Video games have evolved in the storytelling department over the decades, with the recent release of Santa Monica Studio’s God of War Ragnarök being a recent and prime example. It comes with the technological evolution of the industry as well as the medium being increasingly more mainstream.
That level of progression has provided players of all genres with some memorable stories. The action genre boasts an impressive number of narrative hits, and it helps that the genre splinters into so many subgenres. From horror-action titles such as The Last of Usto action RPGs such as The Witcher 3, there are plenty of storytelling milestones for players to undertake.
God of War has been a PlayStation staple since the days of the PS2, with some high-octane and over-the-top action games depicting Kratos on a ruthless warpath of revenge. But as great as those games were, Santa Monica Studio debatably took a more exciting route with the 2018 soft reboot for the PS4.
This game takes a more grounded and cinematic approach to storytelling akin to the likes of The Last of Us, but without sacrificing a new and deeply cathartic combat system. It portrays a battered, weary, and haunted Kratos due to the atrocities of his past. Further enhanced by Atreus in a touching father-son story, God of War is a narratively resonating and intimate take on the famous franchise that tackles coming-of-age and redemption themes with equal care.
Now adapted into an emphatically-acclaimed HBO live-action series, The Last of Us was a storytelling marvel and an excellent last hurrah for the PlayStation 3. Naughty Dog (of Uncharted fame) took a post-apocalyptic spin on their action formula, blending it with survival horror for good measure.
Taking place in an alternate future where evolving fungi turn their hosts into dangerous zombies, The Last of Us follows Joel and Ellie, two characters with their own tragedies as they embark on a grueling countryside quest. It’s full of superb acting and emotionally gripping character writing, and it easily cements itself as one of the best PlayStation console exclusives.
Western/cowboy-themed video games aren’t quite as common as one might think, but Rockstar Games’ duology of titles has essentially become the face of the genre in gaming. A spiritual successor to Red Dead Revolver, Red Dead Redemption was released in 2010 during the PS3 and Xbox 360 console era to widespread acclaim, becoming one of the most immersive open-world experiences of its time.
Players take on the role of John Marston, a former outlaw who’s roped back into his old ways when government forces kidnap his wife and son. In addition to the dynamic world events players can take part in, Red Dead Redemption was lauded for its riveting and emotional Wild West plot. The game’s story consistently felt like a tasteful love letter to classic Western films.
After a long wait, Santa Monica Studio finally followed up on the runaway hit that was 2018’s God of War. That game proved that a more tightly focused, yet pulsating combat system in tandem with a refreshing cinematic approach to storytelling was the next best step for the franchise and Kratos as a genuinely compelling character, and Ragnarök builds on that solid new foundation.
God of War: Ragnarök was similarly acclaimed as its predecessor, with this sequel serving as the finale of the Norse saga. With such a climactic entry to the series, its story was expectedly praised for deepening and exploring the bond between Kratos and Atreus while believably upping the stakes they face.
It was nearly a decade in the making, but Rockstar Games hit another milestone with the long-awaited Red Dead Redemption II. Dynamic open worlds, side stories, and entertaining gameplay loops are a common staple in these games, and this sequel is equally bolstered by another groundbreaking story.
Despite being a “literal” sequel, the story itself is a prequel to the 2010 game, following the adventures of Arthur Morgan and co. during the decline of the Wild West, dodging government figures, and fending off rival outlaw gangs. The story was highly well-received for its unique cast of characters, thrilling drama, and impressive attention to detail. And like its predecessor, Red Dead Redemption II holds little back when it comes to narrative stakes the cast of characters face.
Any fan of the Dark Knight owes it to themselves to experience the whole mainline Arkham series, as Rocksteady and WB Montréal’s games are loving homages to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s revered Batman: The Animated Series.
They’re brilliantly developed from a gameplay perspective as well in terms of combat, traversal, and exploration, but Arkham City is the strongest of the bunch narratively. This game takes the most iconic rivalry in the superhero genre to new, bolder heights, as well as a colorful ensemble of Batman’s other star-studded rogues’ gallery members. It also helps that Arkham City was one of the games bolstered by the Batman writing prowess of Dini himself.
Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the biggest surprise hits in the gaming space when it comes to powerful storytelling. Set in 14th-century France, the game follows the story of two siblings, Amicia de Rune and her brother Hugo, as they desperately attempt to flee across the countryside amid the ruthless French Inquisition and a horde of plague-carrying rats infecting the lands.
It brilliantly combines action adventure with survival horror gameplay elements that are of great service to the overall story. But the strongest aspect of the plot is putting players in the desperate role of Amicia trying to navigate this hostile world while trying to find treatment for her little brother.
The first two BioShock games were creative combinations of first-person action and survival horror, and they culminated in one of the most unique gaming experiences. All three games were critically praised for similar reasons, but the story of the original game seems to have made the biggest impression on most fans.
BioShock takes place in a ruined underwater city known as Rapture, using elements of dystopia and biopunk to create a consistently foreboding atmosphere. What unfolds as the protagonist attempts to escape this hostile locale is an incredibly thought-provoking and poignant story of corporate evil and the grim cycle of oppression of the common citizen, and it’s bolstered by some of the most shocking plot twists in any video game.
Delving into the action-RPG subgenre, CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt serves as a shining example of top-tier fantasy storytelling. The eponymous Geralt of Rivia proves to be one of the most compelling and complex protagonists in the role-playing space, but the whole of the game stands out as a narrative achievement.
The Witcher 3‘s main questline features a sweeping spectacle grounded by themes of found family, sorcery, and emotional character drama. But what’s even more impressive is that same level of story writing prowess seeped into this sprawling world’s many side quests and DLC expansions. Among other reasons, this helps secure The Witcher 3‘s ranking among the best modern fantasy RPGs and action games in general.
Another action-RPG landmark, BioWare’s original Mass Effect trilogy is more than worth a shout as an enthralling and collective storytelling endeavor. However, the series’ sophomore entry often earns the highest marks among critics and general audiences in this revered trilogy.
Mass Effect 2 debatably tells the most exciting part of this overall sci-fi epic and begins with what’s one of the best “cold opens” in a video game. Even more so, Mass Effect 2‘s story is persistently engaging, making Commander Shepard’s relationships with his crew, their respective side quests, and the daunting suicide mission they embark on add to the grandiose atmosphere.
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