The Escapist's Favorite Story-Based Games

The Escapist's Favorite Story-Based Games

imageTo compliment your end-of-year nostalgia binge, Team Humidor has compiled a list of what we believe are the top ten story-based games ever made. These are games with a deep, interesting and well-told story that either effected the way we played, or left us affected long after we played them.

We fought long and hard in the Humidor over exactly which games belonged on this list. We started with over 40 games (and we have no doubt that most of you will find fault with at least one of the ones that made it), but in the end, there could be only 10, and here they are (in alphabetical order):

The Escapist's Favorite Story-Based Games

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem


imageAlexandra Roivas stumbles across The Tome Of Eternal Darkness while investigating her grandfather's grisly death, and we are plunged into the gods, magic, and monsters of Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness. ED's story sweeps across time and space, embracing the spirit of Lovecraft while carving its own niche in horror; indeed, it's one of the few truly Lovecraftian games, in spirit and in tone if not in name. - Shannon

Fallout


image Fallout's story may have seemed familiar in that you start out trying to save your people, and along the way find out you have to save the world. But it was also the first game I played that allowed you to not care about the fate of humanity either. Really, would you personally care about a bunch of dirt farmers that had no impact on your life? If anything, Fallout should be remembered for helping to give rise to the anti-hero, and all of the plot twists associated with them. Speaking of plot twists, the ending really made me wish I had gunned down more people that deserved it. -JR

Indigo Prophecy


image You wake up in a diner's bathroom covered in blood. First, you're worried it's yours. Then, you look down at the man you murdered, remembering only bits and pieces of what happened. You clean yourself up and get out of there. Fade to white.

Now, you're a detective who just got called to investigate a murder in a diner's bathroom. You and your partner, Tyler, question witnesses and look for clues. Once you reach the bathroom to pick up evidence, you realize you're investigating the very murder you just escaped from, only you're not the man you just were. Fade.

Playing Indigo Prophecy is like having a bird's eye view of a videogame with multiple personality disorder. Throughout the game, you play three characters: a murderer, Lucas Cane, who doesn't actually remember killing anyone; Carla Valenti, an NYPD detective; and Tyler Miles, Carla's partner. Both Carla and Tyler are assigned to Lucas' case, so you're actively working against yourself, no matter who you play. Talk about being your own worst enemy. Talk about employing an innovative plot device only gaming can pull off.

And that's what makes Indigo Prophecy remarkable. The fact it was the best game of 2005, with one of the most engrossing, dynamic stories ever to be pressed to CD, is what makes it a classic. - Joe

The Longest Journey


imagePrior to 1999, I'd played a lot of adventure games, but always found myself running aground on one of those irritating adventure game gotchas, like "Sorry you forgot to pick up the banana peel in the beginning, have fun starting from scratch." The Longest Journey was different, focusing on the travels of April Ryan, ordinary art student and quite possibly the savior of two worlds, rather than "gotcha" puzzles. It was compelling, it was far deeper than anything I'd experienced in a video game up to that point, and it's still my gold standard for "story" in a game. As a side note, Arcadia was so mind-blowing that I still have the screenshot of the introductory cutscene that I took in 1999 stashed somewhere on my hard drive. - Shannon

Max Payne


imageMax Payne is one of those games from around the turn of the century that almost feels too long. Through the course of the game, everyone and everything Max loves is destroyed until, in the end, it's him against what seems like the rest of the world in a last-ditch struggle - not for justice - for vengeance. And by that time, after countless betrayals and heart wrenching discoveries, we're just as ready as he is to kill anyone who gets in our way. Max Payne told one hell of a cool story, and Max himself could easily rival the best of the noir heroes. - Russ

Myst


imageMyst almost didn't make the list. If you played it back in 95, when it first came out, then you remember how special it was. You remember how it felt to solve each puzzle, find each clue and finally discover what had happened on this strange island. Atrus's haunting voice ("Katherine?") is still with you to this day, as you dream of this empty, forgotten place. Unfortunately, as powerful as it was, it set the bar relatively low, and a number of great, immersive games have picked up it's standard and carried it even further than the brothers Miller could have imagined. The present, however, doesn't erase the past. We were there and do remember. Myst changed everything and did it with style.-Russ

Planescape: Torment


image I'm not sure that I can do Planescape: Torment justice in the space allotted. With a rumored one million words of text and dialogue, if there is an iconic story-driven game, this is it. This game favored comprehension over die rolls for many of the plot devices. The sheer number of possible outcomes based on your actions, and the way that you interacted with NPCs on a more personal level than other games really makes this game stand above all others. It also allowed you to learn a lot about yourself along the way, and got you thinking about mortality and what life experiences meant when you didn't have the luxury of a "do over". - JR

System Shock (series)


image Oh, System Shock, who haven't you put on the edge of his seat, only to send him recoiling into the back of his chair in abject horror? While the series does boast one of the best sci-fi stories in gaming, what makes System Shock stand out for me are the super-intelligent monkeys. You see, they had this way of getting into your head - not your avatar's head, yours.

