It seems to be true that many of the best-reviewed games have compelling narratives and complex, likable characters. Half-life, Portal, everything Bioware's put out since Knights of the Old Republic (besides Sonic Chronicles), and, though I know the quality of its story is a topic of debate, Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII is a great example of how a story can make or break a game. I've never heard a fan of the series complain about VII's brilliant materia system or any other aspect of gameplay. Whether or not someone likes the game seems to depend on whether they consider Cloud to be a deep and relatable character or a whiney, emo loser.
Then there are the games that could have been great, if only the story had been compelling. The Prince of Persia series exemplifies this. Though the gameplay, especially the combat, becomes more varied and enjoyable in Warrior Within and Two Thrones, the writing suffers, and with it, the review scores. Sands of Time received higher overall scores than its successors, with an arguably better story and definitely a better Prince. If the developers had carried over the excellent writing and maintained the storybook atmosphere from the original, Warrior Within and Two Thrones could have been truly great games.
Then there are games like Halo 2, which are fun and interesting until they introduce a giant, ancient, living pile of Flood into the mix and lose me completely.
Although games are games, they are also excellent vessels for telling stories—and if you can tell a good story within a game, you should, even if it might not maximize profits. Hiring good writers and taking the time to create a good narrative are risky moves. If the story doesn't work, it can really hurt a game's appeal and its sales figures. However, mixing great gameplay with a great story can result in a masterpiece on par with Mass Effect and (arguably) Final Fantasy VII.
People love stories. We live on them and make every effort to live in them, and giving a game a good story can result in a truly moving experience. If you have a chance to tell a story that could potentially reach millions of people, there is no reason not to, and if a developer doesn't consider it important to put effort into creating a story, then I consider that developer to be unworthy of a 5/5.
CCC Freelance Writer