Not every game has a traditional narrative or even makes the actual plot its focus. But the games on this list either set out to do something unique or tell a meaningful story. Some even do both. You’ll see some carry-over from the Best Characters list, because great characters help tell an engrossing story.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
The political piece of Final Fantasy XII’s story isn’t the main draw. Instead, I enjoy the stories that come about in each small area that you’re exploring, and the way the character relationships are developed.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Life is Strange: Before the Storm disappoints in a lot of ways, but its story — while less complex than season one’s — is effective at making you care about Chloe and Rachel.
Night in the Woods
Simplicity and real life trump any larger narrative in Night in the Woods. I don’t think the paranormal piece delivers a strong resolution, but the character arcs are well developed.
Tacoma might have made the list had I finished it, but I want to give props to how it establishes its status quo and delivers its story in a uniquely interactive way.
It’s kind of a misnomer to call what takes place in Rime a traditional “story.” It certainly doesn’t have dialogue or many characters, and there’s no actual narrative. Intead, you piece things together as you play through the game, and the collectibles add a bunch of additional context to why you’re doing what you’re doing. You definitely get resolution at the end, and I was solidly in tears throughout. Still, the game is more ambiguous than any other game on this list, and I think that’s what makes it stand out.
4. What Remains of Edith Finch
The most disappointing thing about What Remains of Edith Finch is how the main story wraps up — you aren’t given a satisfying answer about the house and why the Finches seem to die before their time. But to quote the old cliche, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Each vignette in What Remains of Edith Finch stands apart from its peers, but still adds to the overall experience. They’re all so unique, and bring flavor to this family and their circumstances. Personally, I most enjoyed my time at the fishery, in the bathtub, and reliving some of my experience with The Unfinished Swan.
Man, Pyre keeps wracking up the nominations. It just does so many things well. I’d say the story in Pyre is often more obtuse than I would typically enjoy, as it really takes some work and imagination to follow anything more than the broad strokes of the events in the game. A bunch of exiles are trying to start a revolution, and you’re helping them by getting some folks back to the Commonwealth via winning rites. That about sums it up. But the stuff around the edges is what’s truly interesting, like the character relationships, backstories, and world building. The need to learn more always made me excited to talk to my party members at every opportunity.
2. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
The lack of Nathan Drake gives The Lost Legacy free reign to go in a different direction with its story, and making Chloe the centerpiece was a smart choice. There’s definitely a fair bit of “been there, done that” when it comes to the gameplay — particularly the combat — but the actual narrative feels fresh enough and puts a unique spin on things given the Indian backdrop and new character perspectives. If you take the story from a high level, it’s pretty standard Uncharted fare. Chloe and Nadine are tracking down a mystical artifact before some evil dudes can get their hands on it. But as I mentioned in “Best Characters,” Chloe and Nadine elevate the material and Asav’s goals are more understandable than previous Uncharted villains.
1. Horizon: Zero Dawn
While playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, I initially made the mistake I often do with open world games: as soon as the world opened up, I went exploring and ignored the story for far too long. This led to me getting pretty burnt out on the combat and losing some interest in the game. So, I decided to mainline the story for a little while, and that was the best decision I could make. Like I said in “Best Setting,” the world of Horizon is one absolutely worth exploring, and it’s the only way you’ll get some of that additional flavor on the backstory of this game. Exploring ruins is just plain awesome. But the main story is also fantastic, introducing you to interesting characters, places, and cultures, and waiting to drop the crazy on you until you’re fully invested. The ending is maybe a little confusing with its info dump, but I was completely invested in what was going on.
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