Video games, as a medium of storytelling, have come a long way since the early days of gaming. Gone are the days when the video game story was nothing more than an excuse to drive the gameplay. Nowadays, with advancements in game development, developers create games around a complex and in-depth narrative structure.
However, with more intricate game designs comes the risk of not balancing the narrative properly in conjunction with the gameplay. With several complex mechanics to facilitate player engagement, there's always a chance the game might drop the ball when it comes to the narrative.
Here are five great video game storylines that mesmerised players with their excellent writing, and five that ultimately disappointed them.
Note: This article reflects the personal views of the author. The article also contains mild spoilers for some of the games listed.
5 great video game storylines that players should try out
1) God of War
No one would have guessed the dramatic change in character that Kratos was subjected to with 2018's God of War would be so well received by players around the globe.
The God of War games, even though they were adored for their over-the-top action setpieces, never truly shined when it came to the game's story. The plot was mostly relegated to Kratos seeking vengeance against the entire Greek pantheon for the murder of his family.
It mostly felt like a set dressing for players to go and kill well-known characters of Greek mythology in the most violent and gruesome ways possible. The new God of War, which is a sequel to God of War 3 but also a soft reboot of the series, has a new mythological setting and new gods to interact with (and kill).
The story of God of War (2018) is a heart-felt tale of a grieving pair of father and son travelling around the frozen Norse lands to honor the last wishes of Faye, wife to Kratos and mother of Atreus, Kratos' son.
It's a tale of a god trying to hide his true nature and learning to be human, while trying to protect his son from threats that require him to embrace his godhood. Bonding between the father and son duo is what drives the game.
The game also introduces a host of other interesting characters along the way that either want to stop our protagonists from reaching their destination for unknown reasons or want to aid them in their journey in turn for a favor or two.
It quite possibly is one of the best video game storylines out there, and we don't want to spoil the plot anymore as we feel it's a game that is best experienced without any prior knowledge of the plot. The story also leaves a good few mysteries unanswered, with an ending cutscene that leaves players with a massive cliffhanger for the sequel.
Here's to hoping that the upcoming God of War Ragnarok has the same, if not better, narrative structure to once again let players get lost in the adventures of Kratos and Atreus.
2) Red Dead Redemption 2
What more can be said about Rockstar Games' magnum opus Red Dead Redemption 2 that has not been said already. It's an action-packed ride from start to finish with a genuinely amazing video game storyline driving the game's many, many chapters.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to the last game, telling the story of Arthur Morgan and his gang of outlaws. On the run from the law at every step of the way, all while trying to transition from the outlaw's life to that of an everyday man's.
Like the previous game in the series, players have a choice over many of Arthur's decisions. Big or small, they shape the story organically in-line with those decisions, which makes the plot even more engaging.
Regardless of the choices, the storytelling at play here is bound to grab players' attention for hours. With numerous twists and turns at every corner, new friendships and betrayals, and the most charming protagonist in any video game ever, Red Dead Redemption 2 truly is a masterpiece in storytelling.
Red Dead Redemption 2, being a prequel to the last game, beautifully portrays the last game’s protagonist John Marston’s growth and how Arthur connects to his story. It's really fascinating to see characters like Dutch, that players might already be familiar with from the last game, portrayed in a different light in the beginning and through the course of the game’s story slowly change into their previous game’s persona. The game truly is marvelous.
FromSoftware are masters of subtle video game storytelling. The narrative in their games is not told in traditional ways using cutscenes. Instead, the plot is conveyed to the player via gameplay and using subtle environmental storytelling.
Bloodborne is arguably the best FromSoftware game that uses their signature narrative delivery techniques. It is set in the Gothic world of Yharnam, where players are bestowed with the task of hunting beasts and many otherworldly creatures.
The story here is crafted so meticulously that it immerses the players into the horrors of Yharnam from the get-go. With nothing regarding the world explained beforehand, it only comes to players and their curiosity to drive the plot of the game.
