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Top Ten Saturday: Top 10 Greatest Videogame Stories

Story and videogames have a struggled history; some games try too hard to make you engrossed in their terrible narratives (Lost Planet, Gears of War) while others don't even bother (See every Nintendo property ever). Videogames seem to be the medium which most often forgiven for having childish stories or no concept of storytelling, but why is that? Is it the medium's own type-cast nature to play into the hands of Male Power Fantasies like Halo or Killzone or is it the lack of engrossing narratives in the medium? Whatever the reason, these games overcame this gaming cliche and delivered mature, engrossing, and creative stories that truly show the power of videogames as a storytelling method. To make this list, these games had to be able to use their own medium to their advantage and/or advance the type of story that can be told in a game; they had to emotionally involve us as well. So without further a due, these, are the Top Ten Videogame Stories.

10. Fallout 3, 2008, Bethesda Softworks

Fallout 3 may have the worst ending in recent memory (we'll definitely be bringing up Disappointing Endings in this list again...), but we would be missing the point if we took only this into account; Fallout 3 succeeds in creating the most personally shaped virtual world in all of this terrific medium. The choices you, the player, make on your journey to find your father shape the world around you in ways that are both immediate and startling. Want to blow Megaton to smithereens? Depending on whether or not you do this, your experience with the game changes. If you choose No, you can choose to disable the bomb, which has its own consequences, you can settle down and get an apartment; you can do any number of things. If you choose Yes, you now have 500 caps, but later down the road when a resident's mother asks you to deliver a letter to her son in Megaton, you feel the consequences of your actions in a way that is made all the more personal because you chose this outcome. In addition to this, the road you travel is filled with interesting, multifaceted, and sometimes hilarious characters and places. For that, Fallout 3 easily nabs the number 10 spot on the countdown.

9. Portal, 2007, Valve Cooperation

For many, Portal will just be a fun little game. For others, it will be remembered for that infamous (And now incredibely overused) phrase "The Cake is a lie." But for some, it will be remembered for how it shocked us, and how fresh it still feels 2 years after it's release. The brilliance of Portal is in it's simplicity; it's a puzzle game in which you use a portal-shooting gun to solve physics-based puzzles. So when it was coming out, people didn't think about anything other than this. They didn't see the pitch-perfect voice acting or the bold approach to humor. That's why it all worked. It was unexpected and disarming. From the first utterings of Gladdos to the incredible final act of the game, Portal was fresh and funny in ways that have never been seen in videogames. Add to the fact that it has one of the most quotable scripts in videogames and the greatest credit sequence ever, and you have the makings of a legend. The cake may be a lie, but Portal is the real deal, and that's why it earns the number 9 spot on the countdown.

8. Left 4 Dead, 2008, Valve Cooperation

Now this one may come as a surprise. How can a purely multiplayer game have a great story? The answer is simple; Simplicity. Left 4 Dead doesn't try and explain where the zombies came from or who created them or even how these people you play as even got to where they are, but there in lies the beauty of it. The story surrounds you. The scribblings on the walls of the safe room present you with an ironic take on internet forums that shows the uncertainty and fear of everyone who passed by them. The characters banter back and forth in ways that perfectly characterize them without the use of protracted cutscenes or dialogue boxes. Even the endings in which your team is taken to safety are darkly ambiguous; just because these people escaped the zombie menace in that area doesn't mean the world is any better. The military doesn't occupy the area and clear out the zombies. People wonder where they are and why they have abandoned them. For all they know, the U.S. Government has fallen to pieces already. All you and the people of the world of Left 4 Dead know is that the Infection has been terrorizing the world for two weeks, and it shows no sign of stopping. Add in some tongue-in-cheek humor and great characters, and you've got the recipe for the number 8 spot on this countdown.

