The Best Written Video Games of All Time
It's all in the writing, baby.
Debating the nature of a “well-written video game” is a conversation that can go in a lot of different directions. Many claim the story only works if it pairs well with the gameplay, while others think it only needs to be good on paper. Then there are entire debates surrounding originality and function, and whether or not games can be considered “art.”
Ultimately, after thinking about it for a while, I determined that there’s no singularly objective way to define what makes one video game more well-written than another. A lot of it is ultimately subjective. But I think there is a way of measuring how gameplay melds with writing—since we typically play games to play them. And the best gameplay experiences are the ones that make our brains do a little shimmy and dance.
Bearing that in mind, here are the games I consider to be the most well-written amongst their peers (with some series lumped together for expediency). And of course, as always, you’re welcome to add your own picks in the comments—there are many wonderful titles I haven’t gotten around to, after all!
Updated February 2, 2023
1. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
Video games tend to veer away from realism when it comes to roleplaying because most devs design games to be escapist in nature. So, imagine my surprise when Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, a game about being a VAMPIRE of all things, made me feel more immersed than any recent RPG in memory.
The writers (especially lead writer Brian Mitsuoda) have a knack for capturing the sleazy, slutty nature of LA by night, and the dialogue options they wrote for the Fledgling made me feel like I was actually out at night trying to get something done. Yes, some are hammy for the sake of comedic effect, but ultimately the writing is just so outstanding and hilarious. In what other game can I play as a crude vampiress wearing a G-string and have it feel completely normal?
2. The Longest Journey
“Madeline, you can’t just put The Longest Journey in every article, that’s cheating.” First of all, booooo, who called the fun police? Second of all, I always try to be fair in my rankings, and sometimes, being fair means calling out the best of the best. And I only mention TLJ as often as I do because it’s really just that good.
For a game that was released when I was barely out of training pants, it holds up remarkably well, and it’s all because of the writing. You wouldn’t expect another “chosen one” narrative to be particularly interesting, yet TLJ makes it work with its compelling characters and subtle, yet effective, world-building. April Ryan is an incredibly relatable character whose little asides feel very real, and that deliberate choice by the writers only shows how much they know what they’re doing.
3. Red Dead Redemption 2
Now hold your horses, yes, I have played Red Dead 1, and yes, I do consider it to be a masterpiece. In fact, between the two, I think the first game is the tighter one, gameplay-wise. But where Red Dead 2 shines brighter is in its narrative, which had me hooked from start to (weepy) finish.
Arthur Morgan is a deceptively captivating and nuanced protagonist. The initial trailers for the game led us to believe he was just another macho tough guy, but he ended up being more layered than an onion! It’s a shame that the gameplay creates a dissonance between character and action, yet the overall story of the game is still one of Rockstar’s strongest, and one of the most memorable in modern gaming.
4. The Last of Us 1 & 2
Yeah, no duh this series would be on the list. Come on, why did people get so heated about the sequel? Why did they keep talking about the first game for years after its release? Why is The Last of Us a household name, even amongst those who don’t play games?
It’s just that masterful of a story, from start to finish. It’s complex with no easy answers; it takes place in a dying yet surviving world; and it has characters who keep us glued to the screen. And yes, I believe this extends to the sequel, which—while ambitious, nearly Icarian—only amplifies the themes of the first game. It’s a story that’s meant to be difficult to stomach, but it’s a testament to the writers that we try to swallow anyways.
5. Dragon Age (yes, all of them)
“Oh my god, Madeline, please I’m begging you, stop talking about Dragon Age“—wee-woo, wee-woo, it’s the fun police again. You gotta understand: If people talk about a game a lot, it’s probably because the game is really, really, really good.
The writing for the Dragon Age series as a whole is what makes it stand out in the bloated market of other fantasy RPGs. While it does miss the mark here and there, it’s ultimately tightly woven with recurring themes and characters placed in just the right moments. Each game varies in the way its story is told, but each story is ultimately told incredibly well, with characters and dialogue options that are equally as immersive. Plus, there’s something just insanely cool about seeing your own personal story develop over three games, with the stakes only growing higher.
6. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Oh, I know people will be upset with me over this, but I think it’s time we put the whole “haha fire emblem bad” thing to rest. I’ve never played a game that felt as tragically operatic as Three Houses. And yes, considering Fire Emblem games aren’t known for their gripping storylines, I think we ought to finally recognize Three Houses as the storytelling masterpiece it is.
Primarily, the real tragedy is in the struggle between Dimitri and Edelgard, yet the entire theme of the story—that of loss and progression, and the horrors of trauma—is handled incredibly well. Moreover, the characters are some of the most well-written side-characters in a game I’ve seen in a while, even if they might seem one-note on the surface (can I get a shoutout for my boy Sylvain?). For me, the real quality assurance is the fact that I’m still thinking about the story even a full year after beating the game for the second time.
7. Elden Ring
Most FromSoft games tend to not be very story-heavy, instead encouraging players to discover the game’s lore through little clues scattered throughout the world. I’m not a huge fan of this format, as I prefer a game to be guided by its story—hence why Elden Ring is the most captivating game in the series for me.
While yes, it’s still more gameplay-heavy than other RPGs out there, its story is pretty damn phenomenal (probably thanks to George R.R. Martin’s influence). There are so many different factors at play, and they all meld together in a way that’s sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, and always incredibly clever and well thought-out. I only wish the player had more options to interact with and react to these factors, as opposed to the only option we really have: “Faster, Tarnished! Kill! Kill!”
8. Silent Hill 2
I usually don’t watch people play games, and I never play horror games myself. Call me Weenie Hut General, that’s just how I roll. But I make an exception for games with cinematic stories, and Silent Hill 2 is all that and then some.
While most of the games in this series tend to follow a linear, overarching plot, Silent Hill 2 is mostly its own story, with characters who never appear again. The more horrific elements all serve a purpose, culminating in the protagonist himself: James Sunderland, a man whose psyche has become as warped as the town itself. It’s difficult to properly discuss this game’s story because it’s so utterly beautiful, it almost transcends a simple description.
I never thought I’d say that one of the best games I’ve ever played was a Skyrim mod, but if Enderal has shown me anything, it’s that if there’s a will, there’s a way. SureAI managed to create a completely standalone game based on Skyrim’s engine, and the result is something that bigger game studios ought to take note of.
Enderal is a triumph in storytelling, even if it lacks a AAA studio’s polish. It’s so filled with dark, intriguing twists, it had me thinking about the ending even months after finishing it. What’s more, the world-building is so in-depth and fascinating, it puts many major titles to shame. And if that’s not enough for you, here’s this: the game is free. You have to have Skyrim installed, but the game itself? Free. Seems criminal that one of the best RPGs out there is free, but hey, I’ll take it.
10. Disco Elysium
When I initially put this list together, I hadn’t played Disco Elysium yet and was waiting for it to go on sale. Well, I’ve played it now. And I finally get the hype.
Actually, I think it’s almost under-hyped. Everyone talks about how good the writing is, but nobody goes beyond to describe why the writing is so good. And that’s because it’s too good to talk about. It’s such a conniving, condescendingly intelligent game that I feel like anything I’d have to say about it would be a waste. They take a dig at everything under the sun, but with the candor and precision of someone who really knows what they’re talking about. Someone who’s lived it all, and then some.
Good lord, did you see that? I started writing like the speech checks in the game. That’s how big of an impression it’s left on me. If I had to give a gold star to any game on this list for writing alone, it’d be this one. Kim Kitsuragi, marry me.
I’ve heard that this series has some of the best stories in gaming, but as I haven’t played them yet, I don’t believe I’d be able to do them justice. All I know is the worldbuilding seems gorgeously complex, and the story the series wants to tell revolves around some pretty compelling themes of survival and self-determination.
12. Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous
This game ate 90 hours of my time and I’m still willing to give it another 90. What does that say about me? What does that say about this game? Well, probably unsavory things for the former, but only good things for the latter.
If fantasy games are your jam, then you truly have no excuse not to play Wrath of the Righteous. It’s such a grand, all-encompassing narrative that makes you feel less like a pawn with no agency, and more like a direct arbiter of the story. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait for the new DLC!
13. Mass Effect (again, all of them)
This is another game I finally got around to playing post-script, and honestly, I get the hype now. Mass Effect takes every dumb outer-space trope and makes it interesting … up until the very end, at least. But like most players, I’m just pretending the ending never happened.
The narrative in this series is incredibly mature and hits close to home, and the way you take control of Shepard feels personal and impactful. Rarely do I get as attached to a cast of characters and a playable protagonist as I did with Mass Effect. And rarely do the stakes feel as pressing as they do here. It really is the rare sort of game that deserves all the hype and then some.
I’m currently in the process of reviewing the fourth game in this series, and it’s reminding me all over again of how delightful, special, and gorgeous Syberia’s overall story is. You play as Kate Walker, a lawyer from New York who leaves her disenchanted life behind for a chaotic life of adventure.
It seems typical on paper, but the narrative is so down-to-earth, effortlessly charming, and atmospherically gripping. Without relying on flashy tricks or tropes, it sucks you in and asks you questions about how you define your life that stick with you long after playing. Without even meaning to do so, this game is intensely personal in all the best ways.
15. Life Is Strange
I’m surprised I didn’t include this in the original list of 10. I think I’ve been so jaded by the general corporate direction DontNod and Deck9 have taken with this series, I forgot how powerful the original game was. While Life Is Strange was in many ways cringey and over-the-top, it also had a special spark to it that the series has repeatedly tried and failed to replicate ever since. (I say that as a fan of the second game, don’t hate.)
There’s so much I could say about this game’s story: the nature of relationships between teen girls; the powers working against said girls, both supernatural and otherwise; why we’re drawn to art, and how it saves us, and so on. I just wish the companies wouldn’t keep milking this series and let it be what it is.
16. Planescape: Torment
This is another game I’ve yet to play, but I’ve heard many great things about it. Planescape: Torment is all about philosophy and the nature of one’s impact on the world, both minor and major. A recurring question is: “What can change the nature of a man?”
Yeesh. And also, very cool.
While I didn’t rank these in any particular order, I wanted to leave ValiDate here so it’d catch your attention. I had the pleasure of interviewing game creator Dani LaLonders some time back and walked away even more impressed with the writing of the game.
Visual novels tend to have better writing as a whole, since they’re so writing-heavy, but ValiDate goes above and beyond in its portrayal of all kinds of modern relationships. It’s empathetic, it’s real, and it’s incredibly fun to follow the plot lines of each character. I’m very excited for the remaining chapters!
(featured image: Naughty Dog)
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