Video games have evolved tremendously over the last few decades, from linear level-based titles with little to no story to massive open-world offerings with complex narratives.
Gone are the days when stories used to be just a device to drive the gameplay systems. Nowadays, most games are built with a robust narrative equally as engaging as the gameplay.
The 1990s saw the initial insurgence of narrative-driven experiences with titles like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and System Shock 2. However, it was not until the 2000s and the sixth generation of consoles that story-driven games started to take center stage in the mainstream gaming market.
Note: This article is subjective and reflects the author's opinions.
These ten games are some of the best story-driven offerings of the naughties
10) Psychonauts (2005)
Psychonauts is a puzzle platformer with a unique cartoony esthetic and a humorous story. The game and its fascinating characters come from the mind of Tim Schafer, up to that point known for his graphic adventure games.
Psychonauts' levels were a mix of platforming sections and light combat using the various abilities that the game's protagonist, Raz, gains throughout his journey.
The levels of Psychonauts take place inside the collective minds of the many quirky characters Raz meets in-game. Although not super serious, the narrative here is filled with emotions and light-hearted moments, something most titles take for granted when narrating their stories.
9) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the highly anticipated sequel to the first game in the MGS saga, had fans theorizing about the plot and fate of the main protagonist Snake, only for it to surprise them by switching the protagonist after the prologue.
The title retains its predecessor's tactical espionage gameplay system and adds various improvements and additions for a more refined stealth gameplay experience. Metal Gear Solid 2 also delivers massively in the story department with a stellar cast of characters and a mind-bending plot that left a lasting impression on players.
8) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
Developed by Bioware, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a role-playing game set in the Star Wars universe. Its plot is set 4000 years before the formation of the Galactic Empire.
In keeping with RPG traditions, the title allows users to choose between the Light and Dark sides, interact with the various characters, and make crucial plot decisions that shape the story.
Up to that point, Bioware was known for its outstanding work in fantasy RPG titles like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, which had Star Wars fans worried if the developers of such fantasy titles could do justice to a Star Wars project.
The company not only managed to create an excellent role-playing game but also a great Star Wars offering with one of the best stories the series has ever witnessed.
7) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)
The Prince of Persia series used to be a small indie platformer game that saw gamers take control of an Arabian prince, tackling some well-made platforming puzzles. However, getting the series picked up by Ubisoft breathed new life into the franchise, with an expansive story and massive changes to the core gameplay system.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time's narrative sees players take control of a young, naive prince who accidentally releases the Sands of Time, turning people into vicious sand monsters. The plot revolves around him trying to fix the damage done by his carelessness and confront the true culprit of the ordeal, the traitorous Vizier.
The story here is excellently complemented by the stellar gameplay. It takes the classic game's platforming and environmental puzzles and translates them beautifully in 3D, giving users a host of parkour moves to clear these platforming sections along with the series' signature time-bending abilities.
6) Half-Life 2 (2004)
Half-Life 2 was the pinnacle of video game storytelling, seamlessly combining its gameplay sequences with the narrative setpieces. Its story is a benchmark for modern titles, matched by only a handful of offerings.
The strength of Half-Life 2's narrative is its cast of unique and interesting characters and their interactions with series protagonist Gordon Freeman. Half-Life 2 improves upon every facet of the previous game and even adds new features and weapons like the iconic Gravity Gun.
The game received two episodic sequels that further expanded the story, giving better context to the resistance and the alien empire, Combine.
5) Portal (2007)
Portal is a puzzle-platformer created by Valve, which sees gamers take control of the protagonist Chell, who uses a portal gun to navigate the game's increasingly complex environmental puzzles. It excels in not only stellar puzzle-platforming gameplay but also the narrative.
Portal starts with a very cryptic beginning, with very few clues given to players regarding the narrative. But as they make their way through the increasingly complex challenges, they slowly start piecing together the game's plot.
Portal's biggest strength is GLaDOS, who initially acts as an ally to the Chell, but as users make their way through the story, she starts revealing her true nature.
The mind-bending twist of Portal's story is still discussed, as it's one of the most memorable endings in gaming history.
4) Bioshock (2007)
System Shock 2 was a storytelling masterpiece in 1999, creating a tense survival horror experience with robust first-person gameplay and a top-notch sci-fi narrative that kept gamers in awe with every other revelation.
Bioshock is a spiritual successor to System Shock, keeping much of the esthetics of the 1999 classic while adding and improving upon much of its gameplay and narrative ideas.
It wasn't a survival horror game, but its surreal and tense atmosphere sometimes made it feel like one. The title is a first-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on story and player immersion.
The game is set in the dystopian underwater city of Rapture. Users are tasked with navigating the ruined city while dealing with its many hostile inhabitants, like the crazed splicers and the genetically-enhanced "Big Daddies."
The plot has massive twists and turns, which keeps gamers guessing. The moral dilemma that it puts them in with saving or harvesting the "Little Sisters" and Andrew Ryan's overarching commentary on free will makes the story even more engaging and memorable.
3) Mass Effect (2007)
Mass Effect from developer Bioware is a sci-fi role-playing game with top-notch storytelling that considers every action and narrative decision players make to deliver a gripping story.
It puts them in the shoes of Commander Shepard as he and his crew try to stop a highly advanced machine race called Reapers from invading their galaxy.
Exploring the vastness of space, visiting different planets, and meeting some very quirky and interesting characters along the way are Mass Effect's biggest strengths. Playing the title is bound to leave users astounded at the scope of its universe and the overarching narrative.
Add to that a robust suite of third-person shooting and class-based role-playing mechanics, allowing for a personalized gameplay experience, making Mass Effect one of the best sci-fi RPGs to date.
2) Resident Evil 4 (2005)
Resident Evil games were never known for their stories. However, Resident Evil 4 changed that with a refreshing new take on the series' survival horror gameplay and a delightfully engaging narrative.
The game is considered one of the most influential of the 2000s, one that laid the foundations for future titles in the franchise.
The story of Resident Evil 4 is nothing groundbreaking, but it's how the said story is delivered that makes it truly enjoyable. The title sees gamers take on the role of Leon S. Kennedy as he explores a rural town in Spain where most of the population is infected with the Las Plagas infection, turning them into crazed and violent zombie-like entities.
The interaction between Leon and the various characters he meets throughout his journey might be filled with corny dialogue. Still, it's these light-hearted exchanges in the face of perilous dangers that make this game so much fun.
1) Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
Shadow of the Colossus is the quintessential example of "show don't tell," where the narrative is masterfully conveyed through gameplay and environmental storytelling instead of the traditional expository dialogue or lengthy cutscenes. There is little to no context regarding the game's plot, the world, and the protagonist himself.
The game starts as the protagonist arrives at an ancient shrine with the lifeless body of a lovely maiden. As soon as he rests the girl's body on a stone altar, a voice up from the sky asks him to slay 16 colossi that roam the land to revive the girl. And thus, players set out on their journey to hunt the 16 towering beasts.
The story in Shadow of the Colossus takes some before it opens up. Still, once users start figuring out the broader implications of the narrative and the meaning of the 16 colossi, their significance, and the protagonist Wander's character, the game immediately transforms into a beautiful piece of art and storytelling.
Although the gameplay is limited to just tracking and hunting down the colossi, the act of scaling these mighty beasts and attacking the well-hidden weak points of these seemingly invincible creatures is genuinely marvelous.