Last week, I dinged “Killzone 2” (rated M, $60 on PlayStation 3), the best-looking first-person shooter I’ve ever played, for lacking heart. Despite all its technical polish and great online play, I had difficulty getting into the single-player game because of its unimaginative dialogue, boring characters and bland story.
Compared with gamers who value online play over everything else, I’m a stickler for good writing. I tend to start single-player campaigns slowly, waiting for the story, dialogue or plot to take hold of me. If it never happens, chances are it’ll take me an eternity to finish, as I’ll just play bits and pieces of the game, crawling slowly toward the end. In the case of “Killzone 2,” I largely played just a chapter at a time. My primary motivation for finishing the game wasn’t to see what happens, but to get to the multiplayer part of the game. (I have this weird thing about finishing single-player campaigns before venturing online.)
In a well-written game, such as “BioShock,” I’ll start slowly, then become consumed with finishing it as the story takes hold. In “BioShock’s” case, I think I played through the last half of a game in the course of a day or two, blowing off other commitments so I could see how it ended. (I’m the same way with books.) With that in mind, here are a few games whose writing has willed me toward the finish:
“BioShock” (rated M, $30 on Xbox 360 or PS3, $20 on PC): Rapture, the underwater utopia gone wrong that’s the setting for “BioShock” has to be one of the most fully realized single-player game worlds to date. But the signature fun, for me, was crawling through the art deco ruins, unearthing all the audio diaries, and discovering the personalities that shaped the civilization before everything broke down. It was kind of a shame when the game ended in one of the lamest boss fights in recent memory.
“Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” (rated T, out of print on Xbox, available in “Star Wars: The Best of PC” bundle for PC, $40): Any “Star Wars” fan who plays video games will tell you that this role-playing game from Bioware stands right up there with the original three movies. For my money, it’s better. With a stunning plot twist that outdoes, “Luke, I am your father,” “KotOR” stands as a testament to the medium’s narrative power. A cast of memorable supporting characters includes HK-47, a psychotic protocol droid that refers to humans as “meatbags.” Side note: Why the heck isn’t this available on Steam?
“Psychonauts” (rated T, out of print on PlayStation 2 and Xbox, $15 Xbox Originals download over Xbox Live, $10 PC download on Steam): Good writing doesn’t necessarily mean “great story.” In the case of Sonoma native Tim Schafer’s platform-jumping game, the story takes a back seat to the creative dialogue and novel game worlds. A summer camp for psychic children serves as a hub, but the real fun starts when you, one of the kids at the camp, journey into the minds of the characters you meet. My favorite moment occurs when you encounter an oversized, mutated lungfish. The journey into the fish’s mind is straight out of a Japanese monster movie, with your gargantuan boy savaging buildings and destroying military vehicles. The action is interspersed with “newscasts” from the lungfish TV network chronicling the destruction. I’ve never laughed so hard at a game. Another standout level is set in M.C. Escher-influenced mind of a paranoid security guard terrified of a mysterious “milkman.”
“Grand Theft Auto IV” (rated M, $40 on Xbox 360 or PS3, $30 on PC): Really, this could be any “GTA” game since “Grand Theft Auto III.” Even if the crime-and-mayhem-oriented stories wouldn’t normally be your cup of tea, the sheer volume of writing — dialogue, missions, billboards, radio, TV and, in “GTA IV’s” case, Internet — means most gamers will find something to like. In my case, it’s the dialogue every time your character, Niko Bellic, interacts with Brucie, an overcaffeinated, oversteroided bodybuilder who shouts constantly and refers to everything as “awesome.”
“Portal” (rated T, Xbox 360 and PC, prices vary): There’s not much in the way of story here. You’re a prisoner of an insane computer that forces you to run through a number of tests using a gun that creates tiny warps in space. The memorable writing, though sparse, comes in the dialogue delivered by GLaDOS, the computer, as well as the many automated turrets you’ll come across. (Sample: “Touching the floor will result in an unsatisfactory grade on your testing report, followed by death.”)