7. killer7, 2005, Grasshopper Manufacture

Suda51 should be put in an insane asylum. The man is absolutely off his rocker. But that's why killer7 is genius; it's crazy, it's homicidal, it's in-your-face, and all the while, it's whispering it's hidden meanings in your ear. Nothing is as simple or crazy as it seems in the world of killer7, with many characters going through dynamic changes; Harman himself has as many as three different character iterations in the different layers of depth there are in the game. killer7 is a game where every line means something, where every item has a symbolic meaning, and where every completely meaningless scene is as important as the most obviously meaningful. But does killer7 ever tell you this? No, but it wants you to. It's the type of story that rewards those who dig deeper and will seem just as oddball and overly complex as it's control scheme to every one else. But for those of us who dug in deep and spent the hours deciphering what the game meant and finding it's subtle layers of story, we found a tale that's sometimes more engaging than the game itself. It was one of the first games where the Mature rating actually meant something. Not only this, but it commented on videogames as a medium and how we interact with them (Boss Fights you can't win, gameplay that spoofs other genres, characters that mimic gaming cliches, etc.). For this, killer7 earns the number 7 spot on this countdown with ease. "Goodnight sweet child. It's past your bedtime."

6. Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, 1997/2007, Squaresoft

In 1997, a little Strategy RPG was released to bearing the Final Fantasy name. It was poorly translated, sometimes unreasonably difficult, and criminally underwhelming. The makings for a truly great tale lay just beneath the surface of terrible "engrish", and for 10 years, no one acted upon this. However, in 2007, the title was ported to the PSP with all new features, including a new script; from then on, the videogame world had a new standard for how you do a port, and the RPG world had a new standard for writing. The War of the Lions is the Macbeth of videogames, with a script that is stubbornly Shakespearean and even more stubbornly brilliant. The tale follows Ramza, a man born into royalty who sees the legacy of his father's name crumbling before him. It's one man's quest to preserve justice in an unjust world. It's a journey filled with political intrigue, betrayal, ambition, self-destruction, and sacrifice. The themes of The War of the Lions are mature and subtlety woven into the fabric of the story; never once does Ramza soliloquize about his intentions or his motivations, because everything is told well-enough for you to follow these things for yourself. It's a game that takes it's player seriously, and we take it seriously because of that. Even if it's long past due, Final Fantasy Tactics finally gets it's due, with the number 6 spot on the countdown.

[b]5.[/i] Silent Hill 2, 2001, Team Silent

Silent Hill may be a bit of a joke since the series took a major turn for the worst at the fourth installment, but back in it's heyday, Silent Hill 2 made every stand up and take notice to how it approached storytelling. The character of James Sunderland was ingrained into the very fabric of the world; as a sexually frustrated widow, the world of Silent Hill threw nurses at him who were as sexual as they were frightening. Zombie-like creatures spit acid out of vagina-esque holes. And Pyramid Head was just as much of a rapist as he was an executioner, carrying with him two giant phallic symbols where ever he went that hung over James like albatrosses. Albatrosses are a perfect analogy for James's situation. He's a man that carries psychological scars that are unbeknownst even to him, yet guilt burdens him even still. In the end, when the final twist is revealed, all of the symbols suddenly have meaning and James is revealed to be much more than what he seems. It's a dark, hopeless world where even your enemies are enemies to each other and the sexual overtones are just as thick and disturbing as the fog and rust that surround James at all times. With a story that goes well-beyond any other Horror game and an ending that isn't the happy cop out, Silent Hill 2 earns the distinction of the number 5 place on this list.

