle the task of closing the gates to Oblivion– no easy feat. Although all of this can be ignored and you, the player, can spend your time exploring the countryside, doing the above-mentioned sidequests, and building your character up, the story is quite driven by the increasing number of Oblivion gates and their dominant presence on the hillsides. Each subplot eventually leads back and keeps you coming back to the main storyline.Though, even when the story is over, the game isn’t finished. There were some jarring dialogue flaws as well as unbalanced leveling by enemies, however, Oblivion won several awards, including Game of the Year and Best RPG from multiple publications.
Shadow of the Colossus
At the forefront of the defense of games as an art form (prompted in part by Roger Ebert) is Shadow of the Colossus.The game was made by Team Ico, the developers behind none other than Ico. Shadow of the Colossus is a spiritual successor to the aforementioned game, and will be followed by yet another similar spiritual successor in 2012, by the name of The Last Guardian. To make things more interesting, the game only has 16 enemies in total. You start off your journey as Wander, with your horse Agro, appealing to the god Dormin to revive Mono, who you later learn was sacrificed due to a cursed destiny. In this land, desolate and forbidden, you know little background between the characters and their relationships to each other. You are tasked to destroy the sixteen colossi by Dormin. After you fell the first colossus though, it is clear that there is something more sinister at play, as you are pierced by black energy and awaken at the shrine. The game does an excellent job of creating a bond between you and your horse through the use of minimalistic touches, the horse will steer itself away from cliffs and jump when needed, and will even go off and graze on its own when you clamber off. As the game and story advances you learn that Wander is being followed, and you begin to witness one of the best uses of antihero ever. After every colossus killed, Wander becomes more dirty, ragged and clumsy. This results in your questioning of Wander’s motives, and just which side you should be rooting for.
Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)
A cult classic, Fahrenheit, or better known in North America as Indigo Prophecy, was a precursor to the much more well-known Heavy Rain, and its cinematic gameplay. But where the game really stands out is its deep, captivating, and oftentimes disturbing story. The tale, which opens prolifically and profoundly with a murder, and is ranked as number ten on Game Informer’s Top Ten Video Game Openings, centers around Lucas Kane and the supernatural forces that he must fight to comprehend why New York City is being targeted by a series of mysterious murders that follow the same pattern: ordinary people becoming possessed and killing absolute strangers in public. Receiving the Best Story and Best Adventure Game award from Gamespot, Fahrenheit is not a game to be passed over in the used section of your local game shop.
Receiving a letter from his wife asking him to come to their special place, James Sunderland becomes drawn to Silent Hill. It is a quiet town they had frequented in the past, before the sickness took her from this life; she’s been dead for three years now. Upon entering Silent Hill, James encounters gruesome monsters and exaggerated versions of humanity, including a girl oblivious to what is happening around her, a man who has killed someone, and a woman who’s a spitting image of his wife, although she is dolled up and does not possess his wife’s subdued behavior. Finding more and more clues that lead to the revelation of the murder of your wife, Silent Hill 2 addresses your problems with analogies and metaphors. Silent Hill isn’t a town, it is your emotional being, and every door and corridor could contain a clue to James’ past, and the further you delve in, the more you must fight the mental blocks that portray him in innocent and culpable lights.
With a surplus of over 40 Game of the Year awards, and also including the accolade of Best Story, Deus Ex comes loaded with great expectations. In this cyberpunk themed tale of a world controlled by conspiracy and on the brink of collapse, a bionic government agent, J.C. Denton, is issued a series of risky covert assignments by his employer, UNATCO. A lot of background information is presented in the game that is purely optional; books, newspapers, e-mails, passwords, and other lines of text that are pertinent to the story and often contain allusions to science-fiction references, such as Tron and Blue Harvest. UNATCO coworkers react to your actions towards your enemies, appraising you or giving you the cold shoulder, and enemies can be hounded for information. Pioneering the FPS RPG formula, Deus Ex frequently finds its way near the top of the greatest games of all time lists.
For those of you following the list order, it is in reverse chronological order, and with that, we come to one of the greats of modern game storytelling: Half-Life. Considered and cited as being revolutionary in terms of the immersive gaming experience, interactive environment and storytelling, Half-Life was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews and, like Deus Ex, frequents greatest games of all time lists. The game has received over 50 Game of the Year awards as a tour de force first-person shooter as well as holding a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as best selling FPS of all-time. Half-life contained artfully scripted in-game sequences and a story that the player became captivated by. Offering a proposition or a battle Gordon Freeman has no chance of winning, an anticlimax after what you’ve survived, it is time to choose…
L.A. Noire is an upcoming detective video game that looks very promising in terms of writing. Set in post-war Los Angeles and directed in a film noir style, the game is said to focus on a series of murders that the player is openly allowed to solve. However, not every source is reliable, or can be trusted; lying, in video games, is evolving.
Honorable Mentions: Fallout 2, Fallout 3, Kingdom Hearts, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Bully, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.