While story might not be the first thing that people consider when thinking of video games, they can be a much more involving storytelling medium than film and even novels. Contrary to what some might think, video games don’t have many inherent limitations on storytelling. They’re commonly associated with mindless violence, but we have seen time and again that they can be much more than that.
Video games have the benefit of being interactive, a benefit not shared by books and movies. Some games use this to take storytelling to a different, higher level. These are the most amazing video games there are. In this article we will examine and discuss the ten best stories in video game history. We talk a lot about the storytelling potential in games, but very few live up to that potential. This list is dedicated to those few.
Be forewarned that this article contains spoilers for every game listed. Do not read about any game you have not played.
These are games that were once on our list, but have since been replaced by another. Make no mistake, they are remarkable in their own right.
“Man, I need a real case! I need a challenge, worthy of my deductive and pugilistic skills.” – Sly Boots
Game Title: Anachronox
Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Release Date: 2001
Genre: Turn-Based Adventure
Approximate Length: 50 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Yes
What’s that, a comedy game? Forbidden! Especially from an article about writing. But we don’t discriminate, Anachronox has earned a place here. It is an epic, a large scale game that will take you across the stars. You will even fight bad guys wearing Lucha libre outfits and using wrestling moves on you.
Anachronox is almost like an entire season of Futurama wrapped in one third person turn-based highly interactive nonlinear game borrowing a lot of RPG elements, although contrary to what some claim it is not a full fledged RPG as you play as a predefined character known as Sly Boots. You start off down on your luck, as the intro above shows. A private detective without a steady line of work, it is time to make a change, and that’s where the game begins.
Of course, that case that Sly Boots has been waiting for eventually finds him. Throughout Anachronox, you will assemble a memorable cast of unlikely heroes and explore the mysteries of MysTech, ancient artifacts that grant special powers to those who can use them, after an experiment gone wrong causes all MysTech in the universe to activate.
The name “Anachronox” refers to the words “anachronism” and “noxious”, combining to mean “poison from the past.” This is the name of the first planet the game takes place on, which is unique for its constant shifting which nobody understands. It also alludes to the fact that you’ll be exploring the troubled past not only of the protagonist, but also of the universe itself. In Anachronox, a team of scientists learn that the universe is cyclic: a universe is created by a big bang, and it is ended by a big crunch. MysTech is being used by entities of pure Chaos to bring back a previous universe which would replace our current one, erasing it from existence, in their scheme to eradicate Order from existence.
So the plot of Anachronox ascends to cosmic existential proportions. Boots and his team must stop these events from happening. Along the way you meet comical superheroes and supervillains and their presentation never misses the comedic mark. Anachronox is certainly one of the very best comedies in gaming.
Anachronox is also easily the best “cinematic” game to my estimation. As cinematic as anything today, but it doesn’t sacrifice being a game. It is a very interactive game and uses this to benefit the narrative unlike the cinematic games of today. People have even combined all of its cutscenes to make a movie.
“I was weak. That’s why I needed you… Needed someone to punish me for my sins… But that’s all over now. I know the truth. Now it’s time to end this.” – James Sunderland
Game Title: Silent Hill 2
Release Date: 2001
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 2, XBOX, Playstation 3 (HD re-release), XBOX 360 (HD re-release)
Genre: Psychological Horror / Survival Horror
Approximate Length: 8 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: No
Silent Hill 2 is legendary for its storytelling. This is yet another game we’ve written about in considerable detail before, both in the aforementioned best antagonist article and our best horror game article. It took the psychological horror genre to a new level.
You play as James Sunderland, a recent widower. At the start of the game James receives a letter, apparently written by his deceased wife Mary, telling him to meet her in their “special place” in the mysterious, abandoned town of Silent Hill. Right at the start of the game, when he is reading the letter, it’s made obvious that he’s a tormented character and that the player is going to experience his hell, his misery. But you won’t be able to guess just how deep this journey goes.
The town of Silent Hill is cut off from the rest of the world. For most people, once you enter there is no escape. The roads leading out of the town are destroyed, leading down into an endless cliff. The town is overrun by monsters, which are each symbolic representations of an inner struggle of James. This includes the apparent antagonist Pyramid Head, which we wrote about here. The quote at the top of this page summarizes Pyramid Head; he is an invention of Sunderland’s mind, existing to punish James for his sins, to judge him, to encourage him to face the horror of what he had done. But what did James do? This leads to another twist.
James’ wife, Mary, did not die of sickness as he said throughout the game. She was in fact dying of sickness, but it was James who ended her life. He ended her life by suffocating her. Dying in her hospital bed, Mary only brought pain and suffering into James’ life. James had suffered enough, and chose to end his attachment to a dying woman. In her final days Mary often lashed out at James, inflicting her pain onto him. All of this pushed James over the edge, and his journey through Silent Hill is perhaps a way for him to face what he has done.
The story is a psychological study of guilt and self-deception, told in a powerful and poetic way.
As with other great stories, the plot which is what happens, might not seem very impressive on paper. But the story, which is why those things happen, is one of the most complex and well-written of any and all games. Silent Hill 2 doesn’t have the most amazing overall dialogue though; in this area it is bested by the others, with bits of dialogue being downright silly (the poor voice acting does not help). But its use of symbolism and metaphors is legendary, the best in the history of video games. They’re used in the game’s set pieces, on the enemy models, and in the writing itself. It does a much better job showing than telling, and relies primarily on the former, it’s strength, thankfully.
Silent Hill 2 also takes heavy inspiration from Solaris, a 1961 novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem and particularly Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film adaptation. This video breaks it down wonderfully.
“The Unity will bring about the master race. Master! Master! One able to survive, or even thrive, in the wasteland. As long as there are differences, we will tear ourselves apart fighting each other. We need one race. Race! Race! One goal. Goal! Goal! One people . . . to move forward to our destiny. Destiny” – Master
Game Title: Fallout
Developer: Interplay Entertainment
Publisher: Interplay Entertainment
Release Date: 1997
Platforms: PC, Mac
Approximate Length: 15-25 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Arguably
Fallout was a true pioneer, and while it gets credit for that, people actually forget about what it and its sequel specifically achieve. They are known as great classic post-apocalyptic RPGs, but what made them great? The answer to that is several things: role-playing, nonlinear design, and of course writing.
The areas of writing where Fallout is strongest are its satire, world building, and character development. Fallout is a post-nuclear apocalypse story set in the west coast USA. One of the things that allowed humanity to survive the apocalypse were fallout shelters known as vaults, which the government created due to the obviously impending doom that was to come. You play as the Vault Dweller, sent out from Vault 13 to retrieve a water chip to replace your faulty one in order to maintain clean water within the vault. Off you go, with very few leads as to where you can find a water chip.
In the world of Fallout, every vault in the US was a government experiment. The purpose of Vault 13 was to remain closed to study the effects such prolonged isolation would have on a civilization. This is an interesting concept that believably portrays the government’s dishonesty, and it makes each vault its own story.
Out in the wasteland, you will discover the remnants of society, some slowly rebuilding and others in not so good of a state. The places and cultures you visit are an interesting portrayal of post-apocalyptic civilization; believable, unique, and not without satire. In Fallout, you will set in motion the New California Republic inadvertently, you will meet the Brotherhood of Steel who wishes to keep technology out of irresponsible hands in order to prevent another nuclear disaster or worse. Or are they just selfish hoarders? It is up to you to decide.
And of course, you will meet the Super Mutants, led by Master. Master is a heavily mutated creature that was once a man named Richard Moreau, who was exiled from Vault 8 supposedly for murder. The details around that are not known, but what is known is that Moreau settled in The Hub and became a doctor. But an ill-fated expedition to the Mariposa Military Base ended up with Moreau being submerged in vats of Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV), resulting in Master who you see in the game as the antagonist.
FEV is another government creation, which leads to the creation of Super Mutants when administered to humans; larger, stronger, faster, longer lived mutated humans who can tolerate the conditions of the wasteland. Master’s goal is to make every human in the wasteland join the Unity (his cult) and become a Super Mutant, the so called Master Race, claiming that it’s the only way forward because not only are they suited to survive the wasteland but this will cast aside human conflict born from our differences. No more race based, religious based, class based conflict, only Unity.
Except becoming a Super Mutant isn’t a way forward at all, since they can’t reproduce, and you can show proof of this to Master and cause him to give up his cause. An antagonist with such human properties is always a nice thing in a story.
Master’s top Lieutenant, known as Lieutenant or Lou Tenant, serves as another particularly interesting and at times amusing character. Being the most exceptional Super Mutant in Master’s army due to his superior strength, speed, and being more intelligent than most people, he is a true elitist and will thoroughly inform you about how much he believes in this. Talking to Lieutenant is like talking to a Nazi officer who believes himself to be the most sophisticated person on the planet, and he is surprisingly articulate, more than you or I which is part of the point of his character. But even though he’s aware of the “issues” with Super Mutant reproduction, he is delusional enough to believe they’ll overcome this, just like he’s delusional enough to think he’s any different than Morpheus, a character he criticizes as being a chosen figurehead by Master (much like himself).
And something that really elevates the writing of the first two Fallout games is how much you can poke and prod characters for their thoughts. This is one of the sources of satire in these Fallout games and New Vegas to a lesser extent. It really helps the game and its characters come alive. The dark satire and depth behind the concepts of the vaults, the game’s characters, Master’s Unity, the Brotherhood of Steel, Ghouls, and its many unique locations make Fallout into a very unified (pun intended) and unmistakable post-apocalyptic world, which other games have been trying to replicate such as ATOM RPG and Underrail.
“This world is a machine! A Machine for pigs! Fit only for the slaughtering of pigs!” – Oswald Mandus
Game Title: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Frictional Games
Release Date: 2013
Genre: Psychological Horror
Platforms: PC, Linux, Mac
Approximate Length: 5 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Yes (not apparent at first)
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was not developed by Frictional Games, the developer of Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and one of the best game development studios of all time. They merely published the game. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a PC exclusive psychological horror game developed by TheChineseRoom, who also created Dear Esther.
This game is not much of a survival horror game at all, as our review pointed out. It is pure psychological horror. From a story standpoint, it marks a significant step-up in complexity over all of our previous entries.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is exceptionally well written and it’s properly disturbing. It is easy to predict the plot twist, but that’s nothing. The plot is simply what happens, the story is why those things happened, and the why is huge in this game. It also benefits from good voice acting and an appropriate soundtrack.
Because it’s only a 6-7 hour game, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs does not have a particularly grand plot. You play as an amnesiac Oswald Mandus, a genius entrepreneur and inventor. The game is set at the turn of the 19th century. Oswald awakens in his mansion with months, perhaps years of his life erased from his memories. His children are missing and he hears their cries throughout his mansion. The initial, basic goal of the game is to simply explore the mansion and find Oswald’s children.
But obviously, that objective is just a front for what would turn into a thickly layered story. Throughout the mansion you can interact with phonographs and find journal entries which detail important, forgotten events from Oswald’s life. One very important one was the loss of his wife, Lily, who died while giving birth to their twins, Edwin and Enoch.
Oswald is a complex character. He was born into a rich family; his parents owned a massive meat processing company. Despite this, and despite being a rich man himself, he pitied the poor and showed generosity toward them. He was also a caring father, one who would do anything for his children. He seemed to be an equally caring and devoted husband.
While exploring the mansion you’ll find hidden passageways, some of which revealing disturbing truths about Oswald. For example, he had passageways built into the walls behind several bathrooms, where he had front row seats to a view of the bathtub through a window disguised as a painting. Things only got worse for Oswald when he invested too much into the machinery of his factory, making it more efficient and more safe. He faced bankruptcy and had to take drastic action. Through this we are shown how cruel the industrial world was in 19th century England. Oswald tried to make things better for his workers and faced financial ruin because of it. The only way to survive during these times was to be as cruel as the rest of the world, according to this story.
But that is just one theme in this story. It goes much further, much deeper, into much darker territory. Through his uncle’s notes, Mandus learned about mythical sources of power referred to as Orbs. Perhaps those could be the miracle needed to dig his business out of the mess it was in? Perhaps that could power his cutting edge, massive factory and make it the most efficient production facility ever? This is what Oswald saw—opportunity. And this leads to another question; how far would a businessman go for such an opportunity? As you may have guessed, the answer is shown to be ‘too far.’
Mandus learned of the location of one such Orb—it was in an Aztec temple. So he traveled to America and Mexico with his children in search of this orb, encountering Native Americans on the way who were baffled by his knowledge. Ironically his children seem to have come across the Orb before him, calling it a “stone egg.” The origin of these Orbs is not terribly important to the story, but it’s explored in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, this game’s predecessor. But to summarize, these Orbs are otherworldly artifacts of power and we can’t even gauge the potential fully. They can be used to travel to different worlds, which is seen in The Dark Descent.
Upon making contact with the Orb, the future is revealed to Mandus. He is shown visions of what seems to be both World War I and World War II, and he is shown the fate of both of his children; killed during World War I. He saw the world tearing itself apart and he couldn’t bear to see it, he could not let his children meet those horrible ends. So what did Mandus do? He sacrificed both of his children, in his mind saving them from an even worse fate, but also to reawaken the power of the Orb. This does bring up a moral debate about whether or not it was the right thing to do to “save” his children from a terrible fate, although this theme has been handled much better elsewhere, such as in the second season of Game of Thrones. However, this is not a major theme in the story of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
The Orb also seemed to cure Mandus of a fever he had contracted, but in the process splitting his mind (or soul?) into two. These two personalities come into conflict with each other later in the story.
Through these events we also saw that Oswald Mandus was willing to go to any end to reawaken the power of the Orb, not just to save his business however. The vision changed his view on the world and all of its people. His goal shifted from saving his business to saving the world, and he was willing to sacrifice his children for the latter.
Because of his vision of death and destruction, he began to hate the world and all people, viewing them as nothing more than pigs. Flawed, disgusting, imperfect. The “disgusting” aspect is tied in with the horrible pollution of that time period (which is shown in the level design of the game), and his view on creating perfected beings is like that of the Nazis, which is ironic since it was his visions of the World Wars that changed his view in the first place. He set out to build a massive machine, a machine for pigs, fit only for the slaughtering of pigs as the quote says. He wanted to remake the world through machinery, to avert the coming wars. Human sacrifice was needed, which he held no objection too since humans were nothing more than pigs in his eyes.
It is also implied that the loss of his wife partially fueled his madness, to show how powerful grief can be and how horribly wrong one can go when unable to deal with grief properly.
The game’s concept of remaking the world is also a reflection of industrialism and technological revolution itself. He imagined a mechanized world, and the implications of this are relevant to today’s world in which technology is taking over. So this asks the question of whether or not we are taking technology too far, whether or not we are too reliant on it.
Oswald’s split personalities came into conflict during his construction and use of his machine. He did horrible things, such as using orphans in slave labor and sacrificing people to create his servants—’Manpigs’ which, as the name implies, are man-pig hybrids which also serve as basic enemies throughout the game. They are of course symbolic of Oswald’s negative views on mankind, showing that people are still beasts at their very core. At some point, Oswald realized the horror of what he was doing, and tried to stop it. But again, the Orb seemed to have split Oswald into two back in the temple, and his fever returned. One part of him sabotaged the machine while the other went into the machine itself.
After he sabotaged the machine, he succumbed to his fever, falling unconscious in his bed. Eventually he awoke to the sound of his children calling him, and this is where the game begins. Oswald was without recent memory, without the memory of the machine, the wars, his sacrifice of his children. With that, we are back at square one!
Oswald’s amnesia isn’t entirely explained, but it’s obviously related to his fever. It’s also very similar to what happened to the protagonist of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, in which Daniel drank an amnesia potion to wipe his mind clean of all the horrible things he did, so that he can put things right. At the end of the day, this is what happened in Machine for Pigs too, except that the amnesia of Oswald Mandus is perhaps not quite as intentional as drinking an amnesia potion.
While venturing through the mansion and recovering his memories, Oswald makes contact with a man who does not identify himself, although his voice sounds much like that of Oswald himself. He tells Oswald that in order to find and save his children, he has to repair the machine, undoing the work of the sabateur, which we just said was Oswald himself after realizing the horror of what he had done. So who was manipulating an amnesiac Oswald into repairing the machine? Why, it was his other half of course. The evil part of him that now resides within the machine itself.
Throughout the game you venture deeper and deeper into the factory, into the horror. The climax is the encounter with the machine itself, along with Oswald’s other half. All is revealed to you then as you discover that Oswald sacrificed his children and that it is him who built the machine and resides within it. Here, Oswald makes another sacrifice—his own life, to stop the machine once and for all. He couldn’t have done this without the fresh start which was the result of his memory loss.
Like every other story here, a summary and brief analysis don’t do it justice. It needs to be played more than once to comprehend it all. It is a content rich story full of hidden themes which are all tied together wonderfully. This story explores how grief can overwhelm you, the cruelty of industrialism and the late 19th century industrial world, obsession with technology gone too far, the beastial nature of humans, the concept of reshaping the world to better it (with religious implications). It contains some very good use of irony. These themes are explored less directly than simpler games, relying heavily on metaphors and symbolism. The dialogue and monologues are all of exceptional quality, especially for a video game.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is truly an interactive short story, although it doesn’t focus as much on the immediate, obvious details of the plot, such as the actual threat of these pigs and the lack of an obvious armed response. It aims to be poetic above all.