4. Bioshock, 2007, 2K Boston/2K Australia

I must be insane to put this game anywhere other than number 1. In the end however, Bioshock's ending prevents it from such a place. It's the biggest disappointment of my videogame career to see the absolute perfection of it's narrative crumble to pieces in literally 10 minutes. However, it's triumphs far outweigh it's shortcomings; Bioshock has the greatest script and voice acting ever seen in a videogame, hands down. The cast perfectly sells every brilliant line, and every word is chosen perfectly. Rapture is a world full of villains, not one character is innocent. Dr. Stienman is a vanity-obsessed maniac, Suchong is a cold, callous man who has sacrificed his empathy for science, Cohen is a misunderstood artist turned vengeful murderer, and to top it all off, Ryan is a power-hungry dictator who is blinded by his own despotism. Each villain is incredibely charismatic thanks to the incredible performances and each one becomes more memorable then the last. The only morality in the cold halls of Rapture is Dr. Tennenbaum and her Little Sisters, who serve as a dramatic contrast to the madness that has taken over Rapture. All the while, you are firmly planted in the boots of a Friedman-lite who sees all of these actions through untainted eyes, making all of the indecency and madness of the city all that more effective. Then the plot twist comes and breaks your neck; it comes out of no where and makes everything up until then make perfect dramatic sense. However unfortunate the ending is, Bioshock is still this console generation's finest story yet, combining the best villains in gaming so far with the perfect actors portraying them, which earns it the number 4 spot on the countdown.

3. Half-Life series, 1998, 2004, 2006, 2007, Valve Cooperation

In 1998, a little known studio called Valve released an FPS titled Half-Life. It was released one month after Metal Gear Solid and one month before The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was a brand new IP in a year of sequels, and it was a PC exclusive in a year of console dominance. It was a bold new change of pace for videogame design and storytelling, and the videogame world stopped and took notice. The Half-Life series dares to do what any other game series won't do; put you in the shoes of one man from beginning to end. No cutscenes, no ending screens, no text boxes, no tricks. Each installment follows Gordon Friedman as he continues his path to do what is right, what no other man can do, and each new game raises the stakes each time, creating a world that's intense, oppressive, dystopic, and even beautiful. Characters look and feel real, and each one has a personality that subverts the idea that every narrative must have the typical archetypes. The tabula rosa nature of Friedman himself and what he represents all go to comment on videogames as a whole and the concept of becoming another being. The dual nature of Friedman being the only "Free Man" in the world of City 17 and also being only a puppet of the player creates a conundrum that makes the narrative position of Gordon even more lucid; the one free man on Earth is still a slave to a higher power. This and great villains such as the G Man and Dr. Breen make the Half-Life series more than deserving of the number 3 spot on this countdown.

2. Braid, 2008, Jonathan Blow

No one saw Braid coming. No one. In the world of videogames, numbers are what counts; the number of copies sold, the number of years in development, and the number of people developing the title. It's a world where just one man cannot succeed. Why does Braid even exist? It's because one man did what no mainstream developer will do; he embraced the art over the game. Braid is genius on so many levels that its jarring to see it in action; brilliant puzzles, a time mechanic that evolves with the players growing understanding, and a story that rewards those who take story seriously. What is Braid about? Is it about a Princess? Is it about a man and his spouse? Is it about a bomb? The answer is all of these, and yet none of them. There are layers of meaning that are open to interpretation. The game's own mechanics server to tell the story; The puzzle pieces form meaningless images that are only understood when juxtaposed against the time mechanic of that stage, time mechanics that comment on how Tim is feeling in that point of his life. The game subverts the idea that endings have to be happy or that protagonists have to be well-intentioned. It's a story of obsession that leads to ultimate destruction. It's post-modern in it's commentary on videogames as a medium; worlds end in castles, flags, and tellings of the Princess being in another castle, enemies resemble Goombas and Petey's, fireballs are used as traps, etc. The final chapter, in all of it's cruelty and beauty and perfection is the last page in the book that is Braid; it's brilliant in every sense of the word, and deserves every bit of the 2 spot this countdown humbly offers.


