Not every video game has to tell a good story. Think about it: You can play Mario Kart for hours without any plot unfolding (besides the one you’re going to use to cream the competition).
There are some games, however, that hold narrative at the forefront — every step you take comes with consequence for your character, his/her peers and the wider world they inhabit. Some games even achieve an emotional depth that swallows not just their characters, but players too.
Whether or not you believe video games are the future of storytelling, here are 10 gaming recommendations based on your favorite literature. Naturally, the order can be reversed for any gamers out there who need a good reading recommendation, too.
1. For Fans of 1984 by George Orwell: Half-Life 2
To promote the release of Half-Life 2 for Mac, the game’s parent company created an ad that mirrored Macintosh’s famous Orwellian advertisement. The move wasn’t just a marketing ploy: The setting of Half-Life 2 is eerily similar to 1984, sucking gamers into a world where surveillance cameras and video broadcasts of a tyrannical leader are everywhere. The gamemakers even make homages to the novel, naming a torture room “Room 101” and dressing dystopian citizens in the same uniform of blue denim overalls. Think of Half-Life 2 as a hard-and-fast version of 1984, a first-person shooter that involves more stealth than aggression. Plus you get to fight aliens.
2. For Fans of “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville: The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable takes place in a more modern work environment, but don’t let that fool you: Life-sucking jobs haven’t changed much since Melville’s time. Stanley works in an office and is tasked with managing data and mind-numbing button-pressing for god knows what. Then, one day, his computer screen goes black. The interactive story allows players to make decisions for Stanley after he realizes that he isn’t bound to his job. Do you escape? Do you set the place on fire? Do you try to get back to work? There are countless outcomes, making this a game you’ll want to play over and over. If only Bartleby had such opportunities.
3. For Fans of The Road by Cormac McCarthy: The Last of Us
Many video games portray a post-apocalyptic world, but few do it with the powerful emotional impact of The Last of Us. Its apocalypse is different from McCarthy’s, involving a specific fungal disease which infects people and turns them into cannibalistic “clickers.” (The noise is terrifying.) The action-adventure game follows Joel, his companion Tess and a young girl Ellie, who was bitten and infected but hasn’t turned (yet). Like The Road, The Last of Us portrays parenthood at the end of the world. Joel serves as Ellie’s guardian, struggling to keep her protected from constant threats and attacks, and the two fight hard to get to safety, wherever that may be. Both stories express hope at its rawest, when it feels like there’s nothing left but you have to keep looking for something.
4. For Fans of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: Gone Home
Gone Home calls itself “a story exploration video game.” It takes place in an empty Victorian house similar to the one that Bechdel’s father spends most of Fun Home restoring. Players explore the house as Kaitlin, who, returning from a long study abroad trip, finds a mysterious note from her sister, Samantha. The game plays like a detective story, relying on artifacts around the house to uncover why Samantha has gone missing. The story explores family, identity and sexuality — and absolutely passes the Bechdel test.
5. For Fans of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: Bioshock
Kevin Levine, the creator of Bioshock, has himself cited Rand’s work as an influence on his game, which is filled with allusions to her writing. Rapture, the underwater “utopia” of Bioshock, was created with intentions similar to the secluded community of Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged. Levine even shaped Rapture’s fictional creator, Andrew Ryan, in the mold of Rand’s history, beliefs and, obviously, name. The game doesn’t stick to the author’s world, though, as Levine explains:
What I tried to do, having read Ayn Rand, was to create Galt's Gulch and stick real people in it. Rand populated Galt's Gulch with perfect people. Of course they all got on and their philosophy worked perfectly because only one person was setting the rules – her! I wanted to look at a scenario where nature set the rules.
By the time players enter Rapture, it’s fallen from Ryan’s ideals into a dystopia of drug-idled “Splicers.” You can think of the game as an open-dialogue with Rand’s work or just play it as it is. Either way, it’s a fantastic story.
6. For Fans of The Bible: The Binding of Isaac
If you got a kick out of tallying the biblical references in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and know the story of the binding of Isaac from the Old Testament, this modern rendition is for you. The Binding of Isaac doesn’t reflect the original story verbatim; you play as a naked, crying boy who’s escaping his mother after she receives a message from god demanding she kill her son to prove her faith. The game takes place in the basement of the house, where players fight off monsters, mothballs and, finally, Isaac’s mother. While it feels surreal, the story touches on dark themes of abuse and fanaticism, and does so in a way that will haunt you.
7. For Fans of Raymond Chandler: L.A. Noire
There’s no doubt that Rockstar Games took some influence from Chandler when creating L.A. Noire. You basically play Philip Marlowe, driving around Los Angeles from one crime scene to another. There are dames, no doubt, and you get to interrogate suspects, fishing for clues that lead you from one spot to the next. The game is essential for noir fans who’ve always wanted take a walk in the life of a gumshoe.
8. For Fans of Greek Mythology: God of War
God of War isn’t exactly Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play. The central character is Kratos, a Spartan warrior who murdered his wife and child in cold blood after being persuaded by his master, Ares. Of course, you get your revenge by killing Ares and taking his place as the God of War, but not without the sordid nightmares of the past. This macho, action-driven adventure doesn’t take itself too seriously. You’re more likely to rip Apollo’s head off than have your heart broken by the myth of Apollo and Daphne, but with missions in Hades and abilities like “Medusa's Gaze” and “Poseidon's Rage,” it’s hard not to get carried away.
9. For Fans of The Walking Dead by Robert Kirman: The Walking Dead Game
This is a no-brainer. Kirkman worked hand in hand with Telltale Games to do his series justice. The game features the same apocalyptic world with a new cast of characters, including a convicted murderer named Lee Everett and the young girl he watches after, Clementine. The game is an interactive drama that ranges from choosing how to communicate with those in your group to making life or death decisions on the spot.
10. For Fans of “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges: Alan Wake
No question, “The Garden of Forking Paths” is the ultimate work of metafiction. Although Alan Wake doesn’t quite line up with the literary merits of a prolific writer like Borges, the game does a frightening job blurring the lines between fiction and reality. The eponymous protagonist is a best-selling thriller writer who’s trying to uncover the details of his wife’s disappearance in Bright Falls, Washington, where he finds the pages of his latest novel, written in a fugue state, scattered about. The story starts to shape his reality, guiding him to what may have happened to his wife. Alan Wake is eerie as hell, to the point where you might begin to rethink fate and the frightening power of stories.
Just as with a good book, the narrative of a game can suck players in, bringing them to new worlds full of characters that stick with them long after the experience has ended. Both can also bring readers/players to a euphoric state of “flow,” a positive psychology term established by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which people become joyful, immersed, engaged in a task. Thus, despite the flak video games occasionally get, they may actually help us be happier, healthier people. After all, even readers need time to play.