Only by progressing and fighting their way through the blood drenched streets of Yharnam do the players start to piece together the beautiful yet horrifying narrative of Bloodborne. And by the end, Bloodborne's story just takes a turn towards something truly unimaginable, subverting the players' expectations and beliefs regarding the game and its true nature.
4) The Last of Us
The developers at Naughty Dog are geniuses when it comes to creating interesting and action-fueled video game storylines. the Uncharted series is nothing short of a narrative masterpiece, as it depicts the growth and journey of our beloved explorer Nathan Drake.
But in 2013, Naughty Dog proved that they can also create a grounded narrative without needing the aid of explosive action setpieces, with The Last of Us. A survival horror experience at heart, it tells a very heart-felt video game story of two people, Ellie and Joel, who must journey through the post-apocalyptic world while trying to cope with their own respective losses.
Watching both these characters grow throughout the length of the story and learn to care for one another despite their differences is truly something else. Seeing how even the smallest of things gives a brief moment of joy to our protagonists in this dark and miserable world is something that is bound to bring tears to players' eyes.
Although the Last of Us did get a sequel that thoroughly expands upon the original game’s ideas and gameplay, it ultimately failed to convey a similar narrative tone that connects with the players on an emotional level. We will discuss regarding The Last of Us Part 2’s shortcomings in its storytelling more elaborately in the other half of this article.
5) Marvel's Spider-Man
Creating a good superhero video game story is very challenging. The game is supposed to make players feel like they are stepping into the shoes of the said superhero without compromising the narrative that the developers want to tell.
Games like Rocksteady's Batman Arkham series are some of the best examples of this, with a beautiful video game storyline backed by superb gameplay mechanics. However, one superhero game that does this balancing act best out of all others is 2018's Marvel's Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4.
The is an extraordinary tale set eight years into Spider-Man's journey as the Friendly Neighbourhood vigilante. It starts strong by introducing players to the many notable characters of the Spider-Man mythos that all play an important part in the overarching plot.
The narrative sees players experience not only Spider-Man and his daily adventures but also the human side of the story with Peter Parker. It's an outstanding story that humanises everyone's beloved web-slinger, and makes him relatable, after all Spider-Man is just a human, but with greater responsibilities.
It's a fantastic action game that gives players all the tools to make them 'feel like Spider-Man,' backed by a very personal video game story that is bound to touch players' hearts by the end of it. The also sets up for a sequel and a spin off game via a couple of ending cutscenes.
The Miles Morales spin off released in 2020 greatly expanded on the story and gameplay mechanics of the original game with a few new and returning characters for Miles’ own story. There is also a direct sequel announced to be releasing sometime in 2023.
Let's hope Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 carries the signature gameplay of the series with an equally excellent narrative to everyone’s favorite Web-Head.
5 games that disappointed players with their plot
1) The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is no doubt a great open-world sandbox. With the launch of their new home console Nintendo Switch, Nintendo wanted to reinvent the wheel with some of their biggest intellectual properties.
The Legend of Zelda series has always been the go-to franchise for Nintendo to innovate and give players a new perspective of engagement with Link and his adventures in Hyrule.
The video game storyline here, however, is very minimalistic. It's the basic affair of Link having lost his memories and needing to explore Hyrule in search of his past memories, and to rescue Princess Zelda from the game's antagonist, Ganon.
The video game story at play here is very surface level, and only serves to give players an excuse to interact with their excellent quests and other gameplay mechanics.
With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo went all-out on the improved physics engine of the game, making the moment-to-moment gameplay and exploration of the vast open world the most interactive and immersive experience ever. But doing so came at the price of a rather simplistic and ultimately dissatifying video game story.
2) Dying Light
Developer Techland was for a long time known for creating the by-the-number zombie game Dead Island and its spin-off Dead Island Riptide. These games were never known to have a memorable video game story. Honestly, it's not like players ever needed a good narrative in these games to begin with.
With Dying Light, however, it seemed Techland was aiming to give a more grounded and interesting video game storyline. Unfortunately that did not turn out to be the case, as the plot of Dying Light is just a shallow excuse that leads players to kill zombies and engage with the game's various gameplay systems.