1. Shadow of the Colossus, 2005, Team ICO

Shadow of the Colossus is the epitome of videogames as art. Never before has a game captured the essence of what videogames can do as a storytelling medium as well as SotC. It doesn't need brilliant dialogue, incredible voice acting, or anything else; it accomplishes what other games need hours of characterization and dramatic exchange through pure, simple, emotion. The set up is incredibely simple, deceptively so in fact; you're a nameless boy with a horse who is told by an ephemeral, God-like voice, that he must vanquish 16 colossi to wake a sleeping girl. It's the kind of tale that videogames are made of. You never question your motives, you never stop to wonder why it is your doing what you are doing, and never once do you wonder what the Colossi have done to deserve their punishment; in a videogame, it's all par for the course. The entire time you slay these giants, yet something doesn't feel right. The game doesn't have to tell you that something doesn't feel right; through the expressive movements and jerks of pain by the Colossi, you feel the pain you inflict upon them. Their frantic attempts to escape your grasp, their sullen eyes, their regal nature; it all points out the fact that they are merely defending themselves from you. In the end, when the voice betrays you and you become a monster that was sealed away by the power of the 16 Colossi, you feel betrayed. It's meta fiction in videogame form; the fact that it subverted the basic idea of the foundations that videogames are based upon makes the betrayal all the more unexpected and all the more emotionally effective. You're killed by the villagers who have come to stop you from doing what they knew the voice would have you do, and in the end, there is no happy ending. There is no sad ending. It is emotional in a way that isn't confined to feelings of happy or sad. The main character is dead, your horse is injured, the girl awakens, and the legend is born. It's somber, affecting, and thematically resonate, which is why Shadow of the Colossus is the greatest story ever told in videogames.

Notes: I realize there are three Valve games on the list, but this isn't favoritism on my part. It's just that one company knows how to make good games better than anyone on the planet basically, maybe barring Team ICO. I also wanted to try and fit No More Heroes in there, but I thought two Suda51 games in addition to three valve ones would be cutting it. Plus, it relies a bit too much on cutscenes. Ultimately, I felt killer7 should be the game to represent Suda51. Also, I'm sure many will cry foul about the fact that Ico didn't make it on the list, but I have my reasons. I don't want to put it on there simply because it's connected to Shadow of the Colossus in a way that I think I should only have one or the either up there, and ultimately SotC comes out on top. I also realize I keep pointing out Halo and Killzone in my blogs, but it's not that I hate those games, it's just that they represent something I hate. If you'd like to suggest a topic for the next Top Ten Saturday, just list it in the comments! Thanks for reading.
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About Canti-samaone of us since 9:47 PM on 08.03.2009

Hello, I'm Trevor Johnson, also known as Canti-sama. I like to write about things including videogames (that should be paramountly obvious at this point...) music, film, and anime, so what you see in this blog is just one part of my pretentiousness! I'm a nit-picky bitch when it comes to basically everything, so excuse me if I seem like kind of an elitist, even though I try not to be. If I had to sum up who I am, I would do it through top 5 lists, so how about we a do a few right now! But before that, since DTOID tends to remove frontpage posts from my c-blog, here's the list of my frontpages, which I thank everyone very much for!

Frontpage Posts:
1. Monthly Musing - I suck At Videogames: Nostalgia's Curse, 8/12/09
2. Promoted Story - Suda 51 and the "Art" of Videogames, 9/6/09
3. Monthly Musing - Nothing is Sacred: Videogames, 10/7/09


Top 5 Favorite Videogames:
5. Fallout 3, PC
4. Mega Man X, SNES
3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, PS2
2. Braid, PC
1. Shadow of the Colossus, PS2

Top 5 Favorite Albums:
5. Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm a Machine, 2004
4. Radiohead - O.K. Computer, 1997
3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992
2. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam, 2007
1. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation, 1988

Top 5 Films:
5. Brazil, Directed by Terry Gilliam
4. Fargo, Directed by Joel Coen
3. Fight Club, Directed by David Fincher
2. Shaun of the Dead, Directed by Edgar Wright
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Directed by Sergio Leone

Top 5 Anime Productions:
5. Spirited Away, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
4. The Big O, Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
3. Cowboy Bebop, Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Directed by Hideko Anno
1. Fooly Cooly, Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki

Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks
PSN Name: MetalLink1979
Wii Friend Code - 8089-7286-5497-4717
XBL - Metal Link 904 (Note: My Xbox 360 is in possession of my brother, so this is no longer technically my XBL Tag)
Xbox LIVE:Metal Link 904
Steam ID:MetalLink1979
Mii code:8089-7286-5497-4717


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