Two hours into the game, you'd find yourself dreading the high-pitched skittering sound they make when they sense your presence from a room away. Here you are, just trying to find people's PDAs and diaries to figure out what the hell happened on a remote outpost in space, and the damn monkey chittering starts and triggers a Pavlovian sweat response, sticking your body hair on end, and from a whole room away, the monkeys dare you to keep progressing through the game. And what made System Shock so great was you forced yourself to swallow that fear, because the story - and the presentation - was just so damn good. Once you got your hands on that first PDA, dangling clues as to why there were a bunch of zombies and hyper-smart spider monkeys running around, you had to learn more. - Joe

Thief (series)


imageWhen trying to decide which of the three existing Thief games deserved a place on this list, we discovered that each had their own special moments. The haunted cathedral in Thief: The Dark Project was one the first levels of any game to create a truly immersive soundscape. Sure, every community theater production of Christmas Carol for the past hundred years has done rattling chains and spooky ghost noises, but it takes on a whole different flavor when the chain-rattling, hoarsely whispering spooks are spectral holy warriors who are trying to kill you. But the series didn't rest on its laurels. The Pagans in The Metal Age were just flat out disturbing at times, and Shalebridge Cradle in Deadly Shadows was one of the few game levels I played last year with all of my lights on (and I was still scared out of my mind). Garrett's adventures are fun to play, engaging and linger with us long after we've played them. -Russ

Zelda


imageThe closest we came to a unanimous decision in this process, Zelda clearly affected us all in some way or another. Yes, the story has been essentially the same in every single Zelda game. Yes, that story is a fairly standard "boy meets world, boy discovers special powers, boy vanquishes evil and takes home the girl" fantasy tale. No, none of those things matter a single bit. Getting lost in Hyrule is as easy as getting lost in the pages of a good book, and finding your way home again is more fun than it has a right to be. - Russ

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Excellent list, guys. Every game on there is overwhelmingly deserving of its spot. I might've added Grim Fandango or Psychonauts, but I really can't argue with any of these choices.

As I clicked on the link to the article, I was thinking, "man, I bet they'll blow off Max Payne." I should've known Russ would have my back on that one.

Max Payne was like one of those B-17s you hear about from World War II. JR and I kept firing away, but the bird made it through on one wing and no engines. I'm still not entirely sure how.

It was a tough fight, but he made it through.

Unfortunately, the ball turret gunner got squished in the landing.

I'm surprised that Knights of the Old Republic wasn't mentioned. As far as the game went, the story was everything. The twist at the end (you know what I'm talking about) was one of my most memorable gaming moments.

KOTOR: Shot down by Messerschmidts over the Atlantic.

I loved Star Control 2, almost entirely for the quality of the writing.

Fallout, sure, excellent! Longest Journey, great! Myst, sure! System Shock, check. Zelda, yeah, perfect!

Indigo Prophecy, though... I loved all the branching contingency and multiple character viewpoints, but I don't know. The writing is a stew of X-Files-oid and Matrix-oid conspiracy-whack that is schizophrenically paced. In the beginning the story is padded out with filler, such as the basketball mini-game and an ill-conceived stealth segment. Towards the end, though, it seems like the writers are accelerating through highlights of proposed sequels in increasingly distant logical leaps, frantically cramming events and turning points. The ill-crafted story and the appalling controls sunk it for me (I hated the Simple Simon thing.) Were it not a very interesting novelty and a very short game I would not have finished it. A noble experiment, but a few cards short of a deck.

In it's place I'd nominate one or the other Deus Ex games--Roughly similar themes and story elements but better plotting, a more intelligently perverse backstory, troubling moral choices and with an infusion of smart real-world information and literary stuff.

That list seem very fair but I was very disappointed to see that Shenmue didn't make that list I also thought that at least one of the Knights of the Old Republic games deserved to be on that list.

But I don't think Zelda should have been on that list. Before even playing a new Zelda game we all know pretty much how it is going to end. Link saves the day, peace is returned to the land, see you again in next year.

Lex, I don't really think that Zelda being simple at all or us knowing how it ends detracts from it. Zelda is like a fairy tale, everyone knows how it is going in, but we read them to see how they are told and what they can teach us, not for complexity or literary satisfaction.

In almost all of the Zelda games, the plot is told almost seamlessly with the gameplay; it never becomes too obtrusive or too distant. Throughout the numerous years of the series, interesting characters have been developed. Though some of them are a little cliche, they all succeed in helping to tell the narrative in an effective way.

I think you guys did a great job with the list but you missed out on one of my favorite plotlines: Deus Ex. Along with the others, I also agree that KOTR probably should've found its way on the list as well.

One title which I think is worth mentioning is Riviera for the GBA. Even if the story is nothing special in complexity, the way it is told through the game's unique gameplay deserves a lot of mention. I definitely reccomend picking up it if you can find it for a good price.

I just wanted to point out that you probably mean System Shock 2 (Two!), the picture at least is of System Shock 2 and the text sounds like it, too (though I never played the original System Shock).

Longest Journey...my preeeeeciooousss...

