· 12 min read

14 low-budget, highly successful story games

You don’t need sparkling artwork and over-the-top mechanics to make a hit game. Sometimes all you need is just a good story.

One of the reasons why hyper-casual games are so popular is due to how quick and easy they are to make. Simple controls, artwork, and game design make it easy for any developer to pick up. But hyper-casual isn’t the only way to go. There are other ways to build a game on a budget.

One way is narrative. We’ve talked a lot about how to add new layers to your games by simply layering in a story. And we discussed how you need three Cs: character, conflict and change for your narrative. This time, we’ll look at the top games that use storytelling as a core mechanic and show you that you don’t need sparkling design and intense gameplay to create a hit. You just need an extra C: Choice. Because choice is how you can differentiate a book from a game.

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Let’s dig in.

1. Reigns by Nerial

  • Published in 2016
  • Available on mobile, console and PC

Games of Thrones meets Tindr. That’s how the crew at Nerial described Reigns while pitching it to Devolver Digital. Players must make quick-fire decisions on each card and either swipe left or right to say yes or no. Although it relies on some artwork, the style is simple, and the core gameplay is the story and choices a player makes.

It’s a game filled with characters, change, and a lot of conflict. A perfect example for your research pile.

Keep the text meaningful and impactful

Because the game is so fast-paced, the text and narrative have to be in short, snippy sentences. But most importantly, the text is impactful.

When adding a story to your game, make sure the reader can understand it immediately. Is this a safe choice? What’s the risk like? Is my character in danger? It’s important to give players an idea of the outcome of their choice before they make it. Reigns does a good job balancing this information while leaving enough mystery for unexpected twists.

Here’s our rating:

  • Character: 6/10
  • Conflict: 10/10
  • Change: 10/10
  • Choice: 9/10

2. Lifeline by Three Minute Games

  • Published in 2015
  • Available on mobile devices, Apple watch and PC

Lifeline is a text-based survival game and a brilliant example of a story-driven experience. You’re talking to Taylor, who is stranded on an unknown planet and helping guide them to safety while offering moral support.

Three Minute Games also included a time mechanic to make it feel even more realistic. Once you give Taylor an instruction, they won’t respond for a couple of hours. It’s all in real-time.

You don’t need many choices to make a story engaging

Lifeline has fewer paths than other titles on this list, but it makes up for it with a gripping story and a well-developed character. It also relies more on creating a sense of urgency and imminent disaster, with plenty of conflict and tough decisions for the player.

Here’s our rating:

  • Character: 8/10
  • Conflict: 8/10
  • Change: 7/10
  • Choice: 6/10

3. Bitlife by Candywriter

  • Published in 2018
  • Available on mobile devices only

BitLife has developed quite a bit over the last couple of years. It’s a life simulator game where you navigate through menus to manage your character. You walk them through their life, from babyhood to their final year – developing skills and making choices.

Stripped-back design can equal more creative freedom

Firstly, you don’t need to release everything already in place. When BitLife first came out, the choices were quite limited. But because the design is so simple, it’s been easy for Candywriter to layer in more elements. This has kept the game alive for years.

Secondly, you don’t need a lot of design. BitLife relies on the choices, text and actions rather than any graphics. It’s almost entirely descriptive, with little-to-no speech. And to keep it entertaining, there’s a random element. It also helps that the tone is quite quirky. In one instance, our cousin bit our knee and we took our daughter to a freestyle hip-hop battle. The developers intentionally made the game weird and wacky to keep players interested.

  • Character: 6/10
  • Conflict: 7/10
  • Change: 7/10
  • Choice: 9/10

4. Card Survival Tropical Thunder by WinterSpring Games

  • Published in 2022
  • Available on Steam

A recent entry, but boy, are we loving it. You’re stranded on a desert island and have a limited number of hours to juggle various needs, from thirst to your mental health. But everything is done with cards. On the surface, it’s straightforward – mix cards together, explore parts of the island and either escape or make a home for yourself. But this simplicity means the game can go much deeper and make every choice feel meaningful.

A simple game can lead to lots of complexity

Because it’s all based on cards, WinterSpring Games’ Card Survival can focus more on how elements interact and affect one another. There are simple starting points, such as a farmer looking after her grandfather – adding a new layer to the story.

  • Character: 4/10
  • Conflict: 10/10
  • Change: 9/10
  • Choice: 10/10

5. Horror in the darkness by Karmic Shift Studios

Horror in the darkness gameplay example

  • Published in 2016
  • Available on mobile

Horror in the Darkness is a text-based horror puzzle-esque game. This is definitely a game for any H.P. Lovecraft fans, as Karmic Shift Studios have admitted that it’s been heavily inspired by his works.

Telling a story can be enough

Horror in the Darkness is an incredibly simple game that focuses purely on the story. Players have even touted how good the narrative is. This is a prime example of how to create a simple yet engaging game with story at its core.

Horror in the darkness review

  • Character: 5/10
  • Conflict: 7/10
  • Change: 7/10
  • Choice: 8/10

6. Simulacra by Kaigan Games

  • Published in 2018
  • Available on mobile, console, PC and Switch

Simulacra is a horror mystery game set entirely on a mobile device. You find Anna’s device, and the entire game is set as though using a regular phone. You need to go through her images, files, texts and videos to figure out what happened to her.

Let the player piece together the story for themselves

In Simulacra, you’re piecing together what happened through snippets of text. And so it’s the characters that take the spotlight. You don’t just learn about Anna; you also learn about her friends and colleagues. And Kaigan Games did a great job building relatable and believable characters.

  • Character: 8/10
  • Conflict: 8/10
  • Change: 6/10
  • Choice: 6/10

7. A Dark Room by Amirali Rajan

  • Published in 2013
  • Available on mobile, Switch and PC

This game is as stripped back as they come. It’s entirely text-based (aside from a progress bar and a few buttons). Interestingly, the developers have also decided to strip back on the story. They leave a lot to the imagination and only show snippets of the backstory to keep you hooked.

Amirali Rajan’s A Dark Room proves that complex gameplay and a concoction of features aren’t always what you need to build a strong title. Making choices can be the sole mechanic, and you still have a game.

  • Character: 8/10
  • Conