December 7, 2012 Writing is the art of convincing the reader of the truth of a fiction.
Perhaps more than any other genre of video games, RPGs need good writing. After all, story is often central to the success of an RPG. Through dialogue, journal entries, book excerpts, found letters, character actions, and the events of a plot, RPGs have the power to convince us that there are more than 24 hours in a day; that there exists a place where all the planes meet; that a society of monster hunters really exists; and that the world as we know it has already ended.
These are the top ten most convincing, best written RPGs, in ascending order.
Warning: minor spoilers.
"The snow keeps falling... Softly covering up everything in this world... Our sorrow, our defilement, our mistakes... If only we could wipe away these things as easily as that..."
Although popularly derided in recent years, Xenogears remains a compelling and fascinating labyrinth of words. Themes of religion, psychology, politics, and love roam the labyrinth, and those who would walk its passages must contend with these beasts. Despite a comparatively primitive localization by contemporary standards, Xenogears still offers powerful and thought provoking dialogue. The story may be cluttered and disorganized, but the characters are memorable and lovable and the individual events affecting. There's also one of the best JRPG love stories to date and a variety of excellent vocal musical themes, which must be included in a discussion of the game's achievements in writing. Xenogears will be remembered always for its many words: some profound, some silly, some poorly translated, and some unforgettable.
"Me? I'm Junpei Iori. Nice to meet ya. I transferred here when I was in eighth grade. I know how tough it is being the new kid. So I wanted to say 'hey.' Heh... See what a nice guy I am!"
Persona 3 makes one feel as if among friends, and that couldn't be accomplished without dynamic and realistic writing. By turns hilarious, poignant, and life affirming, the writing illuminates Persona 3's juvenile cast with the spark of life. Atlus overcame the immense hurdle of localization with great skill to deliver a script packed with realism. Even moments of melodrama that might be saccharine in another game are convincing here. An astonishingly subtle conclusion demonstrates restraint, a trait often lacking in Japanese RPGs. Persona 3 marks the pinnacle of writing in JRPGs to date.
Alistair: "Is my being upset so hard to understand? Have you never lost someone important to you? Just what would you do if your mother died?"
Morrigan: "Before or after I stopped laughing?"
Like the game it perhaps aspires to the most (also on this list), Dragon Age: Origins' brilliance is in its character interactions. Origins is one of the funniest RPGs of this generation or any, and the endlessly amusing conversations between Alistair and Morrigan, Oghren and Leliana make it so. These injections of humor in an otherwise dark and dire setting give Origins delightful personality, but the well written NPCs also gave each scenario a sense of realism rarely seen in RPGs. Choices mattered in Origins, and they also hurt. Such is the hallmark of a powerfully written RPG that can bestow emotion upon a virtual decision. The extensive codex deserves a mention as well, and consistently thoughtful writing made Ferelden a world worth inhabiting.
"War... War never changes."
Although I greatly respect Bethesda's reboot, nothing says post-apocalypse like the gritty, filthy, slangy, crass, base, and demented dialogue of the original two Fallouts. Eschewing medieval fantasy, Fallout set out to create a different sort of RPG world, and that wouldn't have been possible without a new sort of dialect for its wasteland denizens. Language evolves, or in this case devolves, and the writers knew this and capitalized on it. The individual characters aren't all unforgettable, but the atmosphere of the irradiated American West will never be forgotten. That atmosphere, that oft-silly, oft-desolate personality, is a product of Fallout's convincing writing.
"A stream of silver in the dark. Looping, diving. So fast the eye can't follow. Laughter like the squeals of a child vibrates the water. They fly over the black of the sea bed, like birds plumed with the light of heaven."
Thane, Tali, Mordin, and Garrus are perhaps the pinnacle of Mass Effect's cast, and there's little argument over the reason. The Mass Effect trilogy shows off some of the genre's finest writing, whether in the form of crisp dialogue, poignant decisions, or geeky codex entries. The writing gives life to dozens of characters; although the playable characters often hog the attention, minor NPCs like Eden and Lieutenant Steve Cortez hold their own as fully realized alien and human beings. Mass Effect 2 arguably represents the height of BioWare's writing prowess, although each entry introduces (or puts to rest) something special.
"Khalid! No... this... this is an illusion, a dream... a bad dream... Where are the mirrors... the switches to pull to... to show where he is hidden... Khalid..."
No other game quite emulates the Dungeons and Dragons experience like Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and a wealth of tight, colorful writing makes that possible. Every Dungeons and Dragons campaign is comprised of interesting scenarios, and Shadows of Amn delivers. The game is a dense, varied experience, a tour of a variety of writing styles, dialects, and personalities. Although occasionally too silly for its own good, Baldur's Gate II has an unforgettable cast of characters, and their multi-faceted, complex interactions earn the game its spot on this list more so than intricate quests and fantastically nerdy item descriptions. When you enter the Underdark and half your party abandons you due to inter-party dissension, you know you're playing one of the greatest and best written RPGs of all time.
"You know the difference between you and the you five minutes ago? The you five minutes ago had five minutes to live."
Like many games on this list, Anachronox brought me close to tears at the heights of two different emotions, but its methods are utterly its own. Anachronox may have the most unpredictable storyline of any game I've played; that's good writing. Anachronox has endearing characters that also happen to kick ass; that's good writing. Anachronox has hilarity, heart-break, and compelling scientific theory often juxtaposed without a breath in between; that's great writing. The locales you visit might be astonishing (a cyberpunk dystopia, a super villain's starship, an exceedingly democratic metropolis), but how you end up at each is all the better. Anachronox keeps surprising and delighting until the end, and that's just damn good writing.
"The basic human need to be watched was once satisfied by God. Now, the same functionality can be replicated with data-mining algorithms."
Deus Ex is one of those great brain-enhancing games, and it's all thanks to the writing. Deus Ex is written with a clear, raw intelligence that perfectly complements its thoughtful gameplay. Philosophical concepts are discussed and existential truths are challenged as JC Denton explores a frightening dystopian future. The plot is strong, the characters appropriately despicable or admirable, and nothing is a given in a thematic tale of technology, society, anarchy, and order. Deus Ex has the power not just to open minds, but to change them. Consider your philosophy challenged.
"Indeed, naught is more repulsive than these monsters that defy nature and are known by the name of witcher, as they are the offspring of foul sorcery and witchcraft. Unscrupulous scoundrels without conscience and virtue, they are veritable creatures from hell, capable only of taking lives..."
The writers at CD Projekt RED are unafraid to be bold, mature, philosophical, and subtle in an industry bloated with accessibility and ham-fisted, Hollywood-esque games. With The Witcher 2, they even eclipse BioWare in writing, if not other aspects of the RPG as well. Geralt, the philosophical anti-hero witcher, stands testament to the strength of CD Projekt's writing, but Dandelion, Triss, and the common folk are hardly lesser. This is no faux-medieval universe with modern-sounding dialogue like in those other fantasy RPGs – this is an authentic world populated with real people with insidious machinations and hidden desires. The common people speak a simple, often crude tongue while the elves have their own gentle speech. The dwarves discuss dice and wenches and the witcher waxes philosophic. Every character feels alive, and the plot responds to the player's every move. At every turn one gets the persistent feeling that there is something happening behind some unseen curtain. That's incredible characterization. We haven't seen a game written this well in many years. Let's hope there's more to come.
The planes and that great hub of planar activity, Sigil, are home to such a multitude of characters and personalities that one might think the writers would get something wrong, but every facet is made believable and credible. From the doctrine-spewing githzerai to the dangerously logical modron cube to the uneducated masses to the fiery and sensual succubi, the diverse cast of major and minor characters never fails to amuse, delight, and provoke thought. Torment is also a game of ideas, and who can forget the self-perpetuating Mortuary, the Society of Sensation, or Ravel's Maze? Every moment is filled with powerful ideas, like a new thought on every page of a book.
Planescape: Torment is the best written RPG ever made and the one to which modern game writers should aspire.
Nier, just about every other Shin Megami Tensei game, Earthbound, the Paper Mario series, Knights of the Old Republic.