In the case of BioShock Infinite, its universe has been sculpted and defined by the writer/director, Ken Levine - a man of great architectural vision but also a game designer with an intrinsic understanding of what it means to really immerse a player in a world and a scenario that feels real. One misconception about a good story, is the notion that creative or unique characters make a good story. This is incorrect, they simply make for memorable characters.
The BioShock series, while littered with spectacular characters, is the epitome of engrossing storytelling. The narrative flows wonderfully and the linear structure of the gameplay is almost invisible as the events fluidly unfold.
While BioShock gives the impression of free will and choice, presenting you with a spooling fiction, there's never really the sense that you are affecting the story. It's a powerful and brilliant tale but one that you're witnessing rather than living. A game series which builds on this emotional immersion and forces the player to choose the fate of its protagonists, is Mass Effect.
DO NOT start with me about the whole not having a "real" choice regarding the three possible endings!
Whatever your opinion on the ending, whatever outcome you were or were not satisfied with the fact remains that the Mass Effect trilogy is easily one of only few titles that forces the player to invest in the character's respective outcomes. This is a good example of the difference between memorable characters and good storytelling.
If you ask somebody what happened in the game and they start listing character traits, that's not a story. If, on the other hand, they explain the over-arcing premise, detail sub-plots but also the imminent attack of the Reapers as well as the intimate conversations they had with a certain dreamy, brown-eyed Biopic (...oh, Kaidan!) these things make up the first act of a larger narrative and the various developments over the three games stick in your mind, more-so than the individual battles or arguably the gameplay in general.
By prioritising the plot over the game mechanics, you essentially end up with a film that you are expected to contribute to every now-and-then. Point in case, you are largely graded on how much information you gather (admittedly, a very RPG trait) and how this later affects the story, any extra evidence you find can reveal extra information and missed clues can alter your overall score on a case.
So, we've covered the two key types of good storytelling in video games: emotive, invested titles and interesting, fact-based plots. However, a series which magnificently manages to combine the two, is that of Assassin's Creed.
With the free running, Templar stabbing, flag hunting, it has everything a gamer might crave yet at the heart of the series is a complex central thread which spans multiple titles, consoles, hand-helds, comics, books and arguably, all of human history. It is the amalgamation of respective emotional tales, lived out through the eyes of Desmond's ancestors, while slowly compiling a much larger story that hangs over the entire saga like an enormous umbrella.
Individually, the exploits of Altair, Ezio, Connor or Edward are gripping and entertaining in their own right but the story of Desmond and the contemporary element that links these disjointed aspects is both intriguing and fascinating.
I appreciate how difficult it can be to classify a good video game story. While considering this article, I had to dismiss several beloved titles (Legend Of Zelda, Abe's Oddysee, Portal 2, Half-Life) due to their disqualifying nature. In other words, the lead character or antagonist overtook the story. It's not their fault, it's very hard to find a retro or vintage game that would be sold on story above character because back then, characters sold games, not their stories.
But as we press forward into new technologies and evermore expanding plots, story is considered paramount. The question is, which gaming mindset will prevail? The retro notion of characters that sell games (think Nintendo's Mario and Sega's Sonic) or the Sony heralded idea (which has led to the current state of the industry) that it takes more than a memorable character to sells a game, that substance and interesting stories are an integral part of any popular title. As a writer, I hope it's the latter but then nostalgia will always bind me to the former.