“No one is going to help you. The whole world is against you. Protect yourself or they will eat you.” – Cargo Officer/Prison Warden
Game Title: Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason
Developer: Action Forms
Publisher: Aspyr, 505 Games, Zoo Corporation
Release Date: 2009
Genre: Psychological Horror / Survival Horror
Approximate Length: 7 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Saving the world is not the objective, but much of the plot and ending are open for interpretation
Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason is an underrated, forgotten gem that has a way of creeping up on us it seems. I personally like its story more than some of the entries occupying better positions on this list.
Cryostasis is a first person Ukrainian horror game. They’re really onto something over in the East when it comes to writing in general and writing for movies and games. Cryostasis deliberately parallels Maxim Gorky’s fairy tale The Flaming Heart of Danko, a tale that studies the relationship between a leader and his followers. This story is actually found in pieces throughout the game, really emphasizing the parallelism.
The game is set in the arctic as the name implies. You play as Alexander Nesterov, a researcher sent to locate a stranded nuclear ice breaker called the North Wind. It crashed into a glacier near the North Pole, and what became of the crew was unknown. While exploring the ship it is discovered that tragedy struck; many crew members were murdered and the player must find out why, and must discover the fate of the ship’s Captain. In addition, some sort of change has befallen the surviving crew members, turning them insane and violent, and making them fear heat and live off of the cold.
What is discovered is that the Captain followed in the footsteps of Danko, since like we said the stories are parallel. They explore very similar themes too, about leadership and how followers blame their leader during desperate times. Both are very humanistic stories. Cryostasis shows fundamental flaws in human nature and does so in a very powerful way. All of the horror you encounter is the result of nothing really extraordinary, just totally believable selfish acts done during a very trying time. It also shows us the difference that common decency and working together can make. It does such a good job at creating characters and portraying them as flawed but human; many commit terrible acts but it is very understandable why they do so, due to the desperate situations presented in the game. This is such a relief compared to one dimensional villains typically found in games, who commit evil just for the sake of evil.
The start of the game quotes Hermann Hesse. They could not have picked a better quote here.
My story is comfortless. It isn’t sweet or happy as fictional stories are. It has shades of senselessness and confusion, of madness and dreams, like the lives of people who no longer delude themselves.
Other quotes appear throughout the game which give insight into what Cryostasis is about, but this one stands out the most. It so perfectly applies to the story that Cryostasis tells. It is indeed a comfortless tale, really exposing serious flaws about humanity in a brutally honest manner. Despite the added happy ending, it’s not a sweet or happy tale and this ending can easily be seen as a hoax. Confusion and madness are prevalent throughout, and Cryostasis is all about breaking illusions and introducing a hard dose of reality to the player.
The story is integrated into the gameplay surprisingly well, primarily through the game’s “Mental Echo” ability, in which the player comes across dead bodies in specific areas of the ship, set up in such a way that you can determine how they died based on the scene. By interacting with the bodies, the protagonist goes back in time to when that person died, and the player must correct their fatal flaw. This is primarily how you advance through the game. The fatal flaw is always an act of selfishness, cowardice, or treachery. Through this we are shown that common decency and working together are the only way to survive such a catastrophe (or even avert it altogether).
Like the Silent Hill games, the design of the game’s enemies are symbolic. Of course all of them physically show the “cryostasis” which they have undergone (the name Cryostasis may very well reflect the fact that humans in the game acted in a very cold manner), but many reflect on the theme of imprisonment. One enemy for example has a cage and prison cell integrated into his face, while another is seemingly crudely bolted together, and another has his hands bolted to his head and wears a metal mask with a keyhole on the front. Imprisonment… for their actions that damned them.
Powerful and touching, Cryostasis is a humanistic story but for the vast majority of its duration a rather negative (but truthful) one. We may not even fully understand the final boss, Chronos, we wonder if he was just added in to make for a happy ending so that players don’t kill themselves once they see the full picture of what transpired on the North Wind, and once they realize how terrible humanity is. Yeah… that’s very likely. Since it’s through him and through Nesterov that the chaos is undone. Chronos gave the North Wind’s crew members a second chance. This “boss battle” involves “playing a game” with Chronos, the God of time. Small waves of enemies are spawned, who attack Chronos by default. Chronos tries to Hulk smash them and gets a “point” for each one he does. You get a point for shooting some strange projectile at the enemies, and whoever has the most points by the end of it wins (if you lose, you fail and have to start over). The projectile resembles Earth revolving in its orbit, the “game” is basically a dialogue between Nesterov who tries to save the fallen crew members, versus Chronos who thinks humanity isn’t worth saying and is smashing them with a club. Also a reflection of the entire game in which Nesterov thinks it is worthwhile to go back in time and save the fallen crew members.
One thing we have to point out is that Cryostasis has three endings, but we feel the story would have been more effective if all three were combined into one ending. In each ending the player corrects a critical, selfish flaw committed by another character, the available characters being the executive officer of the ship, the officer in charge of the prisoners (which were the cargo of the ship), and the officer of engineering. Each aforementioned mistake is powerful and highlights those three characters. We don’t see any good reason to split up the ending into three, the player should have to correct all three of their mistakes, especially since most people wouldn’t replay the game.
“You’ve made your last delivery, kid. Sorry you got twisted up in this scene. From where you’re kneeling, must seem like an 18 karat run of bad luck. Truth is, the game was rigged from the start.” – Benny
Game Title: Fallout: New Vegas
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: 2010
Platforms: PC, XBOX 360, PlayStation 3
Genre: Action RPG
Approximate Length: 150-200 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: No
Fallout: New Vegas is a remarkable RPG, the last truly excellent one. It was crafted by Obsidian, one of the most talented studios of all time. Like many other elite RPGs, had it not been rushed by the publishers (Bethesda in this case), it would be far better, and most likely on our main list. It was not even given two years to be developed, despite being a massive open world RPG with heavy story focus unlike every other truly open world game in existence.
You play as the Courier, and the game begins with your botched execution after delivering yet another deadly package. A revenge plot sprouts from this, but it is New Vegas itself that tells most of this game’s story. Post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, accurately depicted I might add from a geological point of view. The Vegas Strip lives on, practically separate from the war and devastation that surrounded it.
Unlike Bethesda’s own Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, Fallout: New Vegas is professionally written. The world is believable on both a macro and micro scale, while Bethesda fails at both. An example of the former would be how there is still some form of civilization and hierarchy in New Vegas (more than one in fact), something inevitable considering that these three games take place approximately two hundred years after the nuclear war. As for the latter, that would refer to more subtle details such as settlements actually being located in believable places; near fertile land or bodies of water for example.
Every faction has their own story. Its story of the NCR (New California Republic) is a continuation of that from the first two Fallout games, a representation of post-apocalyptic law and order with questionable history leading into a good political story involving the Great Khans (also a continuation of the first Fallout). A new chapter for the Brotherhood of Steel was written for this game, and New Vegas introduces a new faction, massive in size, that is able to compete for power with the NCR, and that faction is Caesar’s Legion, representing a new tribal philosophy rooted in human history. Many smaller ones, such as primitive tribes, exist as well. Unlike Bethesda’s Fallout game and like any respectable story, these factions have enough exposition for them to be worth discussing long after completing the game. They are not just plot devices, they all contribute to the game’s world and story.
The same goes for the characters of Fallout: New Vegas. It has some of the most complex and well written characters in video game history, bringing with them some of the finest dialogue this industry has ever seen. The dialogue of New Vegas is stylized, truly distinct, like a well written fantasy world is supposed to be.
Time constraints caused various aspects of the NCR, Caesar’s Legion, and their conflicts to be rushed. Events that should be seen and shown do not occur, because they did not have time to include them. The scale and threat of Caesar’s Legion is not properly conveyed, the controversy of the NCR should be experienced first hand far more than the game currently shows. But publishers will be publishers, greedy and impatient as always, and games will always suffer from it. Still, New Vegas is a masterpiece.
Its four story DLCs combine to make their own story that ties into the base game wonderfully. The strongest literary highlight of Fallout: New Vegas is showcased by three of these DLCs above all: Old World Blues (a hilarious satire nearly reaching Fallout 2’s level of ridiculousness without the excessive cultural references, easter eggs, and breaking the fourth wall), Dead Money, and Lonesome Road. Dead Money and Lonesome Road serve as some of the best character studies in gaming and just ooze atmosphere. Lonesome Road also doubles as a strong philosophical allegory about the impact one person’s careless actions can have.
“When Bates was given a look at our technology, he was overcome. As a human, his first thought was, “What can I use this for?”, when it should have been, “What is the cost of its use?” Technology exploded in their hands because they are NOT burdened with our longevity… humans rarely live long enough to see the consequences of their mistakes.” – Loghaire Thunder Stone
Game Title: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Developer: Troika Games
Release Date: 2001
Approximate Length: 60-80 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Yes
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is one of the best RPGs and best games ever made. It has a unique steampunk fantasy setting, resembling 1800s United Kingdom, but with more advanced technology in some areas along with the presence of traditional fantasy races and tropes such as elves, dwarves, orcs, ogres, and magic.
As expected, its story is one about industrial revolution and it explores the benefits and consequences of it from various perspectives, like the nature loving elves, the stout dwarves, and the short lived humans. Industrial and technological revolution is pushing magick away in the world of Arcanum, creating obvious conflict. This much it does as well as anyone could hope from a video game. The same goes for its world building; it is a massive open world game, and every civilized location is uniquely written with its own lore and stories, a world where religion actually has a presence along with its controversies. Multiple religions of course, all explored either through optional character interaction, optional exploration, optional reading of religious texts, and quests.
NPCs are also written with greater attention to detail than most other games, and combined with its amount of role-playing (which is only surpassed by Fallout 2), and dialogue quality and authenticity, it makes for a plausible, believable, living world. It becomes so much more immersive than hollow RPGs from today for example.
Arcanum has more thematic depth and originality just in its books that populate its world, almost all of which are optional reads, than the entirety of most games. I spend quite a while soaking in the Tarant library every time, reading memorable autobiographies, short stories, essays and more. There is the beginning of an autobiography which told the story about the writer’s experience as a child being effectively sold into slavery at a factory (obviously an allegory about real 1800s factories) and how his unknown affinity for magick disrupted the factory leading to a memorable encounter with the supervisor and his gun. There’s also that short adventure story written in the first person that serves as some cultural exposition as well as an account about what to expect when exploring a certain mountain region in the game. I recall an autobiography of sorts about a man who was driven to study therapeutics and healing due to being unsatisfied with magical healing, only to find it to be an underfunded area of science as he worked with the inventor of the microscope in this universe to study Consumption (tuberculosis).
You will find books that serve as historical texts for the game’s many locations, a writer’s propaganda or beliefs about technology or magick (whether essays or poems), and how can we forget “The Orcish Question”? This two volume collection of essays and speeches is from a human who seeks a final solution to the Orcish question, a daring reference in two spectacularly written books. The “Orcish Question” revolves around humanity advancing and becoming more “civilized” due to the industrial revolution that is happening, and the brutish ways of the Orcs has no place in new human society, so the question is what must be done about this?
The author proposes that there may be medicinal ways to pacify them, a second self-proclaimed very progressive researcher agrees and that experiments should begin on volunteers and corpses (perhaps foreshadowing the Half-Ogre island quest). Another individual defines natural selection (the same definition we use) and states that it will take care of the orcs, but the author considers this irresponsible.
Volume two addresses a rumor (or propaganda) stating that Orcs are humans that have been transformed by cruel magic, bolstering the author’s anti-magick and pro-technology arguments while he addresses many strong arguments against his proposed final solution to the Orcish question.
There is obvious social commentary in many of these books scattered throughout the world of Arcanum, allegories and foreshadowing, loads of exposition. And so many of them have proper introductions. No other game I’ve played with books scattered around the world are quite this well written; they are truly expert in Arcanum. All the different books have unique style too, which makes me wonder how many people actually wrote them? Arx Fatalis and especially The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind are fairly strong in writing quality when it comes to lore books placed throughout the world, while modern AAA games such as Skyrim are really weak and lacking in soul and distinct writing style here. But Arcanum outshines even Morrowind in this writing.
So many of its quests (including optional side quests) serve to further expand upon the world as well as thematic elements of the story, delivering additional perspective and interesting characters to think about. The quests are also written far better than most other RPGs, especially modern ones which are ripe with fetch quests or “goose chase” type quests (e.g. find this person, then find that person, and each time said person is marked on your map, like in the disappointing Torment: Tides of Numenera).
For example, Arcanum literally incorporates an authentic Lovecraftian short story as a quest. This quest involves carrying out a detailed investigation into paranormal, creepy events. The investigation is an authentic one; it starts off by reading a nonfiction book written by someone who was investigating the matter at hand. Then it involves following up on leads mentioned in the book, which entails visiting a city’s public archives and inquiring about persons mentioned in said book, and more detective work along those lines. It is logical, diverse, and suspense continually elevates as you progress through the quest.
This is typical Troika Games greatness, evident in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines as well. Quests are unique stories in their own right, still connected to the main story of course, but they include their own unique themes, styles, tropes, cultural references, social commentary, and more. Dozens of quests like this appear in both games, it is a level of writing depth that you will not find outside of late 1990s and early 2000s RPGs (not at this scale that is).
Arcanum also suffers the same primary flaw of Bloodlines, and that is a rushed, unsatisfactory ending. It is a twist in Arcanum, no doubt about it. I found no foreshadowing for it. But it does not do the game justice and even worse, it completely abandons the industrial revolution themes. It seems unrelated and perhaps rushed, a worse conclusion than Bloodlines no doubt.
And what is this weak, surprise ending, you might ask? Skip this section if you’ve never beaten Arcanum. The game wonderfully builds up the conflict of magick vs technological revolution by showing you it and getting you involved in ways that make sense. As it builds this up, it turns out the antagonist is an ancient elf named Arronax, who was vehemently against technology. The ancient city of Vendigroth, the most technologically advanced location in the game (because of course you actually get to visit it), supposedly built some sort of device that had the potential to kill even the most powerful mages. Kind of like a country building nuclear weapons.
But when a country builds nuclear weapons, we all take a cautious approach with them. Not Arronax, who was an immensely powerful mage (both politically and with his magical prowess). He not only attacked Vendigroth, he eradicated all life from that part of the world. You see it on Arcanum’s map called the Vendigroth Wastes; it’s a wasteland because of Arronax’s drastic actions.
Expecting to be congratulated, Nasrudin, another elf on the great council who served as Arronax’s mentor at one point and brought him into the council (which was a controversial move since Arronax was young at that time), instead banished Arronax to the Void. This is about as bad as killing someone as you permanently send them to some dark void for the rest of their life.
The game builds up Arronax as the antagonist, who is looking to return, perhaps to finish what he started. And that’s what should have happened. You end up going to the Void as the game’s final location, similar to Planescape: Torment’s final mission in the Negative Energy Plane. And when you go there, you find Arronax, but he has no idea about any of the game’s plot events. He’s oblivious. Here, near the very end of the game, it is revealed that the antagonist is someone else who was hiding behind Arronax. The antagonist is revealed to be Kerghan, the very first necromancer in Arcanum. Kerghan was banished to the Void for his practices by Arronax himself.
You meet Kerghan and he tells you that he really loves being dead, it’s more peaceful than life so everyone else should be dead because it’s cool. Um… what? What happened to the awesome story about magick vs technological revolution and its commentary about the industrial revolution and humanity’s carelessness? You threw all of that out the window at the last second just for “I will save you all by making you embrace sweet death”? Really?
It is absolutely disconnected and thematically weak. What should have happened is, Arronax should have indeed been the antagonist, and he should try to convince you to join his side. After all, he wasn’t evil, just proactive and… maybe too trigger happy. Or maybe not, it should be up to the player to decide, perfectly fitting within the game’s immense role-playing and themes.
Join Arronax, who should have been revealed to have ordered the banishment of the Black Mountain Clan due to them letting steam technology fall into the hands of the humans who now want to take over everything with it. Or side with the industrial, technological revolution led by the Gnomish merchant guild that runs Tarant, with Gilbert Bates being the man to introduce you to them. So this would all have to be written in, the Gnomish merchants would have had to have been developed into characters and a faction of their own, and I guess Troika didn’t have time for it so worst case scenario is, use Gilbert Bates as their figurehead, basically informing the player that they’re not important enough to meet with the real ruling power of Tarant.
Or join Nasrudin and try to achieve a fragile balance (which should imply that it will never hold or be permanent). And who you side with should change the entire ending; siding with Arronax should literally result in war occupying Arcanum, and conquering Tarant being the ending. Siding with Nasrudin or Tarant should just involve assassinating Arronax while in the Void, and the game would end there as it does now.
Furthermore, unlike Bloodlines, not every quest in Arcanum (save for the last 1-2 hours given what we just stated) is brilliant; several side quests include excessively stupid, helpless NPCs, like a typical TV show or movie. Luckily these are few and far between, and at least the game makes them blatantly funny so it’s not as bad as having similarly crappy quests in a game that’s dead serious and relies on such weak design for more important quests (once again, I’m looking at modern day BioWare).
“Is cleaving a selfsame body in twain not kindly? An open wound is a window into the world. A shout is an arm reaching out from a gaping mouth. Tearing a healthy body to shreds with illness is like breaking a nutshell. It hurts men to outgrow their swaddling-cloth. It aches to shed old hides. When it runs at the seams, it aches. If you are too weak to bear it, you die.”
Game Title: Pathologic 2
Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge
Release Date: 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, XBOX One
Approximate Length: 25 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: No
Pathologic 2 is the most recent game featured in this article. It tells one of the most dynamic, responsive stories in gaming; few games are more responsive to the player’s successes and failures, most RPGs aren’t even despite this not being an RPG. Pathologic 2 is a re-imagining of Pathologic, a game initially released in 2004. So really you can count both games for this spot. Read our full review of Pathologic 2 here.
From a writing perspective, Pathologic 2 succeeds first and foremost at world building. It only takes place in a town that resembles an earlier 20th century Eastern European town with an industrial center, and also with dark fantasy elements to help distinguish itself further. Within this town you meet all sorts of people; actual characters unlike most games, whose motives you won’t be sure of. And there are just so many of them. The game buries its roots deep in Steppe culture and mythology. This town also has several prominent factions and leaders, and you will spend the game interacting with all of them. Often times their ideals will clash, and you will be in the middle and have to make a subtle choice. Not your typical point-and-click adventure game “A or B” type decisions either, as Pathologic 2 is one of the most dynamic and procedural stories of all time. It is so spontaneous.
But of course, the story of Pathologic 2 goes further than that in order to make this list. Not only does it create a unique yet believable dystopian world, the story packs the power of a 12 gauge slug. As the name implies, the plot revolves around a deadly plague that breaks loose, one that resembles the Black Death but is even more potent and lethal. Infected patients will be lucky to survive a day even with treatment, and they have almost no chance of surviving more than 2 days (it’s technically possible, just highly unlikely). But to raise the stakes, just about every character in the game can be infected at any time if they reside within an infected district, and which district will become infected is unpredictable aside from one time. All those characters you’ve gotten to know, love or hate? They can and will die at any moment. As the slogan says, you can’t save everyone.
But this is no normal plague, evident if you catch it and hear voices in your head. This plague has a purpose, perhaps even a mind of its own. It only affects humans, not animals nor the Odongh (“Worm” people). Throughout the game you will communicate with an entity that seems to actually be or represent the plague, and another character seems to communicate with it as well. Then there are the mysteries you can, but don’t have to solve, such as who killed the protagonist’s father and why, who is “The Eighth”, and more. Dreams and eerie late night plays in the theater bring obscure foreshadowing, there are so many elements at work in Pathologic 2’s story.
We mentioned fantasy elements in Pathologic 2’s story and world earlier; one of them is a spiraling tower that defies physics. There’s also a mysterious, unique looking cathedral whose purpose is unknown but rumor has it that it controls the flow of time. These inventions, created by genius minds, come with a cost; they defy physics thus they defy nature. The tower pierces the very heart of the town, pierces the Earth itself, and the plague was released by the Earth in retaliation. Earth’s children, animals or people who remain close to nature, are unaffected by the plague, but humans who defy it are not.
The earth itself seems alive in this town, and is responsible for the plague, albeit it was a reaction rather than an offensive move. The economic heart of the town is the slaughterhouse or abattoir, in which countless bulls were slaughtered. The blood of the bulls fed the earth, giving life to it. To cure the plague, the player must make a terrible decision, as the main ingredient to the cure is the “living blood” from the Earth. But, as with any living thing, drain its blood and it will die. Drain the blood of the Earth and kill it, killing its marvelous creatures like the Odongh and Albinos. Or you can preserve the earth at the cost of human life to the plague. The choice is yours in the end.
There is so much more to Pathologic 2 and isn’t even a complete story yet. It currently only has one protagonist and his story, but it will eventually gain two more like its predecessor.
“It’s hard to tell. The progression rate of mental disorders that we see is not encouraging. In fact, humanity as a species is degenerating. I don’t know what to blame for the initial virus that invaded around a hundred years ago, but scientists agree that this is a turning point in human history.” – Strelok’s notes
Game Title: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. NLC 7 Build 3.0
Developer: NLC 7 Development Team (GSC Game World for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl which this uses as a base)
Release Date: 2018
Genre: FPS / Survival Horror / Existential Horror
Approximate Length: 80-100 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: No
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. NLC 7 Build 3.0 (or NLC 7: I Am Marked One in general) is a total conversion modification for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. It is the only modification featured in this article, although Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is made by a game development team that began as a modding team. But in every way, NLC 7 is incredibly professional, with its writing quality putting most games to shame. It is one of the more complex stories in this list, but succeeds on every level.
It is a complete re-imagining of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, borrowing only a few of its plot elements but ultimately telling a totally different story (we’re about to spoil both, be warned). Shadow of Chernobyl’s story is simple but pretty good: you play as the mysterious “Marked One”, an amnesiac stalker in “The Zone” which is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone transformed by a mysterious second disaster in 2006, resulting in anomalous energy formations, deadly mutants, wondrous “artifacts” that can make you rich (the main reason “Stalkers” enter The Zone), and supposedly a monolithic stone in the center that grants wishes which nobody knows how to reach due to the “Brain Scorcher” frying your brain if you try to approach the Pripyat and Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant area.
In Shadow of Chernobyl, you want to find out who you are and why your PDA says “Kill Strelok”. The only people who will help you is a series of black market traders who use you to discover the way to the center of The Zone (since you are a gunslinger of heroic proportions unlike in NLC 7), where it’s thought that an untouched klondike of unique artifacts can be found. And so you do just this: by obtaining important documents while raiding secret Soviet laboratories, Marked One discovers that the Brain Scorcher is in fact a man made device, and a scientist helps create a device that allows him to enter the area under the influence of the Brain Scorcher and turn it off. Then you reach the center of The Zone, find out that you actually are Strelok, and you were accidentally programmed to kill yourself.
In the canon ending, which the vast majority of players don’t even discover on their first attempt, you learn that the Wish Granter is merely an illusion and that The Zone is the Earth’s response to a Soviet super-consciousness (7 minds joined as one) trying to affect the Noosphere, supposedly looking to remove negative factors from humanity such as anger and cruelty and greed, but since they’re Soviets one can assume they want to achieve global mind control. And so marked stalkers such as Marked One are basically sleeper agents, programmed with a specific purpose in mind.
It’s a simple but interesting anti-Soviet story for an action FPS, but nothing worthy of being included in this article. It is lacking in character development, although the characters you do meet are at least presented as being a somewhat distinct and totally believable person, there’s just a lack of depth. The world building, while a good start, feels incomplete, so anyone can immediately see this game is a brilliant concept that misses more potential than it realizes. And of course, that potential is more fully realized in its source material, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, and the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkvosky (for which the screenplay was written by the Strugatsky brothers).
NLC 7: I Am Marked One decided to take a similar fundamental concept from these works, and make a new game that is more inspired by the source material, and more inspired by the designer’s experiences on the battlefield. The end result is a one of a kind gaming experience rich in philosophy, character development, and weird but intriguing fringe science leading to some thought provoking and very eerie existential horror.
In NLC 7, you play as Marked One again, and it even uses the same cinematic intro. Although this time you’re not a gunslinging hero of heroic proportions; you do not single handedly carve a path to the center of The Zone in NLC 7, others do a lot of heavy lifting. You are not the first to discover any secrets about The Zone either, others have before you and you are largely reliant on their discoveries.
The outline of the plot is similar for a little while: once again you are amnesiac and have a PDA that says “Kill Strelok”, you meet the same core characters like Sidorovich and Barkeep who again have you obtain classified documents from the military base in Agroprom and secret Soviet era laboratories. But the nature of all of that is totally different, the characters are used differently, the documents are fully fleshed out and different, and the plot and story deviate completely. For reference, Shadow of Chernobyl is a 20 hour game, while NLC 7 is longer than 100 hours easily.
Now, where to begin with this massive, complex story? The world building which was obviously not complete or fully realized in Shadow of Chernobyl is far more complete in NLC 7. It is full of more stories, more inexplicable mysteries as expected for The Zone, making the entire setting out to be a more weird, unpredictable place as it is supposed to be.
For example, when the Brain Scorcher is disabled in NLC 7 (which you try to do, but fail to do and ultimately someone else succeeds at this, because NLC 7 doesn’t make you the only character capable of accomplishing anything), there are unexpected consequences. Now those near the center of The Zone don’t have their brains just melted like when the Scorcher was on, instead they feel apathy and powerlessness, they lose interest in everything. You will find groups of stalkers near the center of The Zone just sitting around talking about how pointless life is. This is the moment in the story (which you’ll come across probably 50-60 hours in) where you realize things are WAY more complicated and mysterious than you originally thought. The Brain Scorcher itself is a far more complex plot device than just an on/off kill switch, as you can see. In fact, after observing this field of apathy/powerlessness, the plot has you do more research into The Zone and correct your mistake: you must turn the Scorcher back on, though you can optionally re-calibrate it to not fry people’s brains.
Anomalies are no longer just deadly pockets of common energy, they are much more varied and far more… anomalous. Some create their own stories and their own legends, the same for artifacts. You interact with them in new, bizarre ways. What was once just an isolated “gamey” mechanic of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games is now its own thematic concept in NLC 7, and this is not the only example of NLC 7’s superior writing/world building and integration of different elements.
The writing of the quests is top tier unlike in Shadow of Chernobyl, being more logically open ended and having so many more impacts or consequences (more than most RPGs).
Main quests now involve characters who clearly have their own reasons for being in The Zone, their own philosophies about The Zone, they are delightfully so much more human, being far more reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s film in particular. There is a notable amount of self-reflection in NLC 7 that is really well written, conveying just how complex a person can be, even someone who is not remarkable or some kind of genius. No, humans are complex, they can deceive your expectations, you can like them or hate them and feel betrayed by them, in this regard NLC 7 succeeds merely as a story about people.
This is one of the things the designer wanted to reflect: it’s better to work with people and act human yourself than to be a monster and just kill, a reflection of the designer’s experience in war (here is an interview transcript with him). Upon receiving a request that involves confronting soldiers (in Shadow of Chernobyl you shoot every soldier you come across except for two), he reminds you that they’re people too, which is one of many things that sets the tone for NLC 7. You are encouraged to finish it without ever shooting humans. It even subverts your expectations by late in the game making you question the ethics behind killing “zombies” (by introducing a character with some sort of medical background who believes they might not be a lost cause), only after you’ve already done a lot of this.
No doubt this movie was much more of an inspiration to NLC 7 than the original game.
How do you pace such a lengthy story? It’s not easy, typically a 70-120 hour game story struggles with pacing issues and/or fails to deliver a satisfying conclusion after around 70 hours of build up. NLC 7 pulls it off. It knows exactly when to introduce a new element to throw you off; just when you think you’re coming to an understanding about something, all of a sudden a new question is raised that makes you doubt everything, and it’s brilliant. It also has some really brilliant foreshadowing.
One of the things about Shadow of Chernobyl is that the investigation into Strelok seems too distant. Throughout the game, you rely on Barkeep to decipher and dumb down documents for you, the information is filtered through him and you just take his word for things. In NLC 7 it is up to you to decipher all the vital information pertinent to the story that you come across. In the process of this, Strelok and his crew are developed into a multidimensional and complex cast, while in the original games Strelok is just another stalker looking to get rich and uncover the mysteries of the center of The Zone. Nothing else is known about the personalities of him and his team members Fang, Ghost, Doctor.
Words might not be able to fully portray how different NLC 7 is, and how much more rich it is. But Strelok’s group is something far greater than a group of expert stalkers in NLC 7. Strelok is more of a scientist in fact, and he is obsessed with uncovering the secrets about The Zone (more specifically the Monolith aka Wish Granter) and fully devotes his life to it. Ghost wants to be a master of destinies, a kind of Messiah, and manipulates everyone to achieve his own ends. When you finally meet him and converse with him, the dialogue makes him out to almost be a much more intelligent villain than most games, except he’s not really a villain, just a guy you’re probably not going to like. Less is known about Fang, he serves the story more as a victim as he was a brave stalker who Strelok sacrificed just to learn something else about The Zone, but Fang embodies an important fringe science and existential element about the story, being a creepy introduction to it while also serving as foreshadowing; he has been changed by The Zone so much that if you work with the Ukrainian Ecologists to have him rescued and examined, they conclude he is technically no longer human based on his brain pattern and physiological changes. You first meet him in Strelok’s hideout in Agroprom Underground where his appearance is badly mutated and his mental state has deteriorated somewhat, although he is capable of some coherent thought. But when exposed to the surface, he becomes like the “zombies” in the game. Through him, several ideas are initially introduced about the “zombies” in NLC 7 and the larger thematic scope about the Monolith’s mental influence and the nature of some mental illnesses like schizophrenia (introducing a theory that some cases are caused by people being disassociated with time, which does fit into the general symptoms of schizophrenics being unable to properly perceive reality), which we will go more into later.
Strelok’s group is larger in NLC 7, it is a group of scientists studying The Zone after already having learned something about some of its secrets. Throughout NLC 7, you uncover more and more information discovered by this group, and you meet some of its key members such as Ivar (who at the same time encapsulates the basis of the cut storyline about Baldy and his group). More and more NLC 7’s story introduces its fringe science and existentialism through these guys and their studies of The Zone.
The Monolith faction (worshipers and defenders of the Monolith/Wish Granter) is also properly developed into a group with its own ideology. With this and many other accomplishments, NLC 7 applies logic to where there are inconsistencies and plot holes in Shadow of Chernobyl. NLC 7 has no C-Consciousness, it isn’t an anti-Soviet story anymore. The Monolith/Wish Granter is revealed to be an alien thing, the result of a “collision of worlds” (dimensions) and this other world must be an immaterial one since two objects cannot occupy the same space, so since our world hasn’t been destroyed, it must be immaterial. NLC 7 makes sure to remain fundamentally scientifically sound in regards such as this.
The Monolith is merely the manifestation if it in our world. It is like an information virus, it feeds off of “mental images”, replenishing its own telepathic energies. And it seeks to expand its sphere of influence. Strelok’s notes use a computer virus analogy; in order to spread its influence, it attracts people to the center of The Zone, through its apparently limited influence over the Noosphere (causing people to generally be drawn to the center of The Zone without realizing why and without realizing they’re being manipulated), and most of all by creating artifacts to draw people more naturally (since it is not capable of fully manipulating humanity through the Noosphere). And when it makes contact with people, it substitutes a part of their consciousness with its own programming, essentially spreading its influence like a virus. The person is not entirely reprogrammed, but after this they’re no longer drawn to the Monolith, and will only feel apathy and powerlessness when near it (this is how it gets them to leave and spread its influence away from The Zone).
It is also revealed that the Monolith invaded our universe about 100 years prior, and is responsible for increased rate of mental illness in humanity. That is its influence. And some of those it reprogrammed to be defenders against those who wish it harm – the Monolith faction, which is not openly hostile to you in NLC 7. You get to meet their ringleader, Charon (actually Lebedev from Clear Sky, he was ‘reprogrammed’ into Charon), and read about his philosophies which provides insight into what it’s like to receive the call of the Monolith, developing the faction into something fleshed out unlike in the original game.
This also explains how the Monolith faction members can withstand the effects of the Brain Scorcher: many of the faction members predate the construction of the Brain Scorcher, since the Monolith made contact with our world 100 years ago, and since Monolith faction members have the Monolith’s “signature” programmed into its consciousness (computer virus analogy again), the Scorcher can theoretically be programmed to not affect those with its signature.
But NLC 7 is wise enough to not answer all questions. The exact mechanics to how it works are not fully understood, only just enough is understood to tell a coherent story while leaving a believable amount of mystery that does not leave any plot holes. The Brain Scorcher seems like it was constructed by perhaps Soviets to suppress the Monolith’s influence, but I’m not entirely sure. And the nature of the Marked One is also totally different; apparently he was someone in the process of being reprogrammed by the Monolith, but intercepted by Strelok or Ivar or someone in that circle, and then further reprogrammed by Strelok himself.
Then there’s the “Black Mark” artifact, a thing of legend that causes serious debuffs if you have it. Whoever has it cannot get rid of it by conventional means, they can only be rid of it by getting someone to willingly take it from them. You can receive it by killing people, suggesting it is almost like some kind of curse or omen. So it is possible to never receive it. Multiple theories are presented in-game about it; some say it helps spread the Monolith’s influence, but Strelok sees it as some sort of important key that might help resist its influence. But the fact that you receive it when killing people can lead to its own theories. Very late in the game, you can do a main quest that results in a team of Mercenaries giving you a strange tool that looks like a container of some kind, that can supposedly allow you to pick up a Gauss Rifle (normally it drops out of your hands, and if someone without a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tattoo picks it up, they disintegrate), but the effects of possessing this tool resemble that of the Black Mark…
The way this is all presented in NLC 7 is perfect. It is existential science fiction that doubles as a rich character study and horror game. To make it more powerful, it provides multiple ways to complete quests and is extremely responsive to them. It can make you regret or even fear your actions, you will go from being excited about collecting artifacts at first to being suspicious of them once learning that they might be bait by the Monolith. And all of those theories and partial explanations about the Monolith come from just one group of people, you’re taking their word for it. The superpower of the center of The Zone does not come and explain everything in NLC 7, unlike Shadow of Chernobyl where the C-Consciousness explains everything and leaves only a little bit of ambiguity (purely about its motives). The Monolith in NLC 7 is also an alien creature that reminds me a bit of Solaris in how truly alien it is and how it absorbs something from everyone it reaches out to, with this leading to existential horror in both works.
“You are a breach that must be closed. You transmit your pain, your suffering through the Force. Within you we see something worse than the teachings of the Sith. What you carry may mean the death of the Force… and the death of the Jedi.” – Master Vrook
Game Title: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: 2004 (XBOX), 2005 (PC), 2015 (Linux and Mac)
Platforms: PC, Linux, Mac, XBOX
Approximate Length: 60 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Not necessarily, but you can try
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords is nothing like your traditional Star Wars story. It is far more ambitious, philosophic, and morally ambiguous. It is not just a tale of good versus evil; it uses role-playing to greatly bolster its storytelling, and the characters are not one-dimensional. Much of the story involves one character, Kreia, showing the player character many different aspects of morality, some of which are seemingly more aligned toward light while others dark. But it is always up to the player to form conclusions, as it is never perfectly clear. This Kreia is one of the best characters ever written for a video game, and Knights of the Old Republic II has many other complex, well-written, and memorable characters throughout. On that note, it is incredible how responsive the characters are to the player’s influence—far more than most other RPGs even.
The entire game builds up wonderfully to several different points. Kreia judges you throughout, and is again alarmingly responsive to the player’s decisions and dialogue choices. Why does she judge and mentor you? This doesn’t become clear for a long time, as this is a lengthy game at around 60 hours long. The Force plays a major role in the story of Knights of the Old Republic II; it is often referred to as alive and having a will of its own, and that it connects all life together and with this connection our actions affect all others, for better or worse. This is stated in order to make you think about your actions before doing them, and it’s an interesting implication to think about and explained in such a way that translates to reality and again, makes you think.
But this connection can be abused. It can be used to track Force sensitive people, as they are of course more easily detectable through the Force. This connection to all life can even be fed on, perhaps even destroyed, and herein lies some of the ideas behind the game’s antagonists.
But think back to this idea that the Force connects all life together; what would happen if a massive loss of life occurred all at once? Such as the destruction of a planet? If even minor actions create ripples that have far reaching consequences (again, an interesting moral concept that can be taken from the game), what about an event as devastating as the simultaneous death of millions? The consequences would be unimaginable.
Needless to say, such events are referred to in the game, and are very important to the story. One such event, which occurred prior to the game, is revealed to have been caused by the protagonist and one of the game’s companions. This event occurred on a Sith planet called Malachor V, during the Mandalorian Wars—a crucial conflict also explored in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. To cut a long story short, during this war, the protagonist commanded the use of a superweapon created by one of the game’s companions, and this superweapon wiped out the planet. It also essentially ended the war, which is why the protagonist commanded it. To end the war, but at what cost? This event was so traumatizing to the protagonist that, according to the Jedi (it is also implied that the Jedi may have severed your connection to the force themselves), it caused him/her to lose his/her connection to the force, making him/her a wound in the Force and also making Malachor V a similar wound. Had the protagonist not lost his/her connection to the Force, the result may have been as described as the quote at the top of this page.
This concept, boiling down to catastrophic events with mass loss of life having further reaching consequences, damaging and endangering all life, is the anti-war cry of Knights of the Old Republic II. It is a motif that it carries throughout.
Kreia understands that all life is connected through the Force, she understands the dangers of wounds in the Force, and she strongly believes the Force has a will of its own, a will that is exploited by some of the other antagonists. This caused her to hate the Force, and she later reveals this is why she sought out the player character; in the player character, Kreia sees the potential death of the Force, as Master Vrook and other members of the Jedi Council also did. Only this did not scare Kreia like it scared the Jedi Council, it aligned with her intentions; to destroy the Force. To turn away from something as powerful as the Force is demonstration of power, force of will in its own right, something she mentions several times throughout the game to the point where it serves as foreshadowing.
In essence, a series of many terrible events such as Malachor V, and also the power of two of her apprentices who appear as game antagonists, are the reason as to why Kreia hates the Force. And it is a reason one can relate to, as told by the game’s story. Kreia is no Jedi nor is she a Sith, she is one of the best “grey” characters ever written for a game.
Knights of the Old Republic II is deeply rooted in morality and asks many questions, it is filled with complex themes and characters, and has more role-playing than most other RPGs. All of this results in some impressive, but not flawless storytelling. Perhaps it would have been flawless had LucasArts (the publisher) not rushed it. Knights of the Old Republic II is one of the most rushed games in history, being a 60 hour RPG that branches out substantially, and being made in only 14 months at most. This is a testament to the incredible talent possessed by Obsidian Entertainment, especially considering this was their debut title! Their first ever video game as a company.
But this rushed development, clearly an unwise decision commanded by publisher greed, has clear consequences. Some characters are far more developed than others, and it is clear that Obsidian had greater plans in mind for most of the characters. Under specific circumstances, depending on the player’s decisions throughout the game, various ending segments are clearly rushed, mostly with regards to the fate of some of the game’s characters. A few plot holes are also created, particularly if using The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod (although we highly encourage using the mod anyway for the fixes and restored content). Some pacing issues are also present, particularly earlier in the game. No doubt that if Obsidian was given a much longer development cycle, the story would have fallen together much better, and it would have resulted in this game getting a better spot on our list.
It is a story that sticks with you, as it is particularly easy to relate to. What is most surprising is that this story belongs to the Star Wars franchise. There is honestly nothing else remotely close to Knights of the Old Republic II within the Star Wars franchise, the complexity and moral ambiguity here is on a totally different level. It elevates the entire Star Wars franchise, highlighting the potential it has.
Here is a very truthful quote about the game from a Disqus user under the name JimiJons.
I viewed “the Force” simply as entertainment voodoo until I played Kotor 2 for the first time. Suddenly it was this tangible study on philosophy and the duality of human morality. I genuinely hated the Jedi for betraying me, despite understanding their reason for doing so. Another revelation in that the entire game was essentially a lesson Kreia wanted to teach you.
“In the waning years of the Third Era of Tamriel, a prisoner born on a certain day to uncertain parents was sent under guard, without explanation, to Morrowind, ignorant of the role he was to play in that nation’s history…” – Narrator
Game Title: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: 2002
Platforms: PC, XBOX
Genre: Action RPG
Approximate Length: 150-200 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Yes
If you have only played more recent games created by Bethesda Game Studios, such as Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 4, and/or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, then you may be surprised to find one of their games featured in this article. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was not written by the same writers as their later games, which is why its writing quality is on a completely different level. There are no real similarities between Morrowind’s writing style and approach and the later games, other than the fact that the protagonist is a special hero that is a prisoner at the start of the game, and the later Elder Scrolls games also have books scattered around the world filled with lore.
Where to begin with this open world epic game? At the start of Morrowind, you witness a dream of the protagonist in which the Goddess Azura speaks to the protagonist, telling him that he has been chosen. Also during this intro, words of the Nerevarine prophecy are put on screen for the player to read (quoted above). So right away, this idea is planted in your head about you being some legendary hero named Indoril Nerevar reborn.
The protagonist was a prisoner in an unspecified foreign land for an unspecified crime (unspecified for role-playing purposes), but was hand picked by the Emperor to be sent to Morrowind (island of Vvardenfell) on a top secret task. So right when you arrive, you are given a task of delivering an encrypted package to someone who you don’t know anything about. Off you go, like a newborn baby seeing the world for the first time. And what a visual spectacle this world is, especially with graphics mods enabled.
There are no objective markers; you are told where to go and given realistic directions on how to get there, and there are signs around the game world that can help you navigate. No hand holding here.
Once you deliver the encrypted package, the story picks up slightly, but the pacing is still distinctively slow compared to other games. Turns out this individual you delivered the package to is a member of the Blades, the secretive spy organization for the Emperor. You are immediately inducted into the Blades’ service as a low level recruit. But before you can advance this storyline, the recipient of this package and your new supervisor Caius (Grand Spymaster) tells you to go out into the world, understand the lore and its people, and gain a reputation. Become known. Then you can move on.
This is bold and, as it turns out, brilliant storytelling for an RPG. At first glance, its intentions seem obvious: the game wants the player to explore and learn about the lore behind the world. But why? Why does the player have to do this? Because it actually makes sense within the story as you would eventually find out. Jumping ahead a ton, the Emperor was well aware of the Nerevarine prophecies. You see, Nerevar is a legendary hero of this land. He united all of his people; both the Ashlanders and the Great Houses, which means he knew this land and its people better than anyone. The Nerevarine is his reincarnation and must once more reunite the Dunmer people, and remember that the game opens up telling you that you are the Nerevarine. The Emperor sent you to Vvardenfell to fulfill the Nerevarine prophecies, so Caius was given these orders which he relayed to you. To become the Nerevarine, you must know this land and its people in order to reunite them just as Nerevar once did.
And don’t think that the game starting off by telling you that you are the Nerevarine is a cheap storytelling tactic. It becomes obvious later on that there is cleverness behind this as well; as you progress through the story, learning about the Nerevarine prophecies and how there are different versions of this and different variations on the legend of Indoril Nerevar, one particularly wise Ashlander Wise Woman is able to convince you that you are not yet Nerevarine, but you can become the Nerevarine. Here, the game throws a curve ball at the player and makes you question whether or not you truly are the Nerevarine.
Furthermore, if you commit heinous acts of crime during the main quest, you will be told that you’ve thrown the Nerevarine prophecies completely off track and set into motion terrible events. With this, we have a level of role-playing and character agency never before seen in The Elder Scrolls franchise. You can say “screw this prophecy” and go turn the world upside down on its head, like various great RPGs that came before it.
But taking a step back, the player is encouraged to explore the world, talk to people in its various cities as well as the Ashlander camps, and reading political and religious books in particular. You cannot advance the story without doing this, and it makes perfect sense within the plot to be doing this. Quite a clever way of forcing the player’s hand to stop playing the game as if it were a corridor shooter.
And this portion of Morrowind leads to some really impressive writing. Unlike… any other game developed by Bethesda Game Studios, this story puts political and religious themes on the forefront, making it not a story just focused on being a hero and fulfilling a prophecy to save the world and destroy some evil. Let’s start with the whole “get to know the people and gain a reputation” angle: during this quest (which again has no objective markers, they are not present in this game at all to encourage exploration and thinking) you will learn that there are three Great Houses present in the district of Vvardenfell (the game’s setting), and you can join any of the three. These Great Houses are House Redoran, House Hlaalu, and House Telvanni.
In addition to the Great Houses, there are various Ashlander tribes around the world; tribes of Dunmer who stick to old traditions that predate the game’s predominant religion of the Tribunal. The other local/native factions in the game include the Morag Tong, a unique lawful assassin’s guild (that’s right), and Twin Lamps (rebellious anti-slavery movement that isn’t entirely local). Beyond this, you may join foreign factions such as the Imperial Legion, the superpower of the game’s universe that controls the entire continent and is governed by the Emperor. There is also the Mages Guild and Fighters Guild, which are self-explanatory and based out of the Imperial City in Cyrodiil, so they are very much in line with the Imperial Legion, and the Thieves Guild which is again self explanatory. Plenty of other factions exist in the game, but cannot be joined by the player.
You will learn the lore behind each of these factions, and they are truly unique and fleshed out which is a feat for video game writing. Very good writing here, but no doubt the game focuses more on all of the native factions which have more direct exposition than the others. These factions, especially the local/native ones of present and especially past, make up for the bulk of the game’s political themes. One of the key factors in choosing which Great House to support (if any) is the idea of whether or not the province of Morrowind should fight to break away from the Imperial Legion and become independent, or whether it should succumb to Imperial rule. The player is not pushed heavily in either direction, although it is certain that Indoril Nerevar would have fought for Morrowind’s freedom as he had done in the past when he still lived.
But even heavier political themes are unraveled when exploring the factions of the past, which includes the Ashlander Tribes which are still present during the game’s story. Morrowind really has the player studying the history of the game world, most particularly War of the First Council. In a nutshell (and I am greatly simplifying the lore here), Indoril Nerevar had united the Dwemer and Chimer (Chimer are the predecessors of the Dunmer, before they were “Dark Elves”) to drive off Nordic invaders, liberating Morrowind and securing its independence and freedom. Note that even this manifests in the game as its own story, it is not just glossed over. So Nerevar was already a legend at this point. But, as Nerevar’s advisors anticipated, the peace did not last. The Dwemer were a unique Elven race known for their technological advancement: nobody else in the world was comparable, and rather than worshiping spirits they worshiped their own machine creations. They made their own gods. Totally unlike everyone else in The Elder Scrolls universe.
The Dwemer lived primarily underground, always digging for materials to mine since they were engineers after all. But in their digging, they unearthed something that was not meant to be found: the Heart of Lorkhan. This is an ancient sacred artifact of unimaginable power, and it brings its own story to the game. Essentially, Lorkhan was a God that created the Mortal Plane (Nirn) against the wishes of the other gods, so as punishment his heart was ripped from him. The gods could not destroy this heart, so they sent it down into Nirn and did their best to hide it so that it would never be found. The Heart ended up creating the Red Mountain in the center of Vvardenfell, which is a massive volcano. Again, I’m really simplifying everything here.
Well, the Dwemer accidentally unearthed the Heart of Lorkhan, and of course they wanted to utilize its power. House Dagoth, one of Morrowind’s Great Houses and perhaps the most cunning one, led by Voryn Dagoth at the time, was able to discover that the Dwemer had found the Heart of Lorkhan. Relationships between the Dwemer and Chimer were already falling, but Voryn Dagoth performed his duty and informed his friend Indoril Nerevar of this news. Goddess Azura herself had to step in and tell Nerevar that the Dwemer were using the Heart of Lorkhan to create their own machine God. With this news, the War of the First Council erupted.
The culmination of the War of the First Council was the Battle of Red Mountain. The Chimer had defeated most of the Dwemer and surrounded them in their stronghold, within Red Mountain itself, where the Heart of Lorkhan was kept, and where Kagrenac’s Tools were stored which were created by a Dwemer High Priest and Magecrafter to harness the power of the Heart. The Chimer won, the Dwemer lost as far as everyone is concerned. All of the Dwemer disappeared upon use of Kagrenac’s Tools on the Heart (nobody knows if the Dwemer did this to themselves accidentally, or if Vivec/Sotha Sil/Almalexia used the tools on the heart to vanquish the Dwemer). To this day nobody knows if the Dwemer are alive in some other realm or dead. But Kagrenac’s Tools and the Heart of Lorkhan remained a problem. Unfathomable power not even meant for mortals.
This is where the lore of Morrowind splits off into multiple accounts pushing different political and religious agendas. You cannot be certain which one believe, people will choose whichever variant they favor. Again this is real writing, there isn’t just one historical tale that is universally accepted as fact. In reality, people do write revisionist history to push political and religious agendas, and that is what we see here in Morrowind, and it’s written brilliantly due to its plausibility and how logical it all is.
One version of this tale states that Nerevar was gravely wounded during the Battle of Red Mountain, others make no mention of such a thing. It is agreed upon that after the victory, Nerevar tasked his friend Voryn Dagoth to safeguard the tools until his return. Nerevar then went to discuss the next plan of action, particularly what to do with the tools, with his council of advisors (Vivec, Sotha Sil, and his wife Almalexia). They decided to safeguard the tools, only on the condition that they never use the tools on themselves to gain divine powers. It was Nerevar who put forth this condition. They all agreed, and proceeded back to Red Mountain where Voryn Dagoth was protecting the tools.
Different variations of this story manifest here once again. What is certain is that Voryn Dagoth refused to give up Kagrenac’s Tools to the Tribunal. What is uncertain is why, but there are really only two theories here and it is hard to imagine anything else: either Voryn Dagoth used the tools on himself and became corrupted by their power, or he didn’t trust the Tribunal with the tools and perhaps wanted to destroy them due to the danger they posed. For the former theory, let’s also remember that House Dagoth had expertise in subterfuge and intelligence and cunning, so indeed using the tools may have been Voryn Dagoth’s plan all along, and he may have even had more knowledge of them than he let on. Or perhaps he was just curious as many people would be. Nobody can be certain, even after finishing the game, which is such a great writing decision by the game.
Either way, Voryn Dagoth was struck down here only to reemerge as Dagoth Ur, the game’s immortal antagonist, so he definitely did use Kagrenac’s Tools to empower himself. A minor variation here is that Dagoth coined the name Dagoth Ur for himself, another suggests that Nerevar gave him that name. Either way, Dagoth was defeated by Nerevar, and some versions of this tale state that Nerevar was badly wounded during this battle.
Following the death of Dagoth, Nerevar either died or disappeared. There are four versions of this: Either Nerevar died from wounds sustained during the Battle of Red Mountain, he died from wounds sustained during his fight with Dagoth, he wandered off and disappeared, or he was secretly murdered by his advisors Vivec, Sotha Sil, and Almalexia. None of those are singled out by the game as being the truth, but what is certain is that Vivec, Almalexia, and Sotha Sil all broke their sacred oath to never use the tools on themselves, as Sotha Sil eventually figured out how to use the tools on themselves to become gods, and they all did so. Upon doing so, Azura appeared and cursed the entire Chimer race, turning them into the Dunmer (Dark Elves), and she created the Nerevarine prophecy, stating that Nerevar will return to cast them down as false gods.
All of this raises religious questions such as whether it is right or wrong to make ourselves gods as the Tribunal did. Once they attained godhood, the Tribunal indeed worked to aid the people of Morrowind. Vivec in particular has many known, proven feats done in defense of the Dunmer. The true gods were distant and less involved, while the Tribunal was more directly involved and for the better. But was it the right thing to do? Especially if they murdered Nerevar because of it? Are they any worse than Dagoth Ur, who gained similar powers by using Kagrenac’s Tools and states that his main goals are to liberate Morrowind from foreign influence (Imperial Legion), rule Morrowind and even expand it? Suggesting that Dagoth Ur’s motives are not unlike those of the Tribunal or Nerevar’s even, though more ambitious and no doubt more… invasive since throughout the game he does invade people’s dreams and transform them into monstrous soldiers to do his bidding. These religious questions cross path with the story’s political questions, which invariably cross paths with its prophetic questions and themes.
This lore is presented to the player through unspoken dialogue and also lots of written books and notes. Voice acting doesn’t deliver any of it. But the dialogue quality and writing quality of these books is actually good, far surpassing all later Elder Scrolls games, showing that they can’t be the same authors.
The biggest story of Morrowind is, interestingly enough, the lore of the past. Learning about the Battle of Red Mountain, the Tribunal and House Dagoth, learning about the Nerevarine prophecies and then fulfilling them before heading back to Red Mountain to finish off Dagoth Ur once and for all. It is also discovered that Dagoth Ur continued the Dwemer’s plan of creating their own God out of the Heart of Lorkhan, which the Nerevarine destroys before its completion. Morrowind presents a grand, epic fantasy tale. There is nothing original about it, but it is just very well done and thematically complex for fantasy.
And unlike Oblivion, Fallout 4, and Skyrim, the strongest quest/writing content of Morrowind doesn’t come from expansions, it’s the main campaign that is the strongest part of Morrowind.
“Power is life to our kind. Those without power disintegrate into the nights of the past – hundreds of names I know once instilled fear, now unknown. You see, it’s not enough to attain power – one must also maintain power.” – Prince LaCroix
Game Title: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Developer: Troika Games
Release Date: 2004
Genre: Action RPG
Approximate Length: 30-35 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: No
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines claims this spot on our list. It is an action RPG developed by Troika Games. Its writing is unbelievably detailed, clever, multifaceted, and interactive for a video game. Only Fallout 2 can arguably be said to have more role-playing than it, and when you combine such thorough role-playing with some of the best writing quality video gaming has to offer, you end up with something truly special.
It is an official, licensed Vampire: The Masquerade product, thus existing canon besides the pen and paper RPG. One might expect that this mandates emphasis on lore and well written world building, and Bloodlines will not let such a person down. It is a mix of topics, themes, genres even, such that the player never knows what to expect. It can seamlessly transition from a more classic but incredibly well done horror theme such as the Ocean House Hotel, one of the most famous levels/quests in video game history, to delivering satirical social commentary riddled with intricate details, to being outright witty and hilarious, and much, much more. This is an impressive feat in its own right, not just for a video game. It takes supreme writing talent to pull this off, but Bloodlines makes it look easy.
Even for those initially uninterested in Gothic style vampire stories (such as I), Bloodlines will be captivating. Its writing is simply too good, too inviting, for it to be anything less.
Below is a quote from our review of the game, telling more about its story.
This franchise takes place in a modern day California (Los Angeles). As the name implies, a code called the Masquerade is in place, in order to conceal and protect supernatural, undead species. This setting is like the real world for all intents in purposes, save for a secret supernatural society that masquerades alongside us.
After you create your character, the game starts with a scene showing (off screen) your character becoming embraced by a Kindred. In other words, being turned into a vampire. Unknown assailiants then barge into the room and stick the two of you with wooden stakes. No, you don’t die, but you are incapacitated. Right after this we all get a taste of what is to come; political turmoil, your character (often called Fledgling) caught in the middle of it.
Your Sire (vampire who embraced you) is executed, and your execution is ordered by the Prince as well. But the de facto leader of a group called the Anarchs, Nines Rodriguez, stands up for you, and as a result of all the commotion stemming from this, you are spared. The game then takes off with a tutorial mission, and while it is a blatant tutorial, it makes sense. Your abilities are new to you, and the events during this mission add to the plot and world as a new faction and character are introduced.
After this tutorial, you are on your own, sent to the first of four hubs in the game—Santa Monica. RPG players will feel at home here. The hub design is loosely inspired by Deus Ex, a game which Bloodlines references a few times. Hubs are non-linear and have a decent amount of exploration although not nearly as much as Deus Ex. Quest content varies per hub; Hollywood has by far the most, Santa Monica has the second most, Downtown has noticeably less than those two, and Chinatown has by far the least because the last quarter of the game roughly was clearly rushed (Chinatown is the last hub unlocked).
It is not completely open world or free roam because hubs are unlocked sequentially according to main quest progression. Santa Monica is first, Downtown second, Hollywood third, Chinatown fourth. It is best to go out of your way to pick up side quests, as they are all outstanding in Bloodlines. Each hub has a uniquely designed sewer system, which Nosferatu players will use primarily for travel (although it is not technically required).
As you make your way through the game, it becomes painfully obvious (but in a good way) that you are nothing more than a pawn in something bigger. For the majority of the game you are used by the Camarilla (organized vampire group with the most power) prince LaCroix, the de facto Anarch leader Nines Rodriguez who seems more straight and honest, Anarch supporter and Baron of Hollywood Isaac Abrams (who is a sharp contrast from the actual Anarchs), and later on the local Kuei-jin leader Ming Xiao. Every one of these factions has an explorable HQ if you want to call it that. It is never clear who, if anyone, can be trusted, nor is it made clear what their true intents are. Even the first character you meet, Smiling Jack, a high ranking Anarch member, keeps throwing “What-ifs” at you if you choose to speak to him in Downtown LA, gauging your thoughts and reactions but leaving it at that.
Every character you converse with, significant to the plot or no, is a unique character. The writers obviously made it a point to flesh out everyone so that they have more than the bare minimum required for their role. An insignificant character will be unique in their own way, and everyone has distinct facial animations and mannerisms to set them apart. So much additional effort that so few games have.
Every character and every quest, including side quests, adds to the whole. These characters and quests are often different thematically; some rooted in philosophy, others social commentary and often satirical, others making fun of stereotypes. So multifaceted that you never know what to expect, such that it takes you by surprise emotionally, only adding to its potency and effectiveness. But they all fit, they all create different emotion, and they are all powerful and showcase a high level of writing talent that is very rare in gaming.
Bloodlines does a phenomenal job in casting the player in several directions, throwing you off and playing with your expectations. The first 3/4 of the game or so (out of a total of about 40 hours) does this in a pleasantly original way. I personally played this game for the first time in 2016, after having played most praised video game wRPGs, and Bloodlines had me hooked from the beginning despite me not having any prior interest in vampire related fiction or Gothic settings. It is original, the world is rich with lore that is presented in a fascinating way and explored deeply like only the best RPGs have done, the characters are remarkable and many are unpredictable, the quests have so much variety save for the last quarter of the game.
To be clear, the first 3/4 of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is as good as any video game RPG. One can’t expect better. It is so far ahead of the RPGs we get today in writing, world design, and in how much role-playing is possible. Like some of the other greatest RPGs such as Fallout 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, Bloodlines is extremely dialogue heavy. What I will remember most about Bloodlines is my interactions with other characters, and how unique they are for every playthrough. It ranks on tier 3 of our RPG tier list.
But, as you may have noticed, we keep specifying the first 3/4 and the last quarter (or maybe less than a quarter, but at least the last few hours). There is a discrepancy between them. Bloodlines was rushed, badly, which is why it’s unplayable without an unofficial patch. It’s also why the last quarter of the game moves too quickly, why Chinatown has too little content, and why there is a lot less variation and use of social skills in the last quarter of the game compared to the rest. It was rushed, and it shows. The writing and amount of content and quality of content (quest design) in the last quarter does not demonstrate the excellence shown by the rest of the game. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t quite do the game justice.
Still, all things considered, Bloodlines has such an interesting world. The story is filled with relevant references, introducing things such as ghosts, zombies, Gehenna, the story of Caine (the first vampire) and more. The mechanics behind… everything is explained well, like how vampires function. The backstory behind it all is intriguing and richly explored, unlike most modern day RPGs. The world and dialogue contain so much style that all meshes perfectly together, which so many of today’s RPGs are lacking. Bloodlines has real characters, interesting ones, not just quest giving bots or copypasta companions. Bloodlines also has roots in philosophy, and elements of satire as well that all add flavor to this already rich game.
From an era of superior RPGs, Bloodlines still stands out as one of the very best. Thus, compared to the RPGs today, well there hardly is a comparison. Bloodlines has much better than average writing, far more role-playing, but unlike today’s RPGs it was actually trying not only to innovate but to elevate the genre. Fallout: New Vegas was really the last RPG that tried to do this, although Divinity: Original Sin raised the bar for tactical fantasy RPG combat.
Otherwise, mainstream RPGs today are greatly reducing role-playing in favor of cinematic fully voiced acted design, dumbing down gameplay to resemble action games because today’s mainstream audience can’t handle real RPG gameplay, and they keep reusing stories and plots from past RPGs. Then we have indie RPGs and too many cater to the nostalgia of deluded fans and end up deliberately trying to resemble a 1990s game when it’s 2016. There is much to take from the best 1990s cRPGs, but not everything, and most of these indie RPGs lack in writing quality/depth/originality even in world design, and combat is only a poor imitation of some of the classics.
Whereas Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines takes on a 3D, more immersive visual style with fully voiced NPCs, without reducing role-playing or dumbing down gameplay, while having a unique world and story. We get almost none of this today. Best of luck trying to find an RPG that really tries to create a unique, fleshed out, rich world. The 3D RPGs of today all try to take after action games more than RPGs, and even the 2.5D ones (as if 2.5D vs 3D should have any impact on role-playing) have far less role-playing than Bloodlines. As good as all of its writing is, one of the more impressive aspect is how nearly the every dialogue and conversation is rewritten if you play as a Nosferatu or Malkavian, not to mention how other races have more unique dialogue than most other RPGs, and it has gender and race specific dialogue choices as well.
Because of the state of the gaming industry today, playing Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a real treat, but on the other hand it is saddening because such innovative, unique, and complex RPGs are certainly a thing of the past now.
Youtuber RagnarRox has created an excellent video review (even if it’s not the main intention of the video) of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines which we recommend watching.
“Mankind grows, and tries to from a whole, a community. But somehow, it becomes more dangerous, more angry, and with no direction for this anger besides itself and its world.” – Tuurngait
Game Title: Penumbra
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 2007 (Overture), 2008 (Black Plague)
Platforms: PC, Linux, Mac
Genre: Existential Horror / Survival Horror
Approximate Length: 8 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Not initially, but whether or not the player ends up saving the world by the end of it is debatable
We have talked quite a bit about its story, particularly in this article as well as this one, but we shall go into more detail here. Penumbra: Overture and Penumbra: Black Plague are the only episodes that concern us; Requiem does not add to the story so we will not speak of it. It’s not bad, it’s just useless.
In Penumbra you take on the role of Philip LaFresque, a 30 year old physics professor from England. Philip never knew his father, and one day he received a posthomous letter from him, trying to explain why he was never a part of Philip’s life. Work was too important to Philip’s father, more important than family. The letter also contained instructions to go to a bank in Mayfair, retrieve a specific safety deposit box, and destroy the contents inside. But instead of destroying them, Philip brought them to his University to have them deciphered. That was Philip’s first, and perhaps last mistake—simple curiosity, trying discover that which is not meant to be discovered. Not much was able to be deciphered, but they were able to decipher coordinates for an old, abandoned mine in Greenland. This is where Philip heads, and this is where the game takes place.
The first episode, Overture, starts off quite slow. As far as story goes, the most stand out elements in Overture are the ‘dialogues’ and monologues from the character referred to as Red, and the development of his character. His fate stands out as one of the most memorable moments in video game history. The plot also has a wonderful and mysterious twist at the end when the player comes across a large, mysterious, locked steel door with a blinding light shining through its window. The door is technologically advanced and has no business being in that old abandoned mine. Upon stepping through the door, it immediately becomes apparent that Philip not alone, that he’s being stalked. Philip is then knocked unconscious, Overture ends, and now you are ready to begin Black Plague.
The story picks up in Black Plague. The plot gets crazier, the game gets scarier, but it’s even more tightly crafted than Overture. The roller-coaster plot makes it seem longer than it actually is; both Black Plague and Overture are only around 4 hours each, so roughly 8 hours total. Throughout Black Plague Philip is infected with the so called ‘Black Plague’ (I don’t recall anything in-game calling it that, mind you) but the infection is incomplete. As a result, the virus manifests as a second personality which names itself Clarence. Clarence is listed as one of the greatest antagonists in video game history and he has more quotes than any other individual character or being in our best quotes article. He is truly a highlight of Black Plague, teasing and taunting the player at every step. There’s nothing you can do about it either.
Penumbra has a silent protagonist like many other games, but they do a wonderful job making conversations feel two-way. Especially with Clarence—any player will be very responsive to Clarence, we assure you.
Clarence keeps things interesting and thought-provoking for a while, and as you near the end, questions start to get answered. We’re not going to repeat what we wrote here, when we discussed the main antagonist, the ending, and the meaning of the story in detail, so give that a read if you haven’t. It is a horrifying story on a cosmological scale, featuring an antagonist, a being, of unthinkable power and ancient origins. It’s really like something out of a Lovecraft story, but more direct. Despite being quite direct, the story comes off as powerful, and it still leaves room for thought since the ending of Black Plague is somewhat ambiguous. Also, unlike Lovecraft, the story doesn’t stop with the realization of the ancient otherworldly being. It goes farther than that.
Requiem tries to shelve some of the ambiguity, which is a mistake. It was the answer to popular complaints about the fairly small amount of ambiguity at the end of Black Plague, complaints from people with no imagination or attention span. Think nothing of them. Play all three episodes yourself and come back and tell us if you disagree with our comments on Requiem and Black Plague. It adds nothing to the story.
Like several other games on this list, the effectiveness of the storytelling of Penumbra is bolstered by a perfectly composed score and quality voice acting. Things like this go a long way. Penumbra is an outstanding all-around game and the story is one of its main highlights.
It is also clearly inspired by System Shock 2 and makes lots of nods to it; the enemies in both games are infected creatures and mostly humans at that (though System Shock 2 has a lot more variety), and the thing that is infecting them is part of a greater hive mind entity which appears as worms in both games, and this entity antagonizes the protagonist in both games. Both games have a similar scale and pace as well. System Shock 2 is a great game to borrow from.
“Never. Part of the president’s job is to make the tough decisions. A lot of near-humans will sacrifice their lives for the return of humanity. Humans will prevail.” – President Dick Richardson
Game Title: Fallout 2
Developer: Black Isle Studios
Publisher: Interplay Entertainment
Release Date: 1998
Platforms: PC, Mac
Approximate Length: 25-35 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Arguably
The intro cinematic of Fallout 2 shown above, along with the quote we selected, they already imply that Fallout 2 is a stronger satire than any other Fallout game. It really is. In Fallout 2, you take on the role of a descendent of the Vault Dweller, and you live in an isolated, protected village called Arroyo. Similarly to the first game, your home is in danger; animals are becoming sick, crops are not growing. You must bring back a G.E.C.K., or Garden of Eden Creation Kit, a kind of terraforming module to bring life back into Arroyo. Off you go into the wasteland with very few leads once again.
The antagonist of Fallout 2 is the US government, or rather its remnants, now called the Enclave. Led by President Dick Richardson (Richard Richardson? Dick Dickonson?), their goal is to eliminate all mutants from the wasteland. Except most remaining humans are partially mutated, and even if you’re not they’ll gun you down if you have anything they want or if you’re just in their way like the family in the intro video.
The US government/Enclave is big and evil but it’s satire at the end of the day. The quote we selected is just ridiculous. Near-humans will die so humans will prevail? What really separates these near-humans?
The dialogue throughout Fallout 2 is just golden. Through the Enclave, Fallout 2’s satire not only pokes fun at politicians like the President above, but of course it also had to have a funny drill sergeant and other ridiculous yet largely believable characters which is why the satire is so effective.
But of course the Enclave is not without their own contradictions. Their strongest soldier by far is actually a Super Mutant which they modified in a lab to be the most elite Super Mutant of all. His name is Frank Horrigan, a totally delusional but incredibly dangerous mutant who prefers to refer to you as “Mutant scum” and the like, not even accepting his own nature as the nastiest mutant of them all.
Fallout 2 isn’t just great satire though. It shares the same strengths as the first Fallout with its characters and especially world building. The first two Fallouts are the reason why Fallout is one of the most iconic post nuclear apocalypse worlds. It sets up so much for awesome sequels like Fallout: New Vegas.
The unparalleled level of role-playing really elevates Fallout 2’s writing further, especially as a comedy. The reactions you get to low intelligence commits or witty, fiery remarks are priceless. The dialogue quality of Fallout 2 will forever stand as one of the absolute best in gaming history. It does have a bit too many blatant music references and fourth wall breaking for my taste, that demonstrate a lack of restraint at times, but at least they’re concentrated to just a few areas throughout Fallout 2.
“We’ve had to endure much, you and I, but soon there will be order again, a new age. Aquinas spoke of the mythical City on the Hill. Soon that city will be a reality, and we will be crowned its kings. Or better than kings. Gods.” – Bob Page
Game Title: Deus Ex
Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Release Date: 2000, 2002 (Playstation 2)
Platforms: PC, Mac, Playstation 2
Genre: First Person Shooter / Stealth
Approximate Length: 40 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Yes
Deus Ex really raised the bar with regards to storytelling and narrative in video games. To this day, of all video games it is Deus Ex that has the most thoughtful real world and political thematic discussions and debates.
The name is an ironic reference to Deus ex machina, as the game was to make it a point to avoid such overly convenient plot devices. It certainly does this, which is especially impressive given how Deus Ex might have more plot elements than any other video game story. It handles them all very well without overwhelming itself. Conspiracies and espionage? Check. Smart political debates and social commentary about different styles of government and which one better benefits the people? Yes. Religious themes and implications? Yep. Engineered virus to keep the population in check, among other drastic ways to control the population via technology? Check. Artificial Intelligence and exploration of their sentience and “consciousness?” as well as the controversy behind them? Check. Plausible scientific technobabble? In great quantity. Witty, clever protagonist who isn’t a complete idiot like most other game and movie and TV protagonists, and with memorable lines? Absolutely. And so much more.
Deus Ex is set in a dystopian cyberpunk future. You play as JC Denton, one of two nano-augmented field agents for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). Thus, you and your brother (the other nano-aug) are fundamentally the most advanced humans on the planet, however your augmentations are heavily locked down as you are a newly initiated agent whose performance is being evaluated.
UNATCO is secretly one of numerous agencies belonging to Majestic-12, the successors to the Illuminati which is the focus of the prequels. Rich people trying to govern the world. In exploring various places of the game, you learn about their ideology which traces back to the Illuminati and figures such as Adam Weishaupt. They are not flat out bad guys, and they are able to explain the benefit of centralized world governance. Of course their methodologies are controversial, going as far as creating AI programs to monitor all communications and creating a virus not only to control population but to create a state of emergency in order to give power to FEMA, a very important body of Majestic-12.
Deus Ex is filled with intriguing conflicts, many of which stemming from government ideology and their use of technology to control the population. Many such technologies are revealed and explored throughout the game, and it all involves the nano-augmented protagonist, J.C. Denton. This is a motif throughout the Deus Ex franchise—important plot elements relating back to the protagonist to add additional personal motivation.
Deus Ex makes sure to back up its points with facts every chance it gets, reinforcing its social commentary and thematic elements. Deus Ex’s story has the potential to be more eye opening than any other video game story.
All credit belongs to this video’s uploader. Remember how FEMA suddenly becomes some fearsome, conspiring force in Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Deus Ex actually elaborates on it using real world facts, a few shown starting at 2:42 in the above video.
This game has no filler content. Every conversation carries thematic meaning, from the small talk that’s not really small talk with Sam Carter which elaborates on themes relating to war, PTSD, what it means to be a soldier, and whether or not blindly following orders from the chain of command makes a good soldier. You can freely engage in complex political discussions in different parts of the world, making for truly unique cultures throughout the game which the later Deus Ex games do not have. Deep philosophical discussions about the influence of Triads in China and how it may even be better for the people than US capitalism. This game introduces so many different perspectives into important real-world political issues, and more than just that. Debates on technology, eugenics, genetic engineering.
Not only are these themes present, but they are uncharacteristically intelligent for a video game, and dialogue with miscellaneous NPCs as well as guard dialogue adds to the game thematically, unlike in its sequels.
What is interesting is that the dystopian world of Deus Ex really isn’t all bad compared to the present (greater emphasis on technological advancement for example), leaving much room for debate and discussion.
The game is intelligent to the point where Deus Ex essentially predicted the state of the world after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, before it happened. The video below by Accursed Farms explores this better than anyone.
The pacing is brilliant. As you play through it, Deus Ex continues to get deeper and deeper. It finds so many clever ways to discuss the aforementioned idea, and others. It ventures into System Shock territory to some degree, exploring the sentience and consciousness of Artificial Intelligence (although not to extreme depths). Like its sequels, it also contains hidden secrets about the protagonist’s past and ties them into the story very well.
There is more going on in Deus Ex’s story than almost any other video game story. It succeeds at bringing in real world examples and facts to illustrate its points. It is a game, and franchise, ripe with thoughtful social commentary designed to make us question not only the future but the present as well.
The storytelling of Deus Ex is tied together with its gameplay and environments. All three of these aid each other, and it may have been the first action game to do this. Through consequences resulting from the player’s actions, not even just obvious player choices either, Deus Ex’s story is alive and responsive. Environmental detail adds exposition, mood, even foreshadowing.
Wikiquote has a fantastic page for Deus Ex right here. You can replay it years later and still find new content, due to how much hidden content it has and how alarmingly responsive it is to the player’s actions. Another thing that stands out about it is its dialogue system; the player does not often get dialogue choices, rather the protagonist says things automatically like a cutscene. However, what the protagonist says is almost always dependent on your previous actions. Your actions determine his alignment thus his responses. An ambitious and bold design.
“Have you heard of the Talos Principle? It’s this old philosophical concept about the impossibility of avoiding reality – no matter what you believe, if you lose your blood, you will die.” – Alexandra Drennan
Game Title: The Talos Principle
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: 2014
Platforms: PC, Linux, Mac, PlayStation 4
Approximate Length: 40 hours including Road to Gehenna
Plot Involves Saving the World?: No
The Talos Principle is one of the finest demonstrations of video games as an art form and powerful storytelling medium, enhancing the story in ways only a video game can do. The artistic genius behind this game in all areas, not just its writing but its soundtrack, engine and visuals (both technically and artistically), and gameplay is hard to fathom.
It is a philosophical puzzle game that explores so many different topics, making it one of the most complex video game stories ever told. Topics include consciousness, artificial intelligence, mortality and immortality of man, free will, speciesism, it delves into existentialism and nihilism, and more. Yet it remains wonderfully coherent throughout, and again provides a unique perspective to all of its themes, even coming up with its own terms such as the Talos Principle obviously.
It ties its storytelling in with its gameplay, with each of them aiding and elaborating on the other. Everything works in synchronization within The Talos Principle. The storytelling is clever and the game is both sad and beautiful at the same time. A must play for any gamer, or anyone who is into philosophy and can solve puzzles. Please read our full review of the game which includes a story analysis.
“Catherine, are we alive?” – Simon Jarrett
Game Title: SOMA
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Release Date: 2015
Platforms: PC, Linux, Mac, PlayStation 4
Genre: Psychological Horror / Existential Horror / Survival Horror
Approximate Length: 15 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: In a way
SOMA starts off our top three. It is a psychological horror game made by the studio who also created Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. While Penumbra already has an entry on this list, SOMA is on a different level with regards to storytelling (and also with regard to polish, atmosphere, attention to detail, and intensity, but these aren’t the focus of this article).
There’s not much to say that we haven’t already mentioned in our review. It asks big questions, yet remains tightly crafted and focused throughout. It is morally ambiguous and very powerful, made even more riveting by how well it integrates its story into the gameplay. You’re going to feel guilt, you’re going to feel lost, you’re going to feel confused, angry, miserable, happy, and more throughout playing SOMA. It takes an exceptional game with outstanding storytelling to do this, and SOMA certainly pulls it off.
“Akachi – the Faceless Man, the Betrayer. All that remains of the man he once was is a glowing, featureless form, his face covered by an ornate mask. His eyes are devoid of intelligence, his actions dictated by instinct rather than purpose.” – Narrator
Game Title: Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: 2007
Approximate Length: 25 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: Potentially but not necessarily
Our runner up for the most amazing story in video game history is Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, a 2007 RPG expansion to the PC exclusive game Neverwinter Nights 2, both developed by Obsidian. While Neverwinter Nights 2 itself is a very good RPG with an above-average story for a video game, Mask of the Betrayer is the main highlight of the game bundle. It’s one of those games that is eclipsed by its expansions. Mask of the Betrayer was the first expansion made.
All of our previous entries are amazing games or expansions, but Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer kicks things up a notch, both in general game design and in storytelling.
Role-playing games have the best potential for incredible storytelling out of every other game genre. This is because of the interactivity, the responsiveness to player choice. In most of the other games on our list, the plot and character development are the same every single time. Sure, Silent Hill 2 has multiple endings, but the changes brought about by this are limited to the very end and don’t really change much. The endings either demonstrate James’ acceptance of what he has done, or his refusal to accept it (not counting the joke ending of course).
Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer on the other hand is arguably the greatest RPG ever made, and the main reason for this is how much influence the player has over plot events that transpire. Mask of the Betrayer is a direct continuation of Neverwinter Nights 2 so you play as the same character. Some companions return to have smaller roles, but overall Mask of the Betrayer is separate, parting ways with the base game to tell a much greater story with more interesting, distinct characters.
Since Neverwinter Nights 2 and its expansions are all role-playing games, we will be using the second person a lot since the protagonist is you and whoever you want to be when playing it.
Mask of the Betrayer is roughly 20-25 hours long. It is set in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms setting (D&D 3.5), taking place primarily around Rashemen, a countryside area populated by suspicious folk and many telthor (animal) spirits. It takes place right after the events of Neverwinter Nights 2.
You wake up in a mysterious dungeon, seemingly imprisoned although you are alone. A mysterious Red Wizard named Safiya comes to retrieve you, and you can get her to inform you that she was sent by her mother, Headmistress of the Red Wizard Academy she comes from. She’s also ignorant as to why she had to retrieve you—she was ordered only to bring you to her mother’s friend Lienna, and was given no extra details.
It is also revealed in this dungeon that you suffer from some kind of affliction, a curse. It is later discovered that this is known as the “Spirit Eater curse,” a legend of Rashemen. Those who suffer from this curse possess an insatiable hunger for spirits. The more they feed, the more they hunger, but not feeding results in death. It is up to you to decide how you will use this curse (inspired by Planescape: Torment of course, as was much of this game and story), how often you will feed, and who you will feed on. A brilliant role-playing aspect is that your curse evolves depending on how often you feed; new powers develop for those who feed a lot, and different powers develop for those who choose to suppress their hunger. This adds to the story since it shows that your choices do impact the world, creating a greater degree of immersion.
So your main goal is to find out the source of your curse, and if possible, to cure it. The Red Wizard companion will remain with you no matter what, even if the two if you hate each other—in this case she remains because it was her mother’s last wish (she dies somewhat early in the game… sort of, read on). Along the way you’ll meet some interesting companions, such as a great bear spirit named Okku who is viewed as a God by the local telthor spirits. Yes, Okku speaks Common. All spirits fear and hate you more than anyone else for obvious reasons (it is the Spirit Eater curse after all). Okku is initially a noble enemy; he gathers a spirit army and does battle against you because of the danger you and your curse present, and because you desecrated his family tomb (the dungeon/caverns you start the game in).
If you defeat Okku, you may devour him with your spirit eating powers, in which case he can’t be a companion obviously. But you may suppress your hunger and let him live, in which case he will join you to help you end your curse. It is later revealed that Okku once made a deal with a Spirit Eater—this Spirit Eater was a powerful mage but he did not want the curse to spread. He was noble, like you can be. Okku allowed him to create a magical warded prison in Okku’s family tomb—this is the prison you start the game in. This Spirit Eater died in this prison, as planned, and the curse was trapped. It wasn’t until someone brought you to this prison that the curse came back to haunt Rashemen, through you of course. Who brought you to that prison and infected you, and why? That is what you must find out. You can unlock some memories, in which you see two or three women cutting you open and removing the fragment of the Silver Sword of Gith from your chest, and saying “For love” which is of course foreshadowing.
Okku follows you to watch over you—not for your sake, but for everyone else’s sake. If you and your curse get out of hand, Okku is there to put you down, or die trying. His pact with the previous Spirit Eater puts him in conflict with his elders, who are angry at Okku (to say the least) for allowing the Spirit Eater curse to be trapped within their family tomb. Okku made a sacrifice; the curse was trapped, but it poisoned the dreams of his elders, disturbing their peaceful rest. This all comes up as a quest within the game, which can of course go in different directions due to the impact of player choice.
If you devour Okku, you are eventually able to recruit a different spirit companion in his place. This spirit companion, so to speak, is called One-of-Many and is recruited later in the game. It is thousands of tortured spirits trapped in one horrendous body. To make it even more disturbing, in life these spirits were terrible people, most of them at least. They were all enemies of Myrkul, former God of the dead (who ironically is dead during the time the game takes place), but note that this alone doesn’t make someone a terrible person. All of these spirits, including one innocent child, were cremated in a furnace in a church of Myrkul on the Plane of Shadow, which is where you meet this “One-of-Many.”
The initial dominant spirit is that innocent child who was cremated, now corrupted like all the others although not quite insane like most of the others. One-of-Many is always controlled by only one spirit at a time, but you get to choose which. This is where time constraints were apparent, and Obsidian wasn’t able to develop all of these spirits into fleshed out characters. They are distinct, but not detailed and lack both exposition and development. The child spirit, the most developed and most dominant one, is used well enough in this story; he is your guide down an evil path, which you’re already going down if you had the ability to recruit One-of-Many in the first place. A cunning, purely evil player will enjoy One-of-Many as his or her loyal pet.
Of course, Planescape: Torment had a similar character—an anchor to evil. This one was in the form of a speaking book. Mask of the Betrayer’s One-of-Many is more unique, although the name “One-of-Many” is a twist on Planescape’s “Many-as-One,” the hive mind ruler of a wererat group. On that note, another character that is a Planescape: Torment reference is the Shape of Fire in the Ashenwood. It was once a man, a tracker, that led a Spirit Eater to the Wood Man to feed on him, so as punishment he was sent to burn forever presumably in the Elemental Plane of Fire. He is now a living embodiment of fire, and Planescape: Torment has a companion that’s pretty much the same thing, Ignus.
Throughout the game you may allow One-of-Many to consume spirits, which join with it. You may call these spirits out, and they may control One-of-Many. Each one is a different class, leading to different gameplay and a very useful, practical companion. The child is a Rogue, another one is an Orc referred to as “The Brute” which is a Barbarian, and the third potential spirit is a Warlock. Here’s a gameplay tip: each one deals an insanely high amount of damage.
Another companion you meet is Gannayev of Dreams, or just Gann for short. While Okku is a spirit and One-of-Many is many spirits, Gann is a Spirit Shaman—a dreamwalker, and also a hagspawn. This hagspawn has the ability to walk in peoples’ dreams, where he has befriended spirits which he may call on for aid in battle. He is fascinated by your curse, and he can be recruited from a prison (or you can simply not recruit him at all), so he joins you because it’s in his interests.
Gann’s hag mother, Gulk’aush, is important to the story. She carries with her the aforementioned theme of love; she loved a man, a human, and with him Gann was born. But the Slumbering Coven, the ruling hags who feed off the locals’ dreams for power, disapproved of this. As a result they forced Gulk’aush to devour her lover alive, and then they locked her in an underground maze-like prison called the Skein for the rest of her days. The encounter with her in the Skein is another Planescape: Torment reference, in which you visit a night hag named Ravel Puzzlewell who is imprisoned in a maze.
The last companion (not counting Ammon Jerro’s cameo), although not necessarily the last since you can recruit her or Gann in whichever order you like, is a half-celestial named Kaelyn, also referred to as Kaelyn the Dove because of her large white-feathered wings on her back. This again is a reference to Fall-From-Grace from Planescape: Torment, both of which sharing some personality traits, and interestingly enough Grace is essentially the opposite as she is a succubus, a fiend. Grace has fiend blood while Kaelyn has celestial (think angel) blood flowing through her veins.
Kaelyn is a former Doomguide of Kelemvor, turned cleric of Ilmater. She is banished from her homeworld on Mount Celestia for abandoning her faith, immediately raising questions about the judgement of gods and whether or not religion is truly important—more important than one’s deeds. These are questions that form the backbone of the story. Kaelyn serves as the guide to what the story is really about.
She, along with various texts found earlier in the game, will inform you of the Betrayer’s Crusade which was led by Akachi, now known as Akachi the Betrayer across the planes. This actually isn’t much of a reference to Trias the Betrayer from Planescape: Torment, just a similar title is all. Akachi was a Doomguide of Myrkul, the God of the dead before Myrkul’s demise and Kelemvor’s succession. Kaelyn follows in his footsteps; both abandoned the God of the dead.
The Betrayer’s Crusade is a story of its own. Akachi fell in love with a woman, who would go on to become the founder of the Red Wizard Academy of Thaymount (she is simply referred to as the Founder in the game, or the Red Woman) where Safiya teaches. Her life was suddenly taken from her when a spell she cast backfired on her, and this is heavily implied to be Myrkul’s doing as a test of Akachi’s faith, again portraying gods in less than favorable light. Well, Akachi failed this test. As a Doomguide, it was Akachi’s duty to comfort the dying, but death wasn’t a simple passing for everyone. Those who didn’t worship any deity were sentenced to the Wall of the Faithless, Myrkul’s creation, where their spirits suffered for an eternity. It didn’t matter if one led an honest, good life. If they didn’t follow a deity (any deity) they were tied to this fate, since deities view themselves as our benefactors but they are sustained only by our faith. Akachi’s lover was faithless.
Akachi pleaded with Myrkul for mercy. He could not stand to let his lover suffer on the Wall of the Faithless for an eternity. As a side note, this goes to show that Akachi was rather selfish, for he did not seem to have a problem with tens of thousands (or more) of other souls being trapped on the Wall of Faithless. Keep this in mind if you were thinking about calling him a hero.
Myrkul would not answer Akachi’s pleas, so Akachi abandoned his faith and led a crusade into the City of Judgement, house of the God of the dead in the Fugue Plane, with powerful allies including demons and other spirits he struck deals with, promising them great power. The crusade failed, and Akachi was cast onto the Wall of the Faithless. But just before he lost his mind completely, his essence was pulled from the Wall of the Faithless, creating the Spirit Eater curse which Myrkul released onto the mortal planes as a warning for what would happen to those who betray him. This was his punishment for Akachi, and it was horrible indeed. Since this was centuries before the game takes place, and since Myrkul was killed centuries earlier as well, it makes sense that the truth behind the Spirit Eater curse is not known by characters in the game.
So the Spirit Eater curse is Akachi’s twisted essence, which replaces none other than your soul. Again, the protagonist being without a soul is a direct reference to Planescape: Torment, in which the protagonist has no soul. This goes further when meeting the Wood Man who explains that the curse changes your very nature, and that you can’t cure yourself from it since you cannot defeat your nature. “What can change the nature of man?” is the question that drives the story of Planescape: Torment, and in both games those trying to go against their nature suffer in their attempts.
In both games, the lack of a soul makes the protagonist flawed and incomplete, a soul is not meant to be separated from a person. The hunger you feel is the eternal hunger of the Wall of the Faithless, thus making the player character a slave to the Wall. For this reason, those with the Spirit Eater curse are bound to the Wall of the Faithless, and this is why there is no typical “cure” as it is the punishment of a God. This is extra motivation for you to cure yourself. More motivation is born if you romance someone. Only Safiya and Gann are romanceable and both are straight, for this game precedes the LBGT requirement that modern games have. Gann is bound for the Wall of the Faithless since he is, well… faithless. He mocks gods and those who worship them, so he of course wants to join you on your trip to the Wall of the Faithless.
We mentioned that Kaelyn explains Akachi’s crusade to you. What we didn’t yet mention is that she is also your link to starting a new crusade, or at least to your trip to the City of Judgement to try and cure yourself. Regardless of whether or not you lead a crusade, she will lead one. If you lead one then you two lead together.
While Akachi’s fate was terrible, and while he failed to tear down the Wall of the Faithless, he was able to do what he really wanted, and that’s remove his lover’s soul from the wall. She remained hidden in her Academy and devised a plan to save Akachi. Through powerful magics actually explored in the academy (because this is a detailed story that tries to cover its bases), she was able to split her essence into three pieces; Nefris, who is Safiya’s mother, Lienna which is the woman you were supposed to meet early in the game in the city of Mulsantir, and Safiya herself who represented all that was good about the Founder. It was the Founder who infected you with the Spirit Eater curse in the first place, because she believed you would be able to succeed where Akachi had failed, and lead a successful crusade against the Wall of the Faithless.
The Founder was not without her adversaries though. She was Akachi’s lover, but Araman was Akachi’s brother. It is implied (by the Founder) that Araman had problems with his ego for living in the shadow of his brother, which he denies of course. He opposed the Founder and his brother; he believes in order on the planes, and going to war against the gods will destroy this order. He has a good point. The Founder, on the other hand, says that love should triumph over all. Again, it’s up to you to decide. Will you follow in Akachi’s footsteps and lead his crusade? Remember that you are bound to the Wall of the Faithless too. It’s possible to not lead his crusade, and instead plea for only your soul to be removed from the wall thus curing you of the curse. To become one with your soul again, yet another Planescape reference.
Araman is the one who led a coup early in the game against the Founder, since he knew the truth behind her. This is what led to the murders of Nefris (Safiya’s mother) and Lienna, who were slain by Red Wizards (Nefris offscreen). There is a point in the game where you have to side with either Araman or the Founder.
The Founder’s trust in you is very understandable, after all you are the one who defeated the King of Shadows while wielding the Silver Sword of Gith, which ironically is the key to opening the portal that Akachi created which leads from Myrkul’s church in the Plane of Shadow (in Shadow Mulsantir specifically) to the City of Judgement. Akachi led the crusade wielding the Silver Sword of Gith, and you may follow in his footsteps.
Kaelyn the Dove is far more noble than Akachi, for her motives are not selfish at all. She does not have any loved ones bound for the Wall of the Faithless, nor is she bound there herself since she is a cleric of Ilmater (thus not faithless). She sees the Wall of the Faithless as a cruel injustice, and seeks to tear down the wall for that reason. She doesn’t want to rescue just one person like Akachi did. But it is also suggested that the Founder becoming a victim of the Wall of the Faithless opened Akachi’s eyes to the injustice, which caused his motives to grow. It’s up to you to decide what to believe.
In our lengthy summary we did skip some things, such as the heavily symbolic dream sequences which offer lots of foreshadowing about the Founder and Akachi himself, and how Gann can walk you through these dreams. We’re just going over the most significant elements. We don’t want to drag on for too long, you know?
There is a lot of material to think about in this story, as you can see. From Akachi’s motives to whether or not Myrkul was unjust acting the way he did, and of course the Wall of the Faithless itself, we have a story that questions the foundation of religion and portrays gods as being far from perfect. Should we blindly follow religion? Should we consider deities to be the pinnacles of existence? But it’s not an anti-religion story, in fact throughout the game you will require the help of gods, showing the value in them, thus the value of religion.
Through the tale of Akachi and the Founder and how you and Safiya are tied in, we are given a love story that spans centuries or more, that spans mortal and immortal planes alike. We have a story about justice (Araman) vs love (Akachi and the Founder), and you are forced to ask whether or not love is selfish. You may also ask how far you would go for love, particularly if you play as a good character who romances someone.
We also have outstanding irony in this story. The way your character fills Akachi’s shoes is perfect, including the possibility of falling in love with an essentially perfect incarnation of the Founder in Safiya (this romance is encouraged for good characters by the game itself, similar to how romancing Liara is encouraged in Mass Effect by all three games). You can lead your own crusade just like Akachi did, with Akachi’s old allies on top of that due to the contracts he made with them (and this is done twice; metaphorically earlier in the game on an acting stage, and then for real near the end).
More irony comes from an evil player character who spins the story on its head. You suffer from the Spirit Eater curse, Myrkul’s creation. You meet Myrkul drifting in the Astral Plane. Yes, we said he’s dead, but gods don’t die like mortals do. He drifts almost asleep in the Astral Plane. You see, Myrkul didn’t just create the Wall of the Faithless as punishment for the faithless; it also strikes fear into the heart of mortals, and that fear sustains him since, as mentioned earlier, gods are kept alive by our belief in them.
Upon encountering him (the Founder did the same in the past), you can use your curse, Myrkul’s creation, to devour Myrkul. This seems incredibly ironic, and it is to some extent, but he anticipated this. Devouring him wouldn’t destroy him, his essence would live on within you opposed to just drifting in the Astral Plane, so he is okay with this. Here, a character who isn’t merely serving his self-interest will experience greater irony. If you suppressed your hunger more than you sated it, then by this point you will have an ability called “Eternal Rest” which grants a peaceful, eternal rest to tormented souls. Using this on him is incredibly ironic; Myrkul wishes for his essence to linger eternally, and he can be undone by his own creation, the Spirit Eater, but only one who is NOT selfish and evil. He couldn’t have anticipated the curse evolving the way it did, if the player successfully suppresses it throughout the game and gains the Eternal Rest feat.
More irony is present later on in the game. When finally meeting the Founder, and discovering that Safiya is but a fragment of her (which is even more of a surprise to her), she apologizes for forcing her will upon you, for infecting you with the Spirit Eater curse. She tries to explain it’s for love and justice, though it’s clear only love fuels her (justice fueling a Red Wizard is practically unheard of, although Safiya contradicts that stereotype). You have Akachi’s essence within you, and it’s very possible that your character has fallen in love with Safiya, a part of the Founder. She anticipated this, and it’s why she sent Safiya as your guide. Those who do romance Safiya are bound to agree with the Founder to some extent. “For love.”
But if you are a vengeful character, you might hate the Founder for what she did. You can use the Spirit Eater curse, which we remind you is Akachi’s essence, to devour the Founder, whom we remind you was Akachi’s lover. Safiya obviously won’t stand for this, so you can devour her as well. Horribly ironic.
All of this is why Mask of the Betrayer’s romance with Safiya is the best written romance in gaming. It’s actually significant, not just a tacked on romance for the sake of romance. It strongly ties into the story and creates resounding irony which is completely different depending on player choice.
If you choose not to lead a crusade, instead acting out of selfishness or perhaps if you think the crusade is wrong, to doubt and go against a God’s will is wrong (note that Kelemvor himself, the current God of the dead during the game, does not agree with the existence of the Wall of the Faithless or Myrkul’s methods), then it’s possible to end up in direct opposition to Kaelyn the Dove. You can even do the opposite of what’s expected and help quell the crusade, which will cause Kaelyn to turn on you. So instead of fulfilling Akachi the Betrayer’s position, you may betray the succession of the Betrayer’s Crusade by betraying Kaelyn and Akachi’s allies. This game truly uses irony better than any other.
The last significant piece of irony is at the very end of the game. Three fragments of Akachi still lingered all this time, throughout the curse’s existence: The Boy which represents Araman if we recall correctly, The Woman which represents his lover, and The Wall. These three pieces are given to you in three mask fragments throughout the game during dream segments; together they form the Mask of the Betrayer, which has the power to reforge Akachi’s lost mind, grant him an eternal rest, and cure you of the curse. If you do this, you end the game as a relatively normal, cured person.
The finale involves chasing down “The Faceless Man,” the confused shadow of Akachi’s existence, the curse itself, which you must battle. You can use the Mask of the Betrayer on him like we just said, or you can instead devour him, thus becoming one with your curse, maximizing its full potential. Having done this and having devoured Myrkul earlier in the game, Myrkul’s essence will live within you while you will have mastered your curse, essentially becoming a new, horrible creature of unfathomable power. Yet, because of your mastery of the Spirit Eater curse, you retain your mind and have more control over your curse than ever before. You are no longer a slave to the Wall of the Faithless.
Doing this puts you in direct opposition to Kelemvor and pretty much every being, mortal and divine, in existence. You can view the ending of such a character in the video below.
Myrkul and the Founder planned much with you, but you can outwit them, best them, and it’s wonderfully and horribly ironic. You start the game as a weakened, cursed man, and can end the game as a relatively normal man, or as a being feared by gods. It certainly helps that this game has one of the best soundtracks of any game, Akachi’s theme in particular standing out perhaps the most. There are so many ways to view this story, and you can act on your view without much limitation. This is why Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer is both one of the greatest RPGs and greatest games ever made, and to have all of this combined with some of the best writing quality in video game history is almost too good to be true.
“What can change the nature of a man?” – The Nameless One, Ravel Puzzlewell
Game Title: Planescape: Torment
Developer: Black Isle Studios
Publisher: Interplay Entertainment
Release Date: 1999
Platforms: PC, Linux, Mac
Approximate Length: 20-25 hours
Plot Involves Saving the World?: No
Planescape: Torment ranks number one on our list of best video game stories. Any seasoned PC gamer should have seen this one coming. It’s a PC exclusive D&D RPG like our previous entry; in fact Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer is very much a companion piece. It was heavily inspired by Planescape: Torment.
There are many similarities between Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and Planescape: Torment, since they had some of the same developers and Mask of the Betrayer was trying to live up to Planescape’s example. While Mask of the Betrayer did well enough to claim our #2 spot, we predict nothing will ever dethrone Planescape: Torment as the most well-written game of all time. The previous entries in this article are very impressive in their own right, but Planescape: Torment is on a different level.
As a whole, this game may possess the finest dialogue. Planescape: Torment is very much like a highly interactive novel shaped by player decisions. The writing quality is consistently top notch throughout. The writing style here, the language seen throughout the game, is one of a kind and immediately recognizable.
One thing that really separates Planescape: Torment from every other game is that every character in the game is actually a distinct character, opposed to a plot device. Every NPC, even unimportant ones, has a unique persona, attributes, and speech. This is illustrated through brilliant descriptive writing in conversation. It’s the thing that separates great novels from mediocre ones. The vast majority of games don’t even have one character, but in Planescape every NPC is a character. Even NPCs unimportant to the plot are well written, appearing to be characters in their own right. Again this is what elevates Planescape above every other game. It’s most impressive considering its a 20-25 hour RPG, not a game with only a very small group of characters like Silent Hill 2 (which only has about 5), Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (which really only has one), and Penumbra.
Likewise, every location in Planescape: Torment is brought to life not only visually but also in writing. The stories behind every location, the nature of their existence, all adds to the story tremendously. The first location is Sigil, the City of Doors, the center of the multiverse, ruled by The Lady of Pain—a mystery that not even the greatest Night Hag in the multiverse was able to solve. Some say Sigil is her cage, but all fear her, and it is her that keeps the armies from the Upper and Lower Planes out of the city. Sigil is a huge city, and within it you will visit so many unique, well written, and interesting locations.
Within this strange fantasy world you will come across inexplicable objects and encounters, and both familiar and strange beings from all around the multiverse. This is no generic fantasy setting, rather it contains a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar. It is common to come across bizarre, inexplicable, usable objects. You won’t know what it does until you use it, and even then it might yield nothing at first. But beneath these fantastical things, there is a sense of logic, obvious care from talented writers, nothing is weird just for the sake of being weird unlike the poorly written Torment: Tides of Numenera.
Then there is Curst, one of the Gate-Towns. Gate-Towns are towns located on the neutral Outlands, the edges of the Outer Planes, and each of these towns contain a gate to either an Upper or Lower Plane—a heaven or a hell. The story of Planescape: Torment tells of the power of belief, such as how the plane of Limbo is not made up of solid matter, rather it is shaped by thoughts from the creatures that dwell within it. And how deities are kept alive only by mortals’ faith in them, so if all were to cease believing in a deity, it would die and drift in the Astral plane for eternity. Thus, these Gate-Towns and their inhabitants reflect the alignment (Lawful Good through Chaotic Evil) of the plane which its gate leads to, and if the general alignment of a Gate-Town becomes completely in line with that plane, then the Gate-Town is subject to drifting into that plane itself. Curst, for example, is in danger of drifting into Carceri, home to Neutral Evil and Chaotic Evil fiends and demons. All of this is not just random information, it plays a key role in the plot, and adds to the story thematically.
Another impressive, relieving feat accomplished with its story is that it forces you to suspend your disbelief less than most other video game stories, despite the fact that it’s a fantasy game. You just need to accept that it takes place in a fantasy world very different than ours. All strange and magical systems are explained properly. You don’t have to swallow anything because “reasons.” Whereas The Talos Principle makes you accept certain limitations because the setting is within a video game engine simulation. You can’t perform certain simple physical feats for example because the simulation isn’t coded to allow it. It’s understandable why the simulation would be coded that way, but some may find this excuse a bit cheap at times. Not that The Talos Principle is horribly offensive in using cheap excuses, it is #4 on our list after all. But Planescape: Torment has none.
We wrote a lot about Mask of the Betrayer and we can definitely write even more about Planescape: Torment, but we’ll try not to. It takes place in various different interdimensional planes, primarily in Sigil, otherwise known as the City of Doors because it has portals that lead to perhaps every known plane. Sigil is ruled by a mysterious and highly feared ruler called the Lady of Pain, who is known to trap her enemies in mazes with no apparent way to escape. People are afraid to even mention her, and more afraid to worship her since she despises it. She keeps gods and fiends away from Sigil. She has many servants called Dabus, humanoid creatures who speak by forming symbols over their heads (the symbols look as if they are made out of light or something). These servants are constantly doing construction work around Sigil, and people are afraid to disturb them for they do not wish to incur the Lady of Pain’s wrath.
You play as an amnesiac man referred to as The Nameless One (though he has been called many other things as well). You awake in a mortuary to a floating skull called Morte, your first companion. You have no recollection of who you are or why you’re there, but a series of tattooed notes on your back shed some light on the situation (Memento anyone?) These notes tell you to read your journal (which is missing), to seek out a man named Pharod, and not to trust the floating skull. Morte, who has to read the notes for you, of course omits those last few lines. They aren’t discovered until much later in the game.
You soon find out that you’re immortal. Every time you died in the past, you reanimated but awoke with no memories. However throughout the game, if you die you keep your memories. You were only to forget for a certain number of deaths. Your goal is to find out why you’re immortal, and find out why you are being hunted across the planes.
As with Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, the protagonist has a unique gift and power; in Mask of the Betrayer it’s the Spirit Eater curse while in Planescape: Torment it’s immortality and the ability to regenerate wounds (this ability improves based on your Constitution score). It’s up to you how you use your powers; to help people or to harm people, or maybe you don’t care to do either. That’s what role-playing is all about.
Before leaving the mortuary it is possible to come across a tormented, lingering spirit of a woman named Deionarra. She refers to you as her love. She lashes out at you, cursing you for leaving her, but all of her frustrations are still second to her love for you. You can get her to reveal a little bit about you, telling you that you two traveled together and that she was your eyes and ears. One way to extract this information is by manipulation, and doing so causes The Nameless One to note that it felt as if this wasn’t the first time he had manipulated her. That is of course foreshadowing for what comes later, and it implies one way to play through the game; role playing as one who manipulates others.
The next companion you come across should be Dak’kon, a Githzerai. To keep this shorter than it needs to be, we’ll just say that the history of the Gith (both the Githzerai and Githyanki) are most important if you want to understand his character. The story of the Gith is one of faith and willpower, and the power they possess. Dak’kon joins his blade with yours, and it might seem strange how hasty he joins you. Indeed, it might also seem strange that Morte stays with you whether you like him or not. All of this is answered later in the game.
After some time, you and your party track down Pharod, who claims to have met one of your past incarnations. Pharod runs a gang and sells corpses to the Dustmen, who reanimate them to work as servants in the mortuary. All he cares about is profit. However he doesn’t know much; all he knows is that your past incarnation told him to find a specific, mysterious bronze sphere located in a crypt, and he doesn’t tell you why but it’s clearly extremely important to him. He makes you retrieve the sphere since he and his thugs were unable to, in exchange for information about you. Unfortunately, the only information he has is that his adopted daughter, Annah of the Shadows, found your corpse and sold it to the local mortuary. He agrees to send her with you to lead you to the site of your corpse—a site most people prefer to avoid. She of course becomes a travelling companion, and she is a possible romance choice.
Annah leads you to where she found your corpse. Oddly enough this part of Sigil seems alive; a stone face appears on the wall in front of you, and requests you help it trap and kill a Dabus who is doing construction work on the area which is restricting its growth (alluding to pregnancy). Then it asks you to revert the changes made by the Dabus. After doing so it informs you that it saw you killed by mysterious shadows that appeared out of nowhere.
It is also revealed that Annah is not sure why she was in that area when she found your corpse, and she can be coerced to reveal that she felt an inexplicable compulsion to go there that day. This is heavily implied to be related to the nature of The Nameless One; he is marked by torment and wears the Symbol of Torment to reflect this. The Nameless One attracts other tormented souls—all those who follow him, both in his current incarnation and all the previous ones. This plays a crucial role in the story.
This brings up an interesting aspect; you attract others and lead them down a dangerous path. This can be motivation to dismiss companions, for their own safety. Or you can use it against their will, use it as leverage, if you play a manipulative character.
By retracing the footsteps of your past incarnations, you find enough clues to point you to Ravel Puzzlewell, a notorious and incredibly powerful night hag who is mazed by the Lady of Pain for challenging her and threatening to open the way to Sigil, allowing demons of all kind to pour in. It’s interesting to note that throughout the game you can learn quite a bit about several of your past incarnations. One was utterly paranoid, and devised a trap for you because it considers its other incarnations to be fake, to be stealing his life. The most helpful incarnation is the so called “practical one” whose footsteps you end up following the most. This practical incarnation was the intelligent, manipulative one who used Deionarra as well as everyone else he encountered. Strange, mystical objects located throughout the game can shed light on some of your past incarnations, or other things.
Before meeting Ravel you encounter two other potential companions; Ignus, a mage and arsonist who was captured by other mages after setting ablaze to much of Sigil. As punishment they opened up a permanent portal through Ignus to the elemental plane of fire, so that Ignus burns always, but he is prevented from dying in order to make his torment eternal. But Ignus, lover of fire that he is, became one with the flame, accepted it and made it a part of him. He reveals that he was a student to one of your previous incarnations, who taught him the ways of the mage, taught him that suffering was the only way to learn. Therefore Ignus and his flames are a reflection of the negative influence of The Nameless One, a reminder that what you do leaves lasting consequences on the world.
The other companion is Fall-From-Grace, a succubus who founded the Brothel for Slating Intellectual Lusts. It’s not much of a brothel; rather than sex, the “prostitutes” engage in various kinds of conversation for the more intellectual residents of Sigil. Grace and her prostitutes are Sensates; a faction of people who believe that one should experience as much of the multiverse as possible through their five senses. She joins you because she realizes she can’t learn any more at her brothel, and because like every other companion, she is tormented and feels a natural draw toward you.
Much is revealed during the face to face encounter with the legendary Ravel Puzzlewell (you did have one previous, less direct encounter which we didn’t mention, but it was brief). As expected, she had known one of your previous incarnations, but not just any of them… the original, mortal one. She is the one who made you immortal. Ravel was known to ask questions and riddles, and those who were unable to solve them were met with horrible fates. But your original incarnation posed a question to Ravel which even she couldn’t answer. This question is the backbone of the story: “What can change the nature of a man?”
Ravel then goes on to explain how she made you immortal. She did so by separating your soul from your body. She regrets it because through her wisdom she saw that a man and his soul were never to be made separate. She calls the ritual incomplete and a mistake. It was said early in the game that something had been taken from you, lost to you, something that no mortal should lose, and that was your soul. Your mortality.
She also explains that it was you who made the request—your original incarnation asked her for immortality, not knowing the consequences. The real question is why. What could drive a man to seek immortality? Power is an obvious answer, but what was your reason? This you must now set out to discover, and you must also try to retrieve your soul. This of course poses the question about whether or not such power is too much.
Ravel is the one who discovered that you lose your memory after each death. Of course, she discovered this by killing you right after the ritual was complete, which she did to test whether or not you were truly made immortal.
Much more is unraveled (pun intended) during the lengthy dialogue with Ravel. This meeting alone contains more character development than the entirety of most games! Not just for The Nameless One, but for each and every one of his companions as well, as Ravel reveals the torments that they suffer, and how this is their link to you.
It is revealed that Dak’kon also met one of your previous incarnations, and that he is in fact a slave to you. Slavery is a major theme in the story of the Gith, which he can tell you at any point in the game. Dak’kon once led a great battle against the Githyanki, but because of his lack of faith in the words of Zerthimon (which explain how important faith and a united mind are, and much more, all of which is the backbone of the Githzerai people) him and his people doubted themselves. The doubt weakened them and they were defeated. Much behind the Githzerai and Zerthimon studies the art of war and is reminiscent of Plato.
After his defeat, Dak’kon lied floating adrift in the chaos plane of Limbo, in which matter is shaped by the minds of the Gith. His mind was divided and so he drifted, dying. It was your practical incarnation that rescued him, bestowing upon him the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon which contained the words of Zerthimon. Although in reality, those words were cleverly crafted by your practical incarnation, so that you were able to rescue Dak’kon and gain his loyalty, manipulating Dak’kon into your servitude. Dak’kon pledged servitude until your death, and of course he didn’t know that you were immortal. This is why he follows you. This also led to the fan theory of The Nameless One being Zerthimon himself, although the developers have denied this.
Ravel also causes Annah to reveal her feelings for you. You bring her additional torment for she loves you and knows you’re doomed. Ravel also brings up the important point that Fall-From-Grace is tormented for going against her nature; a succubus is simply supposed to seduce mortal men and take their souls into the abyss, but Grace does none of this. This raises questions about whether or not people can change, and again “What can change the nature of a man?” (or in this case a woman), and the game leaves it for the player to answer. This is a very troubling conflict that’s touched upon wonderfully.
And there is so much more, for these companions and the rest. Too much to go into. Ravel reiterates that all of your companions are tormented, which is again why they follow you. You attract tormented souls because you yourself are tormented. It is also revealed, thanks to the intuition and empathy of Annah, that the reason the foul hag helped you so much was because she was in love with you. That is also why you end up battling her—she will not let you leave her again. Ravel also explains she was trying to help the Lady of Pain by unlocking the way to Sigil, because Ravel cannot bear to see one tied in chains. She considered the Lady of Pain to be a prisoner and Sigil her cage, an interesting thought. Note that the game never goes into much detail about the Lady of Pain herself.
Ravel reveals that the shadows that hunt you are the shadows of your previous incarnations, created after death. She tells you much, she can bestow upon you great power. Before battling her and leaving, she tells you to seek out an imprisoned Deva or angel. You leave the maze through a portal, which Ravel surprisingly knew about. She could have escaped her imprisonment from the Lady of Pain, but chose not to. Why? She says perhaps it’s because the world outside is too painful and cruel, although it’s heavily implied she waited there centuries for you.
The battle with Ravel leaves her seemingly killed, although it is a deceit. She survives, only to be killed by a mysterious, massive being called The Transcendent One. The two seem familiar with one another. After killing Ravel he disappears off screen and isn’t seen again until the end of the game.
Your quest to find your mortality takes you across the planes. The exit portal from Ravel’s maze leads you to Curst, a Gate-Town on the Outer Planes, very much a desert type area. Curst is a town of paranoia and betrayal. Here you will find the weakest of Planescape: Torment’s writing; nothing poor, mostly missed opportunities in its attempts at introducing the player to Curst’s politics. Skipping ahead, you eventually find a new potential companion, Vhailor (a Mercykiller, one who pursuits justice over all) as well as the Deva, named Trias, imprisoned beneath Curst. This encounter is kept fairly brief because Trias becomes more significant later in the game. He points you toward a fiend who he says may be able to help you with your quest to recover your mortality. Said fiend is found in the Outlands. To keep things short we won’t go over what happens there, we’ll only mention that this fiend sends you in search of the Pillar of Skulls which is located in Baator, a place that resembles the typical depiction of Hell.
“The Pillar of Skulls sprouted from the center of a clearing, ringed on all sides with craggy mountains whose peaks pierced the sky. The Pillar itself had the bile coming up to my throat… this horrible, towering, pulsating thing. Loathing churned my stomach, and a faint sense of familiarity prickled at the edges of my consciousness. The innumerable rotting heads which made up the vast pile constantly shifted and throbbed, alternately bickering, weeping, conversing, shouting and whispering to one another. Heads constantly bubbled to the surface of the stack from somewhere within its foul core, while others sank back into the grisly pillar. They stacked towards the sky: a string of stinking orbs that were less like bone and more a collection of pus-filled boils, layered over one another into a diseased foam that begged for a lancet to burst them.”
The Pillar of Skulls is filled with traitors, people who sent others to their deaths with lies. This is where Morte comes from, and this is where Morte may remain for eternity. This is where the game starts getting even more serious, this is where it really tests your priorities.
It is revealed that Morte sent The Nameless One to his death with a lie. The practical incarnation of The Nameless One pulled Morte from the pillar, and Morte traveled with all of your previous incarnations from then on (or at least tried to). The player may ask the skulls questions, but they demand something in return. Their demands include a drink of your blood (which permanently lowers your hit points), the blood of Fall-From-Grace, Morte which seems to be their preference, or knowledge that you possess. The skulls also talk to your companions, leading to more character development. On that note, Pharod himself has become a skull on the pillar (he was killed by your shadows earlier in the game), and he will call out to Annah if she’s present, leading to another powerful encounter.
What you need to know is how to reach the Fortress of Regrets, which is said to hold the key to your mortality. The way to get there is a portal key, as is the same with many other places in the game. The key for this one is none other than the feeling of regret. The skulls do not know where the portal is, but Trias, whom they refer to as Trias the Betrayer, does.
Remember that Trias is a deva, a creature born of good, with a naturally good soul. But in Planescape: Torment there is no clear cut good or bad and things are rarely as they seem. Of course, Trias, like most other key characters in the game, had met one of your previous incarnations. He did not reveal any of this to you, he lied to you when you first met him in Curst’s prison. Devas should not even be capable of lying, so this comes as a surprise. Trias is an extremist and a rebel, who decided to take matters into his own hands by starting a war against evil and going as far as using an army of fiends.
Trias, now escaped due to his trickery used against you, is able to shift the entire town of Curst into Carceri, a neutral/chaotic evil aligned outer plane. How does he do this? It is explained earlier (if you ask about it) that gate-towns like Curst can slip into the plane it borders, if the general alignment of the town (determined by its individuals and their actions) strongly aligns with the plane it borders. Curst is the gate-town to Carceri, which is a mix of neutral evil and chaotic evil as mentioned above. Trias wanted to let Curst citizens suffer for their folly, as many of them are evil. So Trias simply gave the town the last evil push it needed in order to fall into Carceri.
Once in Carceri, Fiends invade the town and slaughter all, as Trias intended. You fight your way to Trias in the Curst Administration building where the fate of Trias is decided. He can reveal much to you, such as the location of the portal to the Fortress of Regrets, and also his motives. Curst is a blight on the planes in his eyes, and it needs to be dealt with so he took matters into his own hands. This makes him quite the hypocrite since Curst is a town of betrayal and he is Trias the Betrayer. We won’t go into detail about his character in order to keep this shorter than it needs to be. The Fortress of Regrets is your next destination. It is located in the negative energy plane, which isn’t meant to be inhabited by mortals since negative energy fuels death and undeath.
So much transpires in the Fortress of Regrets. It is the final chapter of Planescape: Torment. Your relationship with Deionarra is decided here, and the same for your companions. All is revealed in an absolutely heart-stopping finale. Before stepping through the portal to the Fortress of Regrets you share a moment with your companions, since everyone views it as a potential suicide mission. Once you set foot through the portal, you’re all separated, and your companions are killed one by one by none other than The Transcendent One, but not after they each share a conversation, which serves as one last piece of character development for your companions.
Within the Fortress of Regrets you meet the remnants of three of your most significant previous incarnations; the Practical One, who journeyed to the Fortress of Regrets with Deionarra, Dak’kon, Morte, and one other. This one was the manipulative man who really came closest to discovering the truth. A good aligned incarnation is also present, who turns out to be the original you, the one who was once mortal and sought immortality. Also present is the paranoid one who tried to trap you in a sensory stone earlier in the game, and set many other traps for you throughout. The amount of dialogue you can share here is incredible, and it is all masterfully written.
As expected, the Practical Incarnation didn’t actually have feelings for Deionarra, he just used her for her gift of foresight and manipulated her so that she would be willing to remain within the Fortress of Regrets in spirit form, functioning as his eyes and ears. He is also the one who had tattooed instructions on his/your back, the one who saved Dak’kon by giving him the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon (which he forged himself). He reveals the secret behind the bronze sphere that Pharod sought; it was a dead sensory stone, containing the final memories/experiences of the original incarnation. He manipulated Pharod into believing that it would keep him from joining the Pillar of Skulls upon death, for Pharod had sent people to their deaths with lies numerous times throughout his life. The practical incarnation wanted to find out why he became immortal, and this bronze sphere once held the answer. It might have taken a very long time for it to be found, which is why he manipulated Pharod into finding it for him.
Much and more were the deeds of this Practical Incarnation. He is the one who removed Morte from the Pillar of Skulls, and he was the criminal that Vhailor was pursuing until he trapped Vhailor. If Vhailor is present at the Pillar of Skulls earlier, he will realize this and become hostile. Otherwise, he will turn against you in the Fortress of Regrets if you are chaotic and/or evil in nature.
Through each of these carnations you learn more about yourself. They all seem like completely different people. Does this mean that the nature of man can be changed? It’s up to you decide. The Good Incarnation is the original one, the one who sought immortality in the first place. Through him you learn why he sought it in the first place, and it was his answer to the question of “What can change the nature of the man?” His answer, and the reason for him seeking immortality, is regret. He regretted the life he led and thought that immortality would allow him to redeem himself. He needed more time than his mere human lifespan would allow, in order to right his wrongs.
The Transcendent One is revealed to be your soul, and it created the Fortress of Regrets through the feeling of regret alone. The Transcendent One is actually kept imprisoned here. It seeks to exist separate from you, and it represents the consequence of choosing immortality, something that is so unnatural. He sends Ignus to kill you if you are not evil, reminding him that you were the source of his torment, by making him suffer to learn the art of magic. He also sends Vhailor to kill you.
And the vengeful shadow spirits that dwell within the Fortress of Regrets? Those are the spirits of all those that died in your place. Whenever The Nameless One reanimates, someone else must pay for his life with their own. That is how his “condition” works, and this is one of the biggest consequences of his immortality.
Since The Nameless One is very much a fragmented soul, he is unable to face The Transcendent One. He, you, are too weak. In order to face The Transcendent One you must merge with the three previous incarnations. They can possess you, or vice versa. The choice is yours although your stats determine whether or not you have the willpower to possess them, especially the practical incarnation. Once you’ve all merged together, you may face The Transcendent One.
The showdown between The Nameless One and The Transcendent One transpires at the apex of the Fortress of Regrets. Littered around the two of you are the dead bodies of all of your companions who made it this far. The Transcendent One may reveal to you that you two share a bond; one’s soul can never be separated entirely from the flesh. This bond sustains him. He does not wish you dead, only separated from him. This encounter can go down in so many ways, we won’t go over them all. You two can battle, or not. You two may merge together, repairing that which was broken, but what happens from there is also the result of player choice. The player’s companions may be revived depending on the player’s decisions here.
Our summary doesn’t cover a whole lot, obviously it doesn’t do the game justice. The backbone of the story is the question of whether or not the nature of man can be changed, and if so, then what can change it? Through role-playing it is up to the player to answer that question. It is a story that shows the consequences one man’s actions can have on the universe (multiverse actually), and that to pursue something like immortality is unnatural. It is rooted in philosophy as it explores the meaning of life. A proper modern remake of this game would be hands down the best game ever made. As it stands, it is clearly at the top of the list of best stories in video game history.