The protagonist Kyle Crane and the rest of the characters in the game are not at all interesting or memorable. Kyle Crane is a typical cliche action-hero, stuck in a city overrun by the undead, following requests from every other person he meets without a second thought. Even the antagonist is as bland as they come.
The only saving graces for Dying Light are the gameplay mechanics and a robust parkour traversal system. Vaulting over obstacles and zombies alike, to climb on a light post to then jump to a roof top and then land on a garbage pile to break the fall, only to end up drop-kicking any of the zombies present in the immediate vicinity never gets old.
3) Death Stranding
Hideo Kojima is a great storyteller, and his creation, the Metal Gear series, to this day, is considered to have some of the best video game storylines. Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater has a narrative that is still unmatched by any other video game in terms of player immersion.
So, it’s really shocking that the same developer and storyteller produced Death Stranding. It not only has a needlessly convoluted video game story but also fails to explain anything to the player even after the credits have rolled.
The plot revolves around Sam Porter Bridges as he goes around a post-apocalyptic America trying to connect with people and bring them together. The premise, although it sounds interesting, is not executed properly.
With the frequent use of in-game jargon by NPCs of the game like, extinction entity, beached things, bridge baby, doom, timefall, during story-related expositions, it becomes really difficult to piece together the already convoluted video game story of Death Stranding.
The game, however, is pretty relaxing to play. It has almost a Zen-like experience that players can enjoy in short bursts in-between games like Bloodborne to take a quick breather from fighting the many monstrosities of Yharnam.
4) Monster Hunter World
Capcom's mainline Monster Hunter games rarely had an interesting video game story, ever. Whatever narrative threads there are in these games only serves the purpose of giving players a reason to go out and hunt monsters.
With Monster Hunter World evolving every aspect of the series to make it more approachable for newcomers worldwide, players were expecting a proper narrative to back up their monster hunting journeys.
Unfortunately, Monster Hunter World still suffers from the same pointless narrative structure that plagued the previous games in the series. The video game storyline of Monster Hunter World, just like its predecessors, is relegated to monsters causing trouble to the hunters camps, which gives them a reason to go on the hunt for these trouble-causing beasts.
New biomes and hunting zones are introduced in basically a similar manner, with the overarching plot being centred around Elder Dragons, which are the legendary monsters of the game.
The video game storyline in Monster Hunter World is not very interesting or memorable. Most players after a certain point will just stop caring for the story here, and focus only on the game's gameplay.
Atleast the gameplay in Monster Hunter World more than makes up for this, with fun tools to experiment with and a large assortment of creatures to track and hunt.
5) The Last of Us Part 2
The Last of Us was a phenomenal game with a stellar video game storyline. Naturally, the expectations of fans from the sequel to match or even surpass the original's narrative and gameplay were justifiably high.
While the gameplay has received some well-needed changes that make for a better survival horror experience, the same cannot be said about the video game story.
The predecessor was a story about Joel and Ellie through and through, breaking away from their dynamic to focus on another character's perspective was the first red flag for The Last of Us Part 2.
The game wildly swings away from the 'Ellie and Joel' dynamic to make players focus on and empathise with a character like Abby, who due to certain plot reasons is despised by fans of the first game.
The game tries to show players the consequences of the 'cycle of revenge' but fails to realize the ludo-narrative dissonance it simultaneously causes. While focusing primarily on Ellie and Abby's journey, the game actively sidelines the numerous other NPCs that both these characters end up brutally murdering.
Not only that, the first game was immaculately paced out, with none of the chapters in the narrative feeling forced or worse, filler. The final stretch of The Last of Us Part 2, however, feels very much like a filler, with things just happening for the sake of stretching out the plot.
The Last of Us Part 2 is not a bad game, far from it. It has great stealth action gameplay and survival horror elements, paired with cutting edge graphics that are borderline photorealistic. But that's not what fans hoped for in the sequel to one of the best video game stories out there.