Epic Single-Player Video Game Stories To Immerse Yourself In
Never underestimate the power of a good story in a video game. Like the best films, books, and TV shows, well-crafted video game narratives are the ones that really stay with you. The titles that combine innovative and enjoyable gameplay with engaging and thoughtful stories... those are the ones that really get under your skin, the ones you'll find yourself coming back to over and over.
Stories are maybe more important than they've ever been right now. We need to get away every now and again. To escape into stunningly crafted worlds and spend time with larger-than-life characters. You'll probably find yourself drifting back to some of your favourite video games over the next few weeks, and that's great! There are all kinds of games you might not have played that you should check out, but there's no shame in digging out an old classic when you know it's exactly what you need.
Below are just are few of the video game stories I always end up coming back to. Some are modern classics with complex characters rife with moral ambiguity. Some are admittedly a little simpler, but comforting all the same. Maybe you'll be inspired to try one out that you haven't played before. Maybe you've already played most of these but are having trouble deciding what to play this weekend. Whatever the case, read on and enjoy.
Oh, these are in no particular order. It always feels important to mention that.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018)
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a beautiful, melancholy game all about the inevitability of endings. From the opening moments right through the heartbreaking climax, it's clear that the majority of your merry gang of outlaws won't survive... and the ones that do will likely never see each other again.
Watching the lovable Van Der Linde crumble slowly under the boot of a new kind of America is gut-wrenching, but the decline and eventual dissolution of the group is handled so with real care and love. There are violent, gruesome deaths and unexpected departures, but each one hurts as much as the last.
In the middle of it all is Arthur Morgan, a fascinating antihero who sees the end coming long before any of his comrades. Watching him come to terms with that and attempt to make amends for his spotted past makes for one of the most beautiful and ambitious character arcs in gaming.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog, 2009)
I'm usually of the opinion that starting a story with a flashback is a pretty weak way to kick things off. If you have to start your story where it gets interesting to hook people in, then is the rest of your story really worth hearing? In the case of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the answer is a resounding yes.
Naughty Dog hit its stride with the treasure hunting franchise after a debut game that had plenty of room for improvement. Despite having only spent one game with them up till this point, Nathan, Sully, and Elena all felt like old friends. Spending time in their world was an absolute pleasure, navigating dangerous set-pieces and fighting off hordes of bad guys.
If you're looking for a classic story of good vs evil with a fun, Saturday afternoon movie vibe, Uncharted 2 is the game for you.
Celeste (Matt Makes Games, 2018)
What I really love about indie darling Celeste is that the main message of the story is woven into the gameplay itself. Self doubt and anxiety aren't enemies to conquer or things that you can simply beat into submission: They're a part of you and have to be treated as such. You have to accept all aspects of yourself - good and bad. Once you've done that, anything is possible.
That might sound like I'm going a little too deep for what is, on the surface of it, just a challenging pixel platformer... but you don't exactly have to dig far to work out what Celeste is trying to tell you. After all, it's basically telling you with every single death and missed jump. You are good enough, you can do this, and you will win.
As Madeline, our hero, attempts to climb a mountain via a series of incredibly difficult platforming gauntlets, the game gently nudges us along with wholesome encouragement at every step. By the time Madeline has come to terms with her inner demons (literal and otherwise) we as players have fully accepted our own abilities within the game and have realised that no challenge is impossible as long as we keep at it. It's inspiring stuff, both in terms of story and game design.
Play this one if you ever need a confidence boost, and remember that there's no shame in making the game easier for yourself in the settings menu.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt RED, 2015)
If you want to completely lose yourself in one of gaming's most substantial fantasy epics, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the game for you. Combining a massive open with some of the best dialogue, writing, and world building in video game history, this is easily one of the best titles of the last decade. But what I really love about The Witcher 3 is that it's just full of stories.
There's the main story, which tells of Geralt's race to find his adopted daughter before the villainous and terrifying Wild Hunt can get their shiny gloved hands on her. It's an epic yarn that effortlessly juggles multiple worlds, romances, friends, and foes. Even if you were just stick to its central narrative, you'd come away amazed at the experience you'd just head.
But then there are all the side stories. The smaller quests that are packed with more life, humour, and character than a lot of AAA games can muster across their entire runtime. From murderers stalking city streets to spurned lovers and spells gone wrong, The Witcher 3 invites you into a world where anything can happen.
God Of War (SIE Santa Monica Studio, 2018)
God of War arguably should never have worked, but I'm so glad it did. On paper, turning the ultra violent early 00's gaming cliche Kratos into deeply conflicted, tragic figure struggling to come to terms with the horrors of his past sounded like madness. In practice? Cory Barlog and Santa Monica Studio hit it out of the park, reinventing Kratos as a genuinely complicated, fascinating hero.
