For most people, when you call examples of great writing to mind, most likely the first thing you think of is your favorite book. If you're the movie loving type, perhaps you think of an awesome piece of cinema that really got to you. But for one reason or another, most people probably don't think of video games.
Unfortunately, there's still a decently sized contingent of people in the world that think games are for children and slackers. Not only is this a misconception (the age of the average gamer in the United States took a big drop this year—to thirty), but video games offer a unique method of storytelling that simply doesn't exist in other forms of art. How many books have you read that made you feel like the accomplishments and failings of the protagonist were yours? How many movies have you seen that let you shape the unfolding story with your own choices? The simple truth is that games have grown into an excellent medium for great stories, and the industry has become home to some awesome writers.
Last week, I kicked off the countdown of my twenty favorite examples of great writing in video games. Today, we make our way through the top ten. If you think games are for the artless and the immature, you may want to give these a try. They might just change your mind.
10) I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
Taking place a hundred years after the end of the world as we know it, players take control of the last five human beings on Earth, who are being tortured and toyed with by the supercomputer that orchestrated the apocalypse (voiced by Ellison himself). Though dark and at times gruesome, the writing has all the touches of the acclaimed author that co-designed it with The Dreamers Guild. You really don't see many games like this one anymore.
9) The Uncharted Series
The Uncharted series is the Indiana Jones reboot you never knew you needed. No game that I've played has done a better job at capturing sheer cinematic atmosphere. Every game in the series feels like an interactive action movie, and I'd match the story, characters, and dialogue against any summer blockbuster.
8) Red Dead Redemption
Published by Rockstar as the spiritual successor to an earlier attempt at the genre, Red Dead Redemption tells the story of John Marston, a reformed outlaw forced by the government to hunt down members of the gang he used to run with. With compelling characters, an emotional ending, and a thematic commentary on the end of the old west, RDR does nearly everything right.
7) The Assassin's Creed Series
Its story revolves around a clandestine power struggle that's lasted thousands of years, intertwined with world history. Players control Desmond Miles and his ancestors as he explores his genetic memory, mucking about Forrest Gump style in the Third Crusade, the Italian Renaissance, and the American Revolutionary War (though Gump never stabbed any major historical figures in the neck).
6) The Monkey Island Series
Players accompany Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate™ during his continuous struggles against the dread (ghost zombie demon) pirate Lechuck. The series is filled with unforgettable characters, hilarious moments, and more quotable quips than you can shake a rubber-chicken-with-a-pulley-in-the-middle at.
5) The Elder Scrolls Series
Since the release of Arena in 1994, the series has grown quite the reputation, and an enormous part of its charm is the writing. Bethesda has crafted an enchanting world of epic fantasy, weaving the kind of stories you might expect to find in a novel. In fact, every book in the game is a readable text, filling players in on the history of Tamriel. Few games have presented this level of worldbuilding and attention to detail, and The Elder Scrolls shines as a result.
4) Every Bioware RPG Ever Made
Since Baldur's Gate in 1998, Bioware has become an RPG powerhouse. Whether toiling on licensed properties like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, or crafting worlds of their own design in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, Bioware is a company built on the backs of master storytellers. While the occasional hiccup may occur, you almost always know you're going to get great writing in a game with their logo on it.
Players are cast into the role of Jack, who stumbles upon the entrance to Rapture after surviving a plane crash over the Atlantic ocean. Players learn the disconcerting history of the failed utopia as they explore its ruined remains and encounter what's left of its inhabitants. Inspired by Randian philosophy and the works of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, BioShock is the kind of game that asks you to think about more than just which gun to fire.
2) Planescape: Torment
Released by Black Isle Studios in 1999, Planescape was notable for focusing on story above all else, putting hack n' slash combat on the back burner in favor of an estimated 800,000 word narrative. Players become The Nameless One, an immortal character with no memory, forced to piece together the events of past lives in an effort to break the curse he is plagued with. One of the first RPGs to challenge traditional moral conventions, Planescape: Torment is one of a kind. And that's a shame.
1) The Portal Series
However, they also included an unassuming title originally based on the senior class project from a group of students at DigiPen (who Valve hired right after graduation) called Portal. Minds were subsequently blown, and that surprising little game went on to win several game of the year awards, despite its short length and lack of hype prior to release.
Portal has a very long list of good things going for it, including an innovative form of gameplay that mixes elements of the adventure, puzzle, and first-person action genres. This perfect blend undoubtedly helped in its attainment of left-field success, but its most charming quality was the fantastic writing.
Players find themselves behind the eyes of Chell, an unfortunate test subject who wakes up in the Aperture Science research labs. She is greeted by GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence in control of the facility, who forces her to undergo experiments to test Aperture's new handheld portal device. And its this menacing AI that steals the show and wins the hearts of just about anyone that plays this game. Chell is a silent protagonist, so there is technically no dialogue in the game (in the strict sense of the word). However, that doesn't stop GLaDOS from making her presence known at all times, delivering instructions at the start of each test with some of the most cleverly written lines in the history of video games. And who can forget that performance at the end?
In 2011, after much clamoring and slavering from fans, Valve finally released Portal 2. The sequel not only met fan and critic expectations, it exceeded them by a mile, adding new elements to the gameplay, multiplayer modes, and of course, a compelling story. The writing in Portal 2 was even better than its predecessor, widely expanding the lore of Aperture Science and its strange history. It added memorable new characters and heaps more of the same hilarious charm fans fell in love with in the first game. In my humble opinion, Portal 2 is the absolute best example of excellent writing in video games to date, with the first game right behind it.
And so, the Portal series gets the number one crown in my countdown. If you haven't played those two games and you have even the smallest, most remote desire to engage in video gamedom at some point in your life, please do. You will thank me for it.
Honorable Mentions: Braid, The Longest Journey, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, The Sam & Max Series, Kingdoms of Amalur, The Mother Series (Earthbound), The Legend of Zelda Series, Bastion, The Grand Theft Auto Series, Chrono Trigger, Psychonauts, The Final Fantasy Series, Heavy Rain
So there you have it. Alas, I am but a man, and I can not possibly have played every great game ever made. So, if you think I missed something or you disagree with the way I have things ranked, by all means leave a comment and let me know.