Gaming can be an incredible medium for storytelling. Interactivity means that a video game can tell stories in ways that other media simply can’t; they can make us inhabit a character intimately and personally, feeling every action they take and every decision they make with a connection that non-interactive media can’t give us.
As you’d imagine, there are many games out there that take advantage of this incredible potential, so let’s take a look at the 20 best story-driven games to play right now.
Many Final Fantasy games have come and gone since the seventh instalment, but this one remains the most beloved to many RPG fans. Cloud and company’s epic journey takes them from the slums of the city of Midgar all the way to snowy peaks, sleepy villages, and ancient temples, with many surprises, excellent character-building moments, and genuinely shocking plot developments along the way.
“Story-focused” might seem like a strange way to describe Disco Elysium if you’ve played it. This is, after all, the story of a place and its people rather than a specific set of events. You’re a detective who has been called upon to investigate a murder, but you awake after a night out so legendary that it’s wiped out your entire personality. You must rebuild who you are piece by piece, solving the murder alongside your unflappable partner Kim Kitsuragi as you go.
It’s difficult to explain Undertale without venturing into spoilers, and we very much want to avoid doing so, because this is definitely a game best experienced while knowing as little about it as possible. On the surface, Undertale is a cutesy 2D RPG in which battles can be resolved peacefully. That’s all we’re going to say about it. If you’re interested in a subversive work that contains far more depth than you initially think it’s going to, check Undertale out.
In the 2000s and early 2010s, the military shooter ruled the roost. Games like Call of Duty and Battlefield reigned supreme (as they arguably still do), while legions of also-rans tried to compete with the two big names and failed. Spec Ops: The Line, however, is not just any modern military shooter. Again, like Undertale, to say too much about this would be to give away its many surprises, but if you thought the modern military shooter needed a little more narrative depth, here’s your game.
We’re cheating a little here by including three games under one list item, but really, if you play just one Mass Effect game, you’re missing the point. Commander Shepard’s quest to defeat the Reapers will take you all across the Milky Way galaxy; you’ll meet its eccentric inhabitants, partner up with them aboard your ship, the Normandy, and engage in clever cover-based shooting while using your team’s powers to take down particularly troublesome foes.
For many, the SNES era was a sweet spot for JRPGs. They were more complex and satisfying than early offerings like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, but not so overly burdened with technical progress that it hindered the pace. Chrono Trigger is an example of a story-driven SNES JRPG done right. The characters are compelling, the setting is fascinating, and the music is just as good as you’d expect from a mid-90s Square RPG.
7. Deus Ex
Adam Jensen’s adventures in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided are all well and good, but if you want a narrative with true depth and complexity, look no further than the original Deus Ex, released for PC back in 2000. You are JC Denton, an augmented super-agent out of his depth in a dizzying world of fractal conspiracies and philosophical quandaries. Most missions can be solved in pretty much any way you like, making this an incredibly deep game both in story and gameplay terms.
“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” So goes the philosophy of BioShock’s principal antagonist, Andrew Ryan, who proves to be a terrifyingly intelligent and savvy presence in the city of Rapture, even though he’s not physically with you for most of the game. Something has gone very, very wrong in the city, and when you arrive, taking refuge from a crashed plane in a lighthouse, you must delve into the depths of Rapture in order to discover the truth behind the place.
For our money, both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 are just a little too light in the writing department to count as great story games. New Vegas, however, saw Obsidian taking the reins, and as you’d expect from a developer with such a storied pedigree, the writing improved dramatically. New Vegas is, like Disco Elysium, the story of a place, but its multi-layered factions and engaging characters make it a joy to inhabit.
There are certain aspects of Planescape: Torment that have not aged well. The combat is woeful, the isometric perspective gets a little wearying after a while, and the visuals aren’t particularly easy on the eyes. However, the incredible characters, setting, and writing make this RPG well worth experiencing many years after it originally launched. If you’ve never played Planescape: Torment, you’re in for a treat.
Much like Planescape, KotOR II suffers from some archaic, outmoded systems. It’s been struck from the canon by Disney, too, who wanted to clean the slate after creating the Star Wars movie sequel trilogy. It’s a shame, because this is one of the most interesting, subversive stories ever told in the Star Wars universe. Seek it out if you want to see how deep the Last Jedi rabbit hole could have gone.
12. Final Fantasy X
In our minds, Final Fantasy X is the great underrated instalment in its series. Tidus’ journey through the world of Spira is unexpectedly poignant and involving, and while some slightly off voice acting does it no favours (not the laugh scene – we genuinely believe that’s been misunderstood), we still tear up at the ending every time. Final Fantasy X was arguably the last great story in the mainline series (except XIV, of course).
When Wolfenstein: The New Order arrived in 2014, it was after years of stagnation for the once-great shooter franchise. New Order reignited interest in Wolfenstein thanks to its stronger narrative focus and emphasis on character. BJ Blazkowicz is here reimagined as a tired, gruff old soldier just looking to make a difference in the world, and his engaging cast of friends and allies are all human and three-dimensional, too.
Both Portal and its sequel, Portal 2, are excellent games, but this first instalment has a tight focus that the followup somewhat lacks. Nobody expected the story in Portal to be as present or as brilliant as it was. This is a series of excellent puzzles intercut with truly great writing; the sinister GLaDOS is a constant presence as you work your way through each puzzle chamber, and your relationship with her develops in interesting ways.
15. Silent Hill 2
We’ll admit to a skepticism surrounding the upcoming Silent Hill 2 remake. This is a stone-cold classic of video game narrative, after all, and the developer Konami has chosen to handle the remake, Bloober Team, hasn’t exactly proven itself in those stakes. The original Silent Hill 2 is a compelling evocation of despair and horror, taking protagonist James Sunderland into the titular town after he receives a letter from his wife. There’s just one problem: his wife is dead.
The first two Witcher instalments were a little too impenetrable for mass audiences to enjoy, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt found the perfect sweet spot for the franchise. At its core, it’s a fairly straightforward open-world action RPG; there are plenty of ways to augment your combat ability, but for the most part, you won’t need them to get through the excellent story and enjoy the nuanced, detailed writing.
17. Persona 4
Persona 5 is still an excellent game, but if you want sheer narrative weight, Persona 4 is arguably the superior experience. It’s a little older and less polished in the gameplay department, but the story Persona 4 tells, one of friendship in small-town Japan, is more emotionally resonant than Persona 5’s grand heists. Together with your friends, you must investigate a series of murders that are occurring in the town of Inaba, building relationships with them as you go (the friends, not the murders).
Metal Gear Solid 3 remains Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece. It finds the perfect balance between interactive storytelling and the cinematic presentation Kojima is so fond of, telling the story of Naked Snake (who would later become the iconic Big Boss) in one of his earliest and most important missions. You’ll meet Metal Gear stalwarts, battle terrifying bosses, and experience a deep, emotionally resonant narrative.
It’s easy to forget that Half-Life is a story-driven game. After all, the story is a fairly light touch throughout the game; you can interact with it or pay attention to it as much as you like. Who is the mysterious man in a blue suit who can be seen throughout the game at various points? What’s going on at Black Mesa? Masterfully, Valve chooses to tell this story through Half-Life’s environment and escalating action rather than cutscenes.
We could devote an entire list to the works of Shu Takumi, but since we only have one precious entry left, we’ll give it to Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, Takumi and Capcom’s great underrated masterpiece. The Ace Attorney games are well-known for their excellent storytelling, but Ghost Trick’s ingenious mixture of character, clever puzzling, and surprisingly affecting narrative set it apart.