David Miscavidge:

Indigo Prophecy, though... I loved all the branching contingency and multiple character viewpoints, but I don't know. The writing is a stew of X-Files-oid and Matrix-oid conspiracy-whack that is schizophrenically paced. In the beginning the story is padded out with filler, such as the basketball mini-game and an ill-conceived stealth segment. Towards the end, though, it seems like the writers are accelerating through highlights of proposed sequels in increasingly distant logical leaps, frantically cramming events and turning points. The ill-crafted story and the appalling controls sunk it for me (I hated the Simple Simon thing.) Were it not a very interesting novelty and a very short game I would not have finished it. A noble experiment, but a few cards short of a deck.

David you're killing me. Indigo Prophecy did have some X-Files and Matrix conventions, the chroma specifically. But the story was for the most part really good in my opinion. The basketball and love scene mini games seemed like a necessary evil for character development like in any book or movie. The Simon gameplay element did make it kind of hard to watch the scenes it took place in. I think the plot twists were for replayability more than anything because they appear depending solely on the choices you make. There were a couple plot opints I happened on that really didn't change the path I was following at all.

What did bother me is how you actively work against youself. Your main char is Lucas the killer, and you also play the detectives tracking him. There were many times when you would have Lucas hide evidence only to come in the room as Tyler and have to find it. That kind of made the game uncomfortable. Great list though guys. I love every game on it.

Hmm. Starcontrol, good pick...which wasn't picked.
Little Big Adventure?
X-Com?

Would it please be possible to receive the full 40-titles list?

Bill (via email):
"well-told story that either effected the way we played, or left us affected long after we played them.

"Zelda clearly effected us all in some way or another."

I could be wrong about the intended usages, but I think you might want to review Webster's or another dictionary's entries on affect and effect.

Believe it or not, I love getting emails like this. It allows me to think for a few brief moments that some people actually care about our language.

Thanks Bill!

I had the same contemplation in regards with the first paragraph:
"These are games with a deep, interesting and well-told story that either effected the way we played, or left us affected long after we played them."

Ordinarily, it would seem as if both are to be written as "affected".
Further research brings about suspicion that 'effect' has grown onto a synonymous of 'affect' in the vernacular, if were it not always as such, and both may preside as either noun or ad/verb.
However, it is quite well hinted at that the intended usage for 'effect' be that of a noun whilest that of 'affect' be a verb; since, as for example, effect cannot be used to describe the action of influencing one's emotions rather the type or sort of change itself which has been incurred.

Fletcher, do you believe that they speak English over at the USA?

Cannot complain with the list. But ohhhh....The Longest Journey....No other game can I just install and play without any problem, once, twice, even three times a year. Dreamfall just showed how the PC games industry has gone wrong, so wrong, in the last 6 years; so TLJ (so close to 'TLC'!) is still the one. The star on the top of the Christmas tree, the creme de le creme, etc, etc, etc! This one title shows me where the PC games business has gone wrong. It went from emulating the book industry, to emulating Hollywood. If it had maintained it's pre 2000 adulation, we would still have games like The Longest Journey sitting on store shelves, selling, just like we can find Ernest Hemmingway or the first Robert Heinlein book in large bookstores. We would have a much more profitable and more artistic game market and we would have seen continual growth instead of stagnation and decline (at least in PC gaming).

Just keeping this thread alive, because it is a cool one.

uk_john:
where the PC games business has gone wrong. It went from emulating the book industry, to emulating Hollywood.

Word. Years ago before I played games I wound up doing some freelance video work for Vinny Carella and Alex Louie at Pulse Entertainment in San Francisco. These are the guys who wrote Bad Mojo, the cockroach game.

They gave me a copy of Mojo and I was basically stunned by the depth of the writing in it. It depicted a rapidly gentrifying waterfront neighborhood in San Francisco, and went further by paying homage to Kafka by using the cockroach as metaphor for those hapless individuals caught in the urban real-estate pressure-cooker of the mid-1990s. I was caught off guard by how smart it was, how there were very real characters. I thought, "Are all videogames as literary as this?"

(I think I answered my own question later that year by having the next game I played after that be Quake or something like that.)

That is quite the leap. Bad Mojo to Quake or somethin similar. I'd forgotten about the Kafkaesque cockroach game. Definitely a strange one.

I know 5 from that list, but the only one I ever finished is Myst (all of them). The Longest Journey was a bon-bon colored Sokal-ripoff (ouch, please hit me again), Thief II was far too frustrating (I like to whack them off occasionally) and, at the point I got to, had as much story as Tomb Raider 1 (which I still love). Indigy Prophecy's first twenty minutes didn't live up to the thrilling package. SS2, well, I'm too old for so much fear now. Story just isn't everything ;-)
Myst is like a holiday, the tropical island without tourists you're never going to see - except after a fed-ex plane crash.

There is an indie game that just came out called Immortal Defense that I'd say has the best plot in a video game since Planescape. The first two campaigns are free demos and I'd be impressed if you didn't pick up the rest. It's crazily addictive tower defense game on top of that.

http://studioeres.com/immortal/

Good list though, I've played them all and I have to agree.

Having only gotten into gaming a few years ago, I've played embaressingly few of these. I'll need to catch up.

 

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