To 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
Alexandra 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’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
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
Prior 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 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 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
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)
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
When 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
The 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