Science fiction is science fiction, no matter what form it takes. Good science fiction is good no matter whether you see it, read it, or play it. Even if they’re not gamers, sci-fi fans everywhere can appreciate a good story—no matter how it’s packaged and presented.
I happen to be a gamer. (Hey, did you hear that? That was Stephen King clucking his tongue.) While I do enjoy the mindless entertainment that many a story-less game has brought me (*cough cough* Bulletstorm *cough cough*), I find I have much more fun with a controller in my hands when I’m intellectually and emotionally engaged with what’s going on onscreen.
So, my fellow sci-fi lovers/gamers, I present to you my personal list of the five video games I’ve played that had amazing stories.
But before we do that…
Needless to say, there are some massive spoilers ahead, so if you’re a gamer and you don’t want your day ruined, I suggest you quit now while you’re behind.
1. Horizon Zero Dawn
I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on with this game when I started. The setting looks like the Ice Age, with huge snow-capped mountains, lush old-growth forests, and primitive tribes with their hair in dreadlocks and their faces daubed with purple paint.
Then I noticed all the giant robots walking around and thought, Huh?
You are Aloy. She’s an orphan, banished by her tribe, the Nora, for some mysterious crime. She’s brought up by Rosh, another exile. Rosh teaches her to hunt, to gather medicinal herbs, and to take down the giant, ferocious machines that roam this strange wilderness. Aloy is desperate to know who she is, who her mother was, and why her tribe exiled her. The journey will take her far from her homeland, into foreign lands and kingdoms, and up against strange new machines. Players will eventually realize that the mountains, deserts, and wastelands Aloy crosses are in fact part of the former American West (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming)—the post-apocalyptic United States. It’s a fascinating journey into a freshly imagined apocalypse, as seen through the eyes of a primitive tribeswoman a thousand years after the fact. The story is tight, the plot is action-packed, the characters are real and believable, and Aloy’s transformation from a sheltered back-country huntress to a street-smart, world-beating badass is a joy to watch (and play!).
2. Half-Life 2
“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world, so…wake up, Dr. Freeman. Wake up and…smell the ashes…”
You are Dr. Freeman, physicist and all-around badass who barely escaped the Black Mesa research facility after a scientific experiment went horribly wrong and a portal opened to another dimension and a bunch of vicious aliens got into our world and started wreaking havoc. Humanity has been subjugated by an alien race known as the Combine, and the entire planet is now some dystopian, 1984-ish nightmare. The Combine have practically drained the oceans, have built “Air Exchangers” to swap out our life-giving atmosphere for their own, have turned a large population of the human race into mindless zombie homunculi, and oppress the rest so well that even Josef Stalin would be appalled. You are pulled out of a slow-time envelope by the mysterious “G-Man” and suddenly find yourself on Earth, in “City 17,” somewhere in Eastern Europe, decades after the Black Mesa incident. In a couple of minutes, you’re arrested, rescued, get a crowbar and your signature HEV suit, and are now responsible for fomenting a revolution and saving the world from an army of bio-mechanical alien monsters. Good luck with that.
Now, I didn’t say the story had to have a good ending, did I? Despite the fact that RAGE was an obvious beta rushed into production, and the game doesn’t so much end as fizzle out, it still had a heck of a setup. A giant asteroid (99942 Apophis) strikes Earth. Fortunately, humanity saw it coming, and buried a series of “Arks” deep underground, filled with people. You were one of the lucky people who wound up on one of those Arks.
The Arks were supposed to surface only a few months after Apophis struck Earth, but they malfunctioned. You wake up in a newly surfaced Ark one-hundred and six years after the impact, and the world has gone to hell. Cities lie in ruins. Plant life is all but gone, leaving a blasted, dusty, sun-scorched wasteland. Bandit gangs and vicious mutants roam this wasteland, preying on the weak and unwary. What few humans remain live in fortified settlements, oppressed or ignored in turn by a mysterious force known as “the Authority,” which has advanced weapons and technology not seen since the pre-impact days.
As the nameless protagonist, you are tasked with adjusting yourself to this new world, avoiding the Authority (which pays top dollar to anyone who brings them an Ark survivor), and building a resistance force to take the Authority down and bring the rest of the malfunctioning Arks to the surface. The environments are beautiful, the enemies intimidating, the weapons a joy to use, and the game itself is just fun. It’s like the perfect combination of The Walking Dead and Mad Max. It also had one of the greatest trailers ever.
There’s nothing I hate more when I’m playing a game with a pinball protagonist, who just bounces willy-nilly from one plot point to the next without any of his own agency. Stories like that are full of contrived situations and coincidences meant to speed the apathetic main character on his way.
So it’s always gratifying when I’m playing a game where all the events in the game happen because the previous events happened, and the action proceeds logically, and the protagonist isn’t a human pinball but a proactive, dynamic character for whom I can really root. That was the Halo series for me, but especially the very first game in the franchise, Halo: Combat Evolved.
The year is 2552. Humanity has colonized far-flung worlds. One day, humanity loses contact with the distant agricultural planet of Harvest. The United Nations Space Command (UNSC) sends a fleet to investigate. Only one badly damaged ship makes it back to Earth; the shell-shocked crew tells a horrifying story of a giant alien ship that annihilated the fleet effortlessly and then fled into the void.
This was the first contact between Earth and a hostile, incredibly powerful alien force known as the Covenant. Though composed of diverse alien races, the Covenant is united by its fanatical religious devotion. Covenant prophets have deemed humanity an affront to their gods, and the Covenant military promptly begins waging a holy war against us.
You play the armored super-soldier John-117, known only as “the Master Chief,” a SPARTAN super-soldier genetically and cybernetically enhanced to be a perfect killing machine. You are the last of your kind, the other SPARTANs all having fallen in battle against the Covenant. You are woken from cryo-sleep when the ship you’re on, the Pillar of Autumn, flees into hyperspace with a Covenant armada on its tail. The Pillar of Autumn leaves hyperspace and suddenly finds itself orbiting a mysterious ring-world known only as “Halo.”
Captain Keyes decides to dramatically crash-land the Pillar of Autumn on this ring, drawing the Covenant down to a desperate ground battle. With your MJOLNIR armor and your assault rifle, you are tasked with saving as many human lives as you can and figuring exactly what the hell Halo is before the Covenant can activate it.
5. Mass Effect
Again, I’m sort of cheating here. Mass Effect is a trilogy, and you can’t really separate the games because they’re inextricably linked. I’m not just talking about the fact that Mass Effect 2 and 3 are sequels to the original, and have the same characters and enemies. The decisions you make in the first game will show up in the sequels. If your compatriots die, they won’t appear in the sequels. That’s how tight and cohesive the overarching story of Mass Effect is.
The story of Mass Effect makes a lot more sense when you consider that it’s basically World War II IN SPACE! You play as Commander Shepard (who can be male or female, depending on your choice), and your job is to convince the ruling council of the Alliance (a confederation of different alien races based on the Citadel, a massive space station of unknown origin) that a massive threat is rising in the galaxy—the Reapers, a sentient race of humongous squid-like machines that appear every 500,000 years and wipe the galaxy almost clean of life. Your task in the sequels is to actually fight these monsters and prevent them from destroying the galaxy as they have who knows how many times before.
You’ve got a lightning-fast ship, the Normandy (told you it was WWII, didn’t I?), a crew of misfits (among them some adorable romance options), and a mission to save the galaxy. What better sci-fi story could you ask for?
So there ya go: my picks for the sci-fi video games that have the best stories. I wouldn’t mind seeing any one of them turned into a movie. (Director Peter Jackson was actually going to direct a film version of Halo, but it got stuck in development hell and got turned into a lame TV series only available on the Xbox streaming service.) If you’ve played any of these games and like the stories (or if I missed a game you think should have been included), leave me a comment and let me know.
Now get off the Internet and get writing!