Telling stories is what entertainment has been about since its inception. Video games, while initially a novelty, have usually been focused on their immersive game nature. However, they have turned into so much more, including a genius way to tell a memorable story.
A “narrative-focused game” is nothing more than a title that places the majority of its focus on how it tells its story. It might have great puzzle gameplay or shooting mechanics, but you can tell that the passion was focused on the writing and the world. Essentially, you play these games for their stories and not necessarily because they are pushing the envelope on gameplay (at least I do).
This genre is always growing, and it’s one of my favorites, but it can be tough to decide which stories should land a spot on this list. If you don’t see something here that you think should have been included, let me know because I’d love to try it if I haven’t given it a chance yet. With that, let’s turn the page and see who’s up first.
10. Portal 2
Portal 2 held my favorite game of all time for quite a while, and it wasn’t because of its puzzles. While the puzzles are good, once you know them, it’s easy to breeze through the entire campaign. The main draw for fans of Portal, in the long run, is how effectively it delivers its story and characters through its world and dialogue.
There are numerous occasions where Wheatly or GLaDOS will be talking that I still laugh out loud to all these years later.
That says a lot about the quality of some of these lines, and the world that Valve managed to carve out of what started out as an experiment is extraordinary. It’s one of the few legitimately funny titles and one that I am itching to see make a return.
9. The Wolf Among Us
One of TellTale’s early follow-ups to their smash hit The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us is an imaginative look at fairy tale creatures living in a hidden part of New York City. Bigby Wolf is the sheriff of the town, and he is investigating a mysterious death.
The Wolf Among Us’ main appeal is how it redefines how we perceive some of these well-known characters without us even thinking twice about it.
The Wolf Among Us also utilizes player choice to help create a more personal experience for each playthrough and the decision that you make can have effects down the road, much like in TellTale’s other games. It’s a wonderful escape and one that is easy to get held up on.
8. Heavy Rain
When Heavy Rain came out, people didn’t know what to make of it. The focus on the minutia of everyday tasks while characters and narrative were told was something that was largely new outside of the point-and-click adventures of the ‘90s and with a much more mature tone to it.
However, it opened my eyes to how varied games could be in their delivery, and I loved it. While it can come across as a little melodramatic at times, Heavy Rain is an excellent example of the diversity in storytelling that games can have.
It delivers some of the most heartbreaking scenes (sometimes back to back), and I’m still overcoming the trauma of some of them.
7. The Walking Dead: Season One
TellTale’s The Walking Dead: Season One singlehandedly revitalized an entire genre of point-and-click adventure games. Its success was partially due to its ability to tell its own story that contained a lot more heart than what many were used to in other zombie properties (including The Walking Dead).
The depiction of Lee and his desire to care for the little girl that he stumbled upon during the onset of the zombie apocalypse is simple enough to build off of and sets stakes that anyone can understand: keep the girl alive and try to do the same.
The writing for all the characters feels very real, and I appreciate that they went with a graphic novel aesthetic for the games as it helps to further set this apart from its TV show counterpart while connecting more to the source material.
6. The Last of Us
The Last of Us was the PS3’s swan song as it released in the console’s final months. If you aren’t too familiar with the property, you might mistake it for just another zombie game, but you’d be wrong. The Last of Us is a masterclass in complex characters and choices.
Joel and Ellie’s relationship is one of the best portrayals of a father-daughter dynamic that I have seen in gaming, and the consequences of that relationship and Joel’s past on the final moments of the game are perfect.
I appreciate the game isn’t afraid to demonstrate real characters rather than idealized ones, and that’s what more media should strive for: more complexity.
5. Gone Home
Much like another game on this list, Gone Home is about walking in the shadows of the past to learn about characters. Though you play as Kaitlin, you are merely a conduit to seek out notes and other artifacts that help you learn more about Sam, Kaitlin’s sister. It’s a story about relationships, interactions, and reflection.
The writing and environment intertwine to deliver an ecosystem that’s pulsating with life to discover. As you explore, you’ll learn more about the characters, and over time, you might just begin to feel like you really know them, which is a testament to how well-written this title really is.
Firewatch has some of the best character delivery in any indie game that I have played. It lays out the personalities of its characters but hints and prods at additional layers in every line. Walking around the wilderness, you are forced to think about the words that were last uttered.
The silence of the mountains seems to echo the sentiments and force you to ponder the past, future, and present of these characters. It’s oddly spiritual, as if you are on this path to find yourself right alongside the protagonist. It made me wish there were more games that focused on people isolated from most of the civilization with a focus on character exploration.
3. Red Dead Redemption 2
Many many people love the Red Dead series for the excellent world that it’s able to recreate. However, it also has some of the best examples of flawed characters and some of the best line delivery in any gaming franchise.
Arthur Morgan has stolen John Marston’s crown for best character in this series, and it’s not even a debate. The focus on Arthur’s faith in Dutch and how he deals with the fallout of that relationship is executed perfectly, and the final moments we have with him are enough to break out the tissues.
2. The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is one of the weirdest games that I have played due to how much the developer thought out the different paths. The game is almost like a “choose your own adventure” as you decide how closely you want to follow the narrator’s instructions.
You can get the vanilla ending by following the narrator’s words verbatim, or you can take control of the wheel yourself and decide where how things are going to go. It’s a fantastic experiment in game design but also in narrative delivery as you learn more and more about the world and narrator through your trial and error of choices.
1. What Remains of Edith Finch
I only recently played this title, but I was blown away from start to finish. The slow tour through the Finch family home is a walk down memory lane accompanied by many childhood anecdotes and perspectives. I’m not a curious person typically, but I was drawn to the way that the family all had their own thoughts about their family history.
Learning about each Finch was a lot of fun until I learned about their ultimate fate. This mixture of awe, appreciation, and sadness is a constant reoccurrence during the game, and it only makes you appreciate the final scenes with Edith all the more.