The real masterstroke came in making Kratos a single parent. This one simple change threw the Ghost of Sparta into a whole new light as he struggled to guide his young son through a deadly and unpredictable world. All the while, desperately trying to show him that giving into violent impulses can have dire consequences.
Barlog and his team could easily have just ignored the previous games in favour of a reboot. Instead, they're vital to Kratos in the way they influence his every decision and interaction with his boy. Outstanding stuff.
Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007)
Call Of Duty games had campaigns before of course, and they've had campaigns since... but Modern Warfare represented a huge shift for the franchise going forward, telling an ambitious story that looked and felt like a big budget blockbuster movie.
The ambitious plot which saw the British SAS team up with the Russians to foil a plot to overthrow the Russian Federation meant we got a huge variety of missions that kept the gameplay fresh and surprising, while the characters and plot points introduced led to some absolutely unforgettable moments towards the end, and laid the groundwork for some huge twists in Modern Warfare 2 and 3.
The Last Of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013)
The Last Of Us might start of with misery and continue to deliver blow after blow to our characters until you wonder how on Earth they can still be putting up with so much crap... but I see it ultimately as a story about grief, and the way love can inspire hope and serve as a soothing balm to that grief.
Yes, it's a desperately sad game, and it's great at being that. It's also a game that shows you there's always light to be found in the darkest of times, whether it's Ellie asking Joel why the pages of a dirty magazine are stuck together, Joel and Henry dreaming about riding motorcycles, or Ellie coming face to face with a giraffe. There are so many moments of beauty, humour, and joy.
Those are the moments that always really stood out to me in this post-apocalyptic road trip, and those are the reasons I keep coming back to The Last Of Us.
The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time (Nintendo, 1998)
It's not quite as complex or accomplished as a lot of the more modern titles on this list, but if you're after a back-to-basics story in which good triumphs over evil, you cannot beat this stone-cold classic. The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a masterpiece made up of dozens of unforgettable moments, and is one of those rare games that everybody should absolutely play at least once.
Leaving the forest for the first time. Finding the Master Sword. Hurtling seven years into the future to see a world in ruin. Burying your sword in Ganon's stupid pig head. These are just a few of the incredible scenes that make me all misty eyed as soon as I think about them, and it's all hung together by an epic story that involves time travel, a colourful cast of characters, towering monsters, and perilous dungeons.
How can you not love this game? I mean, it's fine if you do. I will never understand you, but that's fine.
Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015)
Undertale is... well, it's something quite unique is what it is. It might look like a real dodgy RPG that was cobbled together by one bloke on the face of it - and it kind of was - but it's also one of the most complex and affecting titles I've ever played. And I feel confident in saying I'm not alone in that.
Like Celeste, the genius of Undertale is that it plays with your understanding of video games, except Toby Fox's game takes it even further and turns your comprehension of video game logic on your head and makes you feel like a bastard for ever having played an RPG in your life.
For as long as there have been RPGs, there have been turn-based battles in which we mindlessly kill enemies and level up. Undertale teaches us that this is wrong. It's murder is what it is. All of these monsters, from the low-level grunts to the high-ranking bosses, all have their own lives, families, fears, and beliefs. It asks you not to battle them, but to understand them to win.
Of course, you can still play the game as a standard RPG if you want. There will be consequences for that, though. There are consequences at every stage of Undertale, and each of the alternate endings is deeply emotional in a different way.
Marvel's Spider-Man (Insomniac, 2018)
People can - and in fact often do - criticise Marvel's Spider-Man for its generic open world gameplay and Arkham-style combat. Fair enough. I mean, I absolutely this game, but I understand why a lot of people aren't so hot about it from a design perspective. With that said, I will fight anyone who tries to suggest that this game has a bad story, because they are factually wrong. I can prove that with graphs and charts and stuff.
Marvel's Spider-Man isn't just the best superhero story in video games, it's one of the best superhero stories ever told. This is an adaptation that just gets Peter Parker. It gets his struggles, his friends, his foes, and more than anything, it completely understands why he does what he does.
The best versions of Spider-Man are the ones who really get the character's worldview. Peter believes that if he has the ability to stop something bad from happening and doesn't, then the fact the bad thing happens is entirely on him. Because of this, our hero will always make decisions that result in the best outcome for other people, regardless of the consequences he might have to face as a result.
This is something Insomniac understands perfectly, and its something that we constantly see in this version of Peter Parker - with truly heartbreaking results.