Storytelling is an art form in and of itself, just like painting or music. And of all the art forms that comprise video games, story is often at the low end on the totem of importance. This is perfectly acceptable to me-games are more often than not held up by mechanical and/or aesthetic components, leaving the story as icing on the cake. However, this does not mean that any game that even attempts to have a deep and/or dynamic story can automatically be heralded as storytelling mastery. To do so belittles the craft. You could have a fantastic cake that gets topped with shit, and while the cake itself might be a perfectly fine baked good, you still need to contend with the fact that there is shit on your cake.
A game's story need not be an epic tale or some groundbreaking piece of fiction, although it certainly can be. The story simply needs to compliment the game's other components and bring a sense of coherence to help keep the player immersed. A sudden jolt of "WTF is going on?" can shatter a playing experience, whereas a good one can possibly overshadow the game's other flaws.
So what makes a good game story? Well, obviously there's no concrete answer to that. What I can do however, is go through some games that I think did it right, and some that I think made it seem like they did it right when they actually screwed it up hardcore.
BioShock's main story concerning the ramifications of a (theoretical) objectivist utopia is thought-provoking and haunting at the same time. The motivation and fallout of Andrew Ryan's vision are all around the player, and virtually everything revolves around dealing with his influence. Even the smaller subplots all revolve around Rapture's ideals in some way, showing how Ryan's larger plans and their ultimate failure impacted all of the normally faceless citizens. BioShock takes an idea, shows how it might have come to fruition, and then slams the player with the horrifying results. Getting thrown into a dystopia is a common occurrence in games, but fully understanding why it came about is not. BioShock manages to present us with something that could have been a run-of-the-mill FPS (which it certainly is in gameplay terms) but was much more due to some fantastic writing.
Half-Life 2 is one of my favorite games. It's also one of the most influential, counting BioShock among its spiritual offspring. However, I never understood why it gets accolades for storytelling or for Gordon Freeman as a character. It doesn't really do anything that's outright bad, but it just...doesn't tell much of a story at all. And then the player is expected to connect in some way with all of this while knowing virtually nothing about what is happening. I understand that leaving the player in the dark is intentional on Valve's part, but I think their plan really failed here.
There are several moments throughout the game that are meant to be emotional, but most of them just aren't simply because I had no clue what was happening. Most of these have to do with scenes involving Gordon and Alyx's growing "affection" for each other, and the lack of any real background information or any interaction on Gordon's part just makes things awkward. I like to think I understand what Valve is going for here with the "aura of mystery" concept, and maybe it's just me, but the "mute physics expert is somehow the savior of humanity" thing never really worked in my eyes.
To date, Dragon Age: Origins is the only perfect score that I have given in my time writing for GameCritics, and its writing is what propelled it to the top. A clinic in how to craft an epic, overarching tale that keeps the player interested for all of those 60 hours, Dragon Age nails every note, crosses every T, and dots every I for what a RPG story should be. Great opening setup? Check. Interesting characters that are a joy rather than a chore to interact with? Huge world with interesting side characters and tons of backstory? Check. Steady buildup to an exciting and potentially excruciating endgame? You bet. No matter which path through the game is chosen, the experience is almost always together beautifully.
I liked Kingdom Hearts 2 overall (mainly due to some of the best 3D combat I've ever seen) but it has quite a few problems. The pacing is awful, re-used content from the first game is everywhere, and there's a huge difficulty spike at around the halfway point that sends the game's mood from "Man, are these things ever going to fight back?" to "GODDAMN YOU SPEAR GUY". However, the game's story is where it fails the hardest, resulting in an incoherent mishmash of Disney material and the worst kinds of JRPG tropes.
It leans a little too heavily on the notion that the player has played Chain of Memories, the GBA prequel that sets up the main game's narrative. Without knowing what happens in that game a lot of things in Kingdom Hearts 2 are fuzzy to say the least. Things like why Sora was stuck in that chamber, why Organization XIII is bothering to screw around with the other worlds when all they want is Sora to kill things, why they suddenly decide that killing him is OK, and what happened to their five missing members are all pretty much left unaddressed. It doesn't matter if it's explained in the journal or not-exposition needs to be sewn into the narrative as much as possible, and in Kingdom Hearts 2 it's as if they drew some guys in black cloaks and then fired the writing staff.
I've been heartily signing Aquaria's praises since I reviewed it last year, and I have every intention of continuing to do so until all of the GameCritics staffers get off their butts, get the game, then get back on their butts and play it. Aquaria's narrative is simple and elegant, just like the game itself. The player explores and learns along with Naija, experiencing her hopes, fears, and dreams throughout the game. Every now and then a little moment of introspection or backstory is thrown in but not enough to bog the game down in the slightest. The skill with which Naija's story is told is a big reason why I liked the game so much. If a good story is just icing on the cake in a 2D action game, that's some mighty good icing.
Metal Gear Solid 4 (MGS4) is the absolute grandaddy of narrative train wrecks. Now granted, it is hamstrung somewhat by developments in Metal Gear Solid 2, but that's an excuse for being bad, not for being an utterly ridiculous piece of shit. It's even more of a shame considering the level of storytelling in the original Metal Gear Solid. In MGS1 we see Snake as a disillusioned warrior constantly questioning if he believes in what he's fighting for. The enemies and even his friends constantly deceive and betray him to try and get him to do their bidding and hope that he never finds out. The intrigue surrounding all of this kept me interested from beginning to end. Then you take your shirt off and fistfight the guy that voiced Leonardo in the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. That, my friends, is a game story.
MGS4 is a mess of holes, bad characters, and overly drawn-out cutscenes all wrapped up in a vague political message that never quite makes itself clear. I personally have no problem with cutscenes as a method to tell parts of the story that just can't be expressed by the in-game engine, but god dammit they need to be good, especially if they're this long. And to be clear, this isn't even an exposition problem-the game's final hours are a veritable exposition orgy. It's that everything being explained has been twisted and contrived around so many times that it begins to resemble the narrative equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting. The problems with MGS4's story could be (and probably have been somewhere on the internet) a 10-page essay on their own, so I'll stop here, but if someone wants to bring up the finer points of MGS4's WTFness in the comments, I'm all for it.
As far as old school adventure games go, The Longest Journey is an exclusive platinum card member. And since an adventure game is so heavily tied to its story, you can guess that this has a top notch effort in that department. Following the story of April Ryan as she slowly learns of a parallel world in which magic exists, we get to see one of the best narratives ever to grace gaming. April's thoughts and feelings are conveyed with the utmost sincerity, the feeling of shock when transitioning from one world to the other sticks every single time it happens, and the steady drip of plot advancement is worked exquisitely from the beginning to end. Sure it's got a few problems, like awkward "fight" scenes or April being able to walk right into the main antagonist's office without anyone noticing, but none of those things matter in the face of all the game does right. That's something I wish I could say for Heavy Rain.
So there you have it. Seven games, all of which I've seen receive accolades for storytelling, but only four of which deserve it. What about you? What games have taken an unrelenting crap on your cake?