In most game genres, it is rare to find a game with truly outstanding gameplay. It is even more rare to find a game with excellent writing quality, so we have written an article on the subject here. But what’s even more rare than those two things are games that combine both top notch gameplay and top notch writing quality. This article is dedicated to these rare gems, games with excellent and ambitious gameplay design and execution along with excellent writing quality. Such games are so rare that we were only able to come up with three, all of which are featured in the aforementioned article on best video game stories.
You might be wondering what constitutes excellent gameplay design? This really depends on the genre, the subgenre, and the specific direction of the game, so for the most part it can only be evaluated on a game specific basis. With that in mind, let us get started with our list of just three games. Hopefully this list will continue to grow. This list isn’t written in any meaningful order, I’ve just decided to go with chronological order according to their release date.
The gameplay of Deus Ex is by no means flawless, but its overall design and its strengths easily elevate it to the top tier of FPS, and one of its biggest gameplay issues has an extremely simple permanent resolution.
People call Deus Ex an FPS-RPG hybrid, although that is not exactly true. It certainly borrows from RPGs but ultimately it really isn’t one, similar to The Witcher games though it comes closer to being an RPG than those. You play as JC Denton, codename for a counter-terrorist agent working for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). You get to choose your actual name, and as with Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher games, you can push his alignments one way or another, but you don’t come close to having the absolute control of his personality that a real RPG requires.
But both of these games not being real RPGs doesn’t make them any lesser. Not at all. It’s just a genre difference. Deus Ex offers more freedom of choice than every FPS game out there (at least those that are not actual RPGs, so this excludes Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and Fallout: New Vegas), more than most full fledged RPGs even. The freedom you have in how you can act, e.g. the pace being totally dictated by the player, how you can kill practically anyone at any time as long as you actually have the means to do so, maps don’t blockade you with invisible walls. Deus Ex features one of the most interactive environments of any game, and this isn’t exclusive to loose objects being physics objects, but any computer and various things like vending machines and cigarette machines and newspapers you can use. You can even use a fire extinguisher to extinguish fires.
This 40 hour FPS is a magnificent journey, during which you will walk the streets and subways of New York City, Hong Kong, and France, explore the Paris catacombs, and infiltrate maximum clearance military bases like Vandenberg Air Force Base and even Area 51. The freedom of choice makes itself most notable when you do something and see other people react to it, in ways most games don’t bother to. Not just blatant forced “choice and consequence” like every game has nowadays, more like consequences without deliberate choices. One minor example of this, since we want to avoid major spoilers, is when you hear that there is a thief in the UNATCO HQ, stealing supplies. Eventually you can potentially find this person in the act, if you explore and actually find them. This is not a primary objective and this game has no objective markers, this is just something you can find if you explore. After talking to them, you can let them know whether or not you plan to turn them in, but if you go and talk to the quartermaster afterwards (which you do not have to do) then JC will automatically tell him that he found the perp.
NPCs also react to how you’ve been handling missions, since they hear of your progress. They applaud successful mission completion obviously, e.g. actually rescuing hostages, and they applaud the use of lethal force against the terrorists. They disapprove of you if you fail.
I could go on and on about impressive examples of Deus Ex being responsive to the player’s actions, so I’ll cut that short here. The game responds to things you wouldn’t expect them to, things full fledged video game RPGs would ignore. But there is more to its excellent gameplay formula than this.
Deus Ex benefits from being open ended in its gameplay approach, allowing the player to dictate the pace rather than forcing you to go from cutscene to cutscene like a console game. Every map has a sandbox design like the prequels, with tons of places to explore and multiple ways to approach every objective. You are not blockaded by synthetic obstacles and invisible walls, you can swim, you can climb (and some mods add vaulting that works on every ledge to improve mobility further). Often times you’ll have one path that might require lockpicking, another that might require hacking, another that might require a multitool, but it is not so “perfectly” designed like this since the world is not a perfect place. It is realistically designed; sometimes you won’t have all these options, sometimes your luck will run out.
However, almost all locked doors in the game, including ones impeding progress to critical story locations, can be bypassed with explosives. You can just blow them to pieces. The doors for which you cannot do this make sense, like the doors to military bunkers. This is such a strong benefit to sandbox gameplay design, a benefit I’ve only seen in select few outstanding RPGs like Fallout and Fallout 2. I’ve never seen it in a story driven game that isn’t an RPG.
Deus Ex uses clever foreshadowing in its level design, like the ominous presence of this mysterious high security locked door in UNATCO headquarters pictured above. You will find out what’s back there later on in the game. But in case you’ve forgotten, Deus Ex is an FPS so you might be wondering how the FPS elements are? For the most part they are superb, the only real exception is that weapons are unrealistically inaccurate unless you level up your pistol, rifle, and heavy firearms skill. This is really annoying early on in the game; you are a special agent but your aim sucks. But like I said, there is a very easy solution to this so I can’t hold it against the game too much, and the solution is to just use Cheat Engine to give yourself more XP (experience points) since the XP variable is in plain text.
So I actually recommend starting the game with your pistol, rifle, and heavy weapons skills fully maxed out, as this makes the game both more realistic and more fun to play. Once you get past this, Deus Ex has a remarkably well rounded set of weapons for both non-lethal and lethal gameplay, and it has the best augmentations in the entire Deus Ex franchise. Stealth focused players might wish to use the Spy Drone augmentation, which lets you pilot a drone for recon and even hacking things in the environment. Alternatively, combat focused players would probably instead opt for the Aggressive Defense System augmentation, which causes explosive projectiles fired at you to detonate before they get close to you – when fully augmented, they’ll essentially blow up in the face of whoever is firing at you, instantly blowing them to pieces.
So most augmentation slots force you to choose one augmentation or another, but the selection of augmentations is just so damned good, making JC Denton one of the more powerful protagonists you can play in any FPS, yet the science behind it all is sufficiently explained due to the game’s stellar writing which we’ll get to in a bit. You can get infrared night vision with the ability to see heat signatures from people and other objects through walls, from a fair distance even. You can get an augmentation to make you run super fast and take no falling damage. You can get super strength, an invisibility augmentation, augment your vision further to label hazards in the environment, so much more. All of this combined with how interactive the environment is and the versatile choice of weapons make for a truly elite FPS.
The weapons in Deus Ex are as follows:
- Combat Knife
- Throwing Knives
- Dao (Chinese sword)
- Dragon’s Tooth sword (Sci-Fi sword with nano technology, insanely powerful and one of the coolest melee weapons ever designed)
- Mini-Crossbow (only lethal ammunition is regular “Darts”)
- Glock 49 (10mm)
- Stealth Pistol (10mm)
- Sawn-Off Shotgun (12ga)
- Assault Shotgun (12ga, drum magazine)
- Bullpup Assault Rifle (7.62×51 NATO) with a large capacity rotary magazine and integrated 20mm grenade launcher
- Sniper Rifle (.30-06 for some reason, I’d prefer this be changed to .300 Win Mag or something similar)
- PS20 (stealthy single shot plasma pistol)
- Plasma Rifle
- Napalm Flamethrower
- LAW (fire and forget rocket launcher)
- GEP gun (rocket launcher with a secondary fire that lets you control the rocket)
- LAM (explosive device that can be placed on walls and such and detonates based on proximity, or just thrown as a grenade with a timed fuse)
Non-Lethal (most of these will knock enemies unconscious, which as usual for video games is a permanent state):
- Pepper Gun
- Riot Prod
- Mini-Crossbow (Tranquilizer darts put enemies to sleep, Flare darts simply light up an area, GMDX mod adds Taser darts)
- Gas Grenade (non-lethal grenade that blinds/chokes people without protection)
- EMP Grenade (disables robots)
- Scramble Grenade (causes robots to attack anything, so technically not lethal but will almost always cause lethality)
This weapons list covers all possible bases for such a game. Deus Ex also includes multiple ammo types for some weapons, such as the mini-crossbow, the GEP gun having both regular rockets and white phosphorus (WP) rockets which set enemies on fire, and shotguns which have 12 gauge buckshot or 12 gauge sabot slugs for armor piercing, as armor makes a real difference in the game. On that note, you can find and wear bulletproof vests throughout the game world (same for Hazmat suits and Thermoptic camo suits), which wear down appropriately; bulletproof vests and Hazmat suits will eventually break, Thermoptic camo will run out of energy (but can be recharged with Bioelectric Cells which also recharges your own augmentation energy).
On top of that, Deus Ex has weapon upgrades that can be found in the environment or purchased. The following upgrades exist:
- Accuracy increase
- Clip size
- Reload speed
- Recoil reduction
- Range increase
- Laser sight
- Variable zoom scope
These upgrades apply to every gun that should be able to accept them, and the ones that improve weapon stats (so the first 5 listed above) can be applied 5 times, each one providing incremental improvement. All in all, FPS games hardly get more fun than late game Deus Ex with fully upgraded weapons and augmentations, and the progression in the game is nearly perfect. The game is even technologically impressive; not just for its amount of physics objects and AI being actually threatening in a firefight unlike modern games, but attention to detail like mirrors actually reflecting things including laser sights.
GMDX mod, a must-have mod for any Deus Ex player (including first timers as it is a universal improvement mod) adds even more ammo types, namely 10mm armor piercing incendiary, 12 gauge rubber shells which is another non-lethal weapon added to the list, Taser darts for the mini-crossbow for further non-lethal use. The game also has infrared night vision goggles, and as I mentioned before lockpicking, hacking computers, using a multitool to affect/change the flow of electricity in a circuit to bypass certain systems, so many ways to do things. Can’t find the security computer that controls cameras and remote turrets? You can just destroy the cameras and turrets instead (and if you hack a turret, you can make it fire on enemies instead). Of all games with usable computers, Deus Ex is also one of very few that retains basic functionality such as highlighting text and copying and pasting. When using numbered keypads (for door control security), you can also use your keyboard to type them out instead of clicking on numbers with your mouse. Attention to detail like this just elevates various gameplay elements in Deus Ex from great to perfect.
So there is a spoiler in the video below, but really not a big one.
Deus Ex doesn’t have much synthetic difficulty (increasing your weapons skills and using GMDX mod to play the game on Realistic difficulty mode will remove all of it), it is instead logical. An example of this is the boss fight in the video above. In most games, this would’ve been a long, drawn out boring boss battle that follows the same formula as every other FPS boss fight (shoot this specific part on the boss, then this part, then this part, and so on). But no, the boss you’re fighting here is human. A superior human due to nano-augmentation technology, but human nonetheless, so one explosive is all it takes to eliminate him. Likewise, augmented enemies use augmentations that you yourself can get. As long as you explore and find augmentation upgrade cannisters, you will be superior to almost everyone you fight, with Walton Simons in the video above being one of very few exceptions. Yet the game is never too easy since you’re almost always outnumbered.
Yet when most people talk about Deus Ex, they almost exclusively talk about its story and “role-playing” (really its interactivity, NOT role-playing). Also, there is a major flaw in Deus Ex’s gameplay even with the GMDX mod, and it is with AI detection which makes it a pretty bad stealth game. If one AI spots you, others will know your precise location. But the FPS gameplay of the game is so good that it deserves to be on our list.
We wrote about Deus Ex’s story in this article, so we’ll keep it brief here. Deus Ex was actually a prophetic game; to briefly illustrate this, know that it was released in 2000 and the initial plot involves terrorists blowing up the Statue of Liberty, causing the UN to create UNATCO to battle “terrorists” around the globe. In the process, terrorism becomes the forefront of every day news like never before, and causing budget on counter-terrorism to increase tenfold, making defense contractors and other political figures rich in the process.
In reality, one year later in 2001 terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in NYC, prompting the creation of the US Homeland Security, and causing terrorism to become the forefront of every day news and life like never before, and causing budget on counter-terrorism to increase tenfold, making defense contractors and other political figures rich in the process. A pretty eerie coincidence, wouldn’t you say?
The video above is a snippet from a much longer excellent video review of the game. Do not watch either unless you’ve already beaten the game, since they spoil everything. The story of Deus Ex has so many layers and so much thematic power, and is so politically relevant today. It uses real world facts to back up its argument against world government and consolidated power, and this argument takes on many different forms in the game, forms that almost always mirror reality. It takes the most intelligent approach in writing a politically relevant story, and does not rely on deus ex machina to cheat its way out of tricky situations.
Deus Ex is so much deeper and more relevant than its prequels, without he severe writing flaws they have in creating an unbelievable world. Deus Ex’s world is so believable and at the same time so terrible that it is scary. A warning message for where society is going, and the facts it uses to support its arguments cannot be denied. You will explore different cultures in the US, Hong Kong, and France, and the pacing of Deus Ex is utterly perfect. It uses tropes that can easily go wrong and damage the story like Area 51, Men in Black, and Illuminati (which is not nearly as present compared to the prequels), but instead it uses all of that to its benefit. That takes real skill.
It’s ballsy and it takes a stand, the writing is consistent throughout and feels perfectly orchestrated, and has the ultimate most satisfying finale (plus multiple endings). I don’t think there will ever be another game like Deus Ex. JC Denton having truly awesome and hilarious one liners is a nice bonus.
Honestly, none of the other Deus Ex games need to exist. I would go as far as saying they all harm the franchise even… and that includes Invisible War, Human Revolution to a lesser extent, Mankind Divided, especially The Fall. Not one of them adds meaningful content to the world of Deus Ex, and they all harm it. Invisible War introduces character inconsistency and is an unnecessary sequel to begin with since Deus Ex has the perfect ending and answering any left over ambiguity is a mistake. Human Revolution and especially Mankind Divided have world building issues, with mechanically augmented people somehow becoming the oppressed ones; this is not realistically portrayed. So yeah, I’m suggesting Deus Ex be just one game due to how close to perfect it is especially from a writing standpoint. I pretend the others don’t exist.
Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer
Mask of the Betrayer is the first expansion for Neverwinter Nights 2 which is a D&D 3.5 based RPG released in 2006. In terms of gameplay, it is currently the most ambitious video game RPG ever released in many ways, implementing more D&D content than any other game which results in it having the most classes, playable races, among the most skills, the most combat abilities and spells out of all video game RPGs ever released. On top of that, it has outstanding role-playing potential, as described in this article.
And because this content comes directly from D&D 3.5 ruleset with minimal changes, that means its ruleset including its ability scores, abilities, spells, classes are all as logical as any RPG gets. Quality and quantity both at the top of the heap. Neverwinter Nights 2 provides the most possible character builds of any unmodded video game RPG, only being bested by Neverwinter Nights with the PRC mod (which integrates substantially more D&D content than even NWN 2).
Every element of Neverwinter Nights 2’s gameplay is meticulously designed. The HUD is almost completely customizable to your liking, so are the crucial AI parameters for your AI companions. It is fully moddable (as is every game on this list), you can play in third person mode or isometric, both of which are highly customizable once again. Everything about its gameplay is very faithful to D&D 3.5, and the changes made to adapt it to a video game make sense. It is one of the best balanced games I’ve ever come across, particularly when playing it on “D&D Hardcore” mode. No synthetic difficulty, everything an enemy is capable of doing he should indeed be able to do and vice versa.
We wrote all about its gameplay in this article, so we suggest giving it a read. In short, Neverwinter Nights 2 simply has the most versatile combat gameplay of all video game RPGs, and the balance is top notch and you can customize most elements to your liking. It has lots of physics objects, including doors, so the things that impede your progress generally make sense. It has more creatures and enemy types than every other unmodded video game RPG, and it is more ambitious than all the dumbed down RPGs coming out today.
We’ve also written all about the story of Mask of the Betrayer in this article, so really we have nothing new to say about it. To keep it short, Mask of the Betrayer has one of the most complex plots of any video game, which would normally cause me to have low expectations and expect it to be nonsense, since video game writing is traditionally terrible. Yet everthing in Mask of the Betrayer makes sense with the explanations given.
It is very emotionally powerful; you play as a person afflicted with the Spirit Eater curse, causing you to crave spirits for sustenance. You can give in and satisfy your hunger at will, causing you to be a monster, or you can try to use this curse for good. This same sort of power arc is given to you in the game Planescape: Torment, the main inspiration for Mask of the Betrayer, and it gives your role-playing more meaning and impact due to the amount of power you have and the effects it can have on the world and those around you. The plot involves trying to break this curse, but it is no simple curse and it leads to a truly epic journey that even takes you to the heavens.
Mask of the Betrayer manages to double as the best love story in gaming. No, this love story doesn’t have to involve the player at all, so don’t cringe. But it actually can, and I won’t explain why since it’d spoil everything and the aforementioned Best Stories in Gaming article already explains it all. Mask of the Betrayer is one of the best RPGs to experience as an evil character, like Obsidian’s own Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords. This creates so much brilliant irony in Mask of the Betrayer, the best use of irony I’ve ever experienced in gaming.
Be sure to play it after the original campaign of Neverwinter Nights 2, as it is a direct continuation so make sure you export your character at the end of the original campaign.
The Talos Principle
The last and most recent game on our list, The Talos Principle came as a surprise to us all. It was developed by Croteam who was only known for creating Serious Sam games before this, which are anything but story driven (but top notch in their own right). The Talos Principle is a story driven puzzle game, but Croteam’s writing prowess was a complete mystery leading up to this game. Well, they delivered and overachieved, blowing right past all expectations. It made our list of best video game stories, as did the other two games on this list obviously, and ranks highly on the list at that.
You take on the role of a robot clearly in some sort of simulation world, but the purpose is utterly unclear at first. As you play, a mysterious God-like figure called ELOHIM directs you. You slowly learn more about the world through audio recordings, but your purpose remains unclear. The Talos Principle unravels slowly, and when it does unravel it hits incredibly hard. Once you learn about your purpose and the purpose of this world, and once you learn about the fates of the people you’ve been listening to through recordings, the emotional impact is on a level that is hard for any story from any medium to compete with. Yeah, it’s that good.
We are not going to spoil these games in this article, so we will just have to say that The Talos Principle is a tragic, but beautiful humanistic story, mixing tragedy and hope in a careful balance to take you on an emotional rollercoaster. As for its gameplay? It is damn near flawless. Narrow minded gamers might for some reason think this being a puzzle game limits its gameplay, but it is no more limited than most popular shooters out there, and much more intellectually demanding obviously.
We have written a full review of The Talos Principle here, so we will keep this somewhat brief. The puzzles of The Talos Principle never get repetitive despite the game not being a short one. It poses distinct intellectual challenges throughout, and achieves the important feat of always feeling rewarding. The puzzles require certain tools to be completed, so by mixing and matching tool requirements does it achieve diversity. Many are physics based and are wildly fun, and another method it uses to avoid being repetitive is by actually being intellectually demanding. The puzzles seem to be of a nature that would appeal to the minds of a programmer or another very logical thinker, as logic prevails in The Talos Principle, opposed to say learning how to use unique technology like in Myst. The Talos Principle puzzles are purely logical.
Due to the logical nature of the puzzles, perceived difficulty will vary from person to person. For me, the game was very fun throughout, but I was only ever stumped on a very small amount of puzzles, most of them being near the very end when the difficulty/complexity increases significantly. Still, I never needed any assistance to complete them, just patient thinking. Then there’s the wonderful expansion, Road to Gehenna. Amazing puzzle design but I’m convinced some of those actually require a genius to figure out on their own, but I love that kind of difficulty since it shows exemplary creativity on behalf of the designers.
So these are the only three games we’ve found that deliver top notch gameplay and writing by video game standards (and as it so happens, all three have amazing soundtracks as well). We excluded games that might meet our writing requirement but aren’t quite so flawless in gameplay, such as Fallout: New Vegas, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, and SOMA. We considered them but decided the gameplay wasn’t quite stellar enough even though all of those do have very good gameplay, so consider them honorable mentions.
I think it will be a very long time before we see another game worthy of merely being considered for this list.
Well I wouldn’t put Deus Ex here in terms of story. Its writing quality isn’t even the best in this series. DX1 suffers greatly from lack of focus (putting too much philosophies and plot threads without fleshing them out all too much, putting too much themes that rarely ever complement each other or are bridged into thematic collective whole), inconsistency in tone, mood and genre, often expository dialogue (don’t get me started on Leo Gold conversation, brrr), often forgeting about golden “show, don’t tell” rule, almost everything is very direct to the point of spoonfeeding and most of the themes… Read more »
Most would disagree about Deus Ex as would I, but I’d like to hear more about your perspective. First I’ll note that voice acting has absolutely nothing to do with dialogue quality, and you seemed to blur the lines between the two. I find its dialogue about AI and political debates to be relevant and effective, and it remains meaningful throughout. Also JC’s one liners are quite amusing. And the story lives by what it preaches. The themes compliment each other throughout. They can all be grouped together into its main conspiracy story of the Illuminati controlling everything especially communications… Read more »
Unpopular opinion among video games players but it is actually quite popular among professional screenwriters, playwriters and so on (but not necessarily for the same things as me), at least the ones I talked to and are even bothered by video games. Poor voice acting can ruin even well written dialogue. If you voiced Hamlet’s famous line with Ronald Macdonald alike delivery then it would be completely ruined. Video games are not books, they are audiovisual medium so it must be taken into account. And DX1 VA is among the worst I’ve ever heard. Content of political debates and AI… Read more »
Hmm, I agree with quite a bit of what you say now and see it in the game. Indeed there are no in-depth political debates whatsoever, brief and shallow I cannot deny, but that’s expected for a game. You’d have to turn to books for more. JC engages in a few political debates himself (if you pursue them). They don’t have any more depth than any other similar conversations in the game, but I think it works for the game and it is enough to define JC’s political views (for which you lose all control over after you and UNATCO… Read more »