Hey, it’s 2017. By now, most every entertainment fan knows that video games have a lot more to offer than just bleeps, bloops, high scores, and other methods of cheap entertainment. We know that games can be intelligent too. They not only offer intelligent gameplay, but intelligent stories that are – at their best – the equal of great works of literature, television, and film. Indeed, there are some stories worth experiencing that can only be told through the unique interactive medium of gaming.
Still, truly intelligent video game stories are treated as something of an anomaly. When one comes out that manages to captivate players with its smart views, subtle themes, and clever presentation, then it tends to garner global acclaim. That’s not always the case, though. On rare occasions, a surprisingly intelligent story manages to sneak by without garnering the full attention it deserves. Sometimes, it’s because the story is simply too deep to be properly appreciated so soon after its release. On other occasions, the plot in question doesn’t present itself as anything extraordinary, meaning that its true brilliance is only recognized by those who wish to dig a little deeper into what’s going on.
These are the 15 Video Game Stories That Are Smarter Than You Realized.
15. Doom (2016)
2016’s Doom exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic franchise fans by both adhering to the formula of the original Doom while also incorporating modern elements of the genre. This means that, among other things, 2016’s Doom actually has a story that goes beyond “You’re a space marine with a gun here to kill demons from Hell.” At the same time, the story of 2016’s Doom still essentially boils down to “You’re a space marine with a gun here to kill demons from Hell.”
Confused? Well, that’s kind of what makes this story so wonderful. Doom’s plot involves things like corporate meddling and a semi-deep supernatural mythology, but the truly brilliant aspect of the story is that it’s told from the perspective of a protagonist who could care less. Doom’s story would be more than serviceable if it were presented in an entirely dramatic manner, but it’s made truly special by the fact that the main character – and, by extension, you the player – just wants to skip past all the talking and get to work. It’s a story for those who typically mash on the skip button whenever a cutscene appears.
14. Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami is one of the most compelling action games released in the last ten years. When people praise this title, they tend to focus on its incredible soundtrack (imagine the soundtrack from Drive cranked up to 11), hyper-violence, wonderful ‘80s style, and brutal trial and error difficulty. What tends to get comparatively less love is the game’s plot. While that’s understandable given that Hotline Miami’s basic plot is seemingly pretty thin, there’s incredible depth to this story that reveals itself to those willing to look for it.
The plot of Hotline Miami hinges on the wavering mental state of the game’s protagonist. The unnamed “hero” of our story embarks upon an elaborate revenge tale that is often told in fragments. Cleverly, these mental lapses perfectly adhere to the structure of the traditional video game level. Even when Hotline Miami attempts to explain what has been happening throughout the course of the adventure, it does so in a way that forces you to accept one of two conclusions without really offering you the comfort of knowing which may be right.
13. The Binding of Issac
Much like Hotline Miami, The Binding of Issac, managed to achieve fairly widespread success despite the fact that it was made on a shoestring budget and received little promotion prior to its release. Presentation-wise, it was made to resemble the NES’ Legend of Zelda. However, the gameplay is based on the Roguelike genre, which is most notable for its emphasis on randomized elements and permanent in-game deaths.
The most intriguing aspect of Binding of Issac, however, is most certainly the game’s plot. Basically, Binding of Issac is about a kid who escapes to a basement where horrible creations try to kill him, but the little one does so in order to get away from his mom who is also trying to kill him. In fact, you really need to understand creator Edmund McMillen’s personal history with the game’s story to understand what is actually happening. McMillen based the game’s story on conflicts between his Catholic and born-again Christian family members. It’s overtly a comment on religious fanaticism and subtly a story about how unwavering personal beliefs can tear a family apart.
12. Conker’s Bad Fur Day
Conker’s Bad Fur Day began its life as a cutesy 3D adventure designed to fit in with the other cutesy 3D adventures that defined the N64. Somewhere along the way, however, developer Rare decided to turn the game into a violent, crass, and dark adventure that seemed out of place among the N64’s most iconic games. Ultimately, Conker’s Bad Fur Day earned a reputation as one of the funniest games ever made, as well as one of the N64’s greatest titles.
Much like the various South Park episodes which clearly inspired the game’s humor, there’s more to its plot than meets the eye. Along with parodying several movies and TV shows, Conker’s Bad Fur Day effectively parodies the culture of “mature” gaming. Many of the plot’s elements – including its reliance on cheap culture jokes and simplified storytelling – are actually far less “mature” than the qualities featured in some of Rare’s more family friendly efforts. The moral of Bad Fur Day’s story is that maturity is not always R-rated.
11. The Stanley Parable
Have you ever found yourself imagining a video game of your own design? Was it your “dream game,” so to speak? How far do you get in the process before you realize that crafting an entire video game experience from start to finish is much more difficult than you anticipated? Somewhere along the way, did you become frustrated with the entire concept?
This is roughly the series of events which led to the creation of The Stanley Parable’s narrative. Designer Davey Wreden became frustrated by the basic nature of video game narratives which often forced the player to adhere to a certain path. So, he decided to create a story that encourages the player to go against the game’s wishes. In doing so, he hoped to craft a tale that would help people understand why it was that they played video games in the first place. The Stanley Parable is one of the video game stories that truly puts the player into the role of the author, while also offering a theme that is carried across all potential plot outcomes.
A hero, a princess, a villain. These were the essential plot elements that served as the foundation for Super Mario Bros‘ paper thin story. Back then, all gamers really needed to justify beating a game was the simple motivation that they were an unwavering hero out to save the princess from a dastardly villain. On the surface, 2008’s Braid follows a similar formula. You are a hero out to save a princess from a horrible monster. As Braid’s story unfolds, though, it quickly becomes one of the most thematically complex tales in all of entertainment.
Not everyone sees it like that, however. Braid’s story is hidden in the most minute details. It’s hidden so well, in fact, that nobody can really seem to agree what it is that the story is really about. While most tend to believe that the so-called hero is actually an abusive boyfriend trying to chase an ex that doesn’t want to be caught, the game’s musings go on to include everything from the danger of nuclear weapons to whether or not it is society’s job to rebel against the status quo. Whatever it is that really going on here, it certainly goes well beyond a hero, a princess, and a villain.
9. Deadly Premonition
Deadly Premonition is one of the most off-putting games you will ever stumble upon. Everything about its opening segment screams “Don’t play me.” The dialog is bad, the controls are awful, and the whole thing is wrapped in a thick layer of weirdness that will leave even the biggest David Lynch fans scratching their heads. Sticking with the game requires you to be unusually optimistic that things will get better.
Fortunately, Deadly Premonition rewards the optimistic. Much like Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Deadly Premonition uses a simple small town setting as the basis for an incredibly bizarre tale. Its story about a federal agent hunting down an enigmatic serial killer isn’t too unusual, but Deadly Premonition tells its simple “whodunit?” story in a way that ensures you’re never quite sure what exactly is happening. The game demands an unusual amount of concentration from those players that wish to understand it entirely. Everyone else will see it as a series of irreverent – perhaps even irrelevant – occurrences.
8. Super Mario Sunshine
It feels safe to say that nobody plays Super Mario games exclusively for the plot. Hey, that’s what happens when the inaugural entrant into a franchise involves a pair of plumber brothers out to stop a giant lizard who kidnapped a princess. But just because few gamers prioritize the plots of Mario games doesn’t mean that Nintendo doesn’t occasionally make the effort to insert a story into their most iconic franchise.
Super Mario Sunshine feels like the studio’s most sincere attempt at crafting a compelling Mario story outside of the character’s RPG appearances. Initially, Sunshine’s plot doesn’t seem to be about much more than a vacation gone wrong which forces Mario to commit to several hours of community service. Yet, the story is admirable for the way that it actually enhances the context of the game’s gameplay by lending your actions a sense of narrative purpose. That’s rare in a Mario game, as are Sunshine’s musings on topics like single parenthood (via the Baby Bowser subplot) and isolationist societies which it deftly touches upon as the adventure progresses.
7. Tekken (Franchise)
Back in the heyday of the fighting game genre, developers realized that if they were going to keep pumping out fighting games to please the hungry masses of fans, they were eventually going to have to find some way to tie all these titles together. Capcom, for instance, opted to string together the Street Fighter games through a vague series of character connections. Acclaim tied their Mortal Kombat games together through a convoluted arching narrative they continue to pile upon.
Bandai Namco, however, got things just right with the Tekken series. For those who wish to find it, the Tekken franchise offers a rich narrative that involves rival clans, personal grudges, generations of history, and an elaborate tournament. For as deep as Tekken’s mythology is, however, it’s also wonderfully comprehensible. You’ll have to go out of your way a bit to discover every thread worth unraveling, but doing so goes a long way towards enhancing the meaning behind every punch and kick.
6. Grand Theft Auto IV
This one is a little tricky to argue, as there are many gamers which consider Grand Theft Auto IV’s story to be the best in franchise history. The thing about Grand Theft Auto IV, though, is that there are really two plots at play. The main plot involves immigrant Niko Bellic, who becomes consumed by Liberty City’s underworld as he seeks revenge against the gangster that betrayed him. These broad strokes of the story are simple, yet enjoyable.
What really matters when you’re talking about Grand Theft Auto IV’s plot, though, are the story’s subtle themes. GTA IV is one of gaming’s greatest attempts at addressing the topic of American immigration. While some have criticized the story for suggesting that immigrants turn into criminals, the game really explores how the often difficult urban environmental circumstances some immigrants encounter upon arriving in America can eventually come to dictate their actions. The United States’ export of the American dream as a right can sometimes lead ambitious individuals astray.
While Bully sold reasonably well and tends to be fondly remembered by those who played it, the game is still treated by some as Rockstar’s flawed attempt to make a slightly more subdued version of Grand Theft Auto. To be fair, the games do share certain design similarities. Both are largely open world, deal with mature themes, and allow for players to decide how they will approach nearly every task.
Of the many ways Bully distinguishes itself, though, none are as notable as the plot. This is arguably the most intelligent open-world story that Rockstar has ever crafted. They essentially treat the various cliques at Bully’s fictional school as rival gangs who treat social status like currency. The protagonist, Jimmy, is a wrench in the cog who may be able to unite the gangs under his rule. By treating these young social groups like gangs, the developer is able to accurately skewer the absurdity of these scholarly social climates without beating the player over the head with their message.
4. Papers, Please
Papers, Please is about a border patrol officer in the fictional country of Arstotzka who must regulate the day to day entry of citizens amidst an increasingly hostile political situation. While there are a few more details to the game’s plot which reveal themselves over the course of the campaign, don’t expect Papers, Please to offer you much more than that in terms of overt storytelling. It’s a very simple affair.
However, Papers, Please is considered to be one of the most brilliant examinations of citizenship in a dystopia due to the story it tells via gameplay. If you fail to check enough passports in a day or let the wrong people through, you do not make as much money at the end of a level. Without that money, you can’t afford food or heating for your family. Soon, you’ll likely find yourself turning a deaf ear to the pleas for help you regularly receive in order to keep you and yours fed and safe. The alternative is to sacrifice yourself for someone else’s better world. It’s a dark social experiment.
Bulletstorm failed to find much of a fanbase upon its release in 2011. To be honest, it’s not hard to understand why. The game was marketed as a fairly scripted sci-fi shooter at a time when such games were a dime a dozen. It looked to appeal to the Call of Duty crowd, and that crowd wasn’t really buying it. Oddly enough, the people that did latch on to the game were those who typically criticized that style of shooter the most. That’s because they understood that Bulletstorm’s true purpose was to parody the very sub-genre of shooter that it was supposedly an entrant into.
Bulletstorm’s brilliance goes deeper than its impeccable comedic timing. While Bulletstorm parodies the culture of so-called “Dudebro” shooters, its over-the-top carefree story reveals why it is that people are so attracted to these games in the first place. Bulletstorm’s story may be delivered tongue-in-cheek, but between the jokes is a fascinating examination of how absurdity can be used to lend stability to an ever-changing narrative involving traitorous robots, galactic conflicts, and scientific experiments gone awry.
2. Twisted Metal Black
Although the series isn’t talked about much these days, Twisted Metal helped put PlayStation on the map by offering early system adopters a unique multiplayer experience coupled with a surprisingly solid single-player campaign. While Twisted Metal 2 was even better than the first, the series took a bit of a quality nosedive shortly thereafter. Franchise fans would have to wait until 2001’s Twisted Metal Black to play another worthy entrant into the series.
While Black is typically well-remembered for invigorating the series’ compelling car combat gameplay, it also introduced a new level of narrative depth to the franchise. Just as before, each character in the game has their own story that helps explain why they elected to join the Twisted Metal competition. Never before, though, had those individual stories been so compelling. Each character’s tale could have easily been turned into a particularly great episode of Tales From the Crypt. The game’s various narratives are hopelessly bleak morality tales that explore the deepest depths of humanity.
Manhunt generated a level of controversy upon its release in 2003 that few video games have ever enjoyed. While Rockstar’s tributes to the world of gangster films caught the attention of moral watchdogs, nearly every morally conscious consumer blasted the developer for their decision to release a game that honored the exploitation genre. Based on the premise that you are a participant in a maniacal director’s elaborate snuff film project, Manhunt was criticized for offering no entertainment value beyond the thrill of the violence itself.
Oddly enough, critics of the game who held that belief managed to identify what make’s Manhunt’s plot so brilliant without actually respecting those same attributes. If you choose to do so, you can make your way through Manhunt without encountering any significant scenes of incomparable violence. There are still deaths and gore in the game, but none of it is really over-the-top. The really violent stuff is reserved for the player that chooses to dispose of their adversaries in the most violent way possible. Once you realize this, you recognize that the story of Manhunt is really a condemnation of how people are often so shocked by their own violent urges that they’ll turn to a scapegoat to justify their actions.
What other video games do you think get a bad rep in the intelligence department? Let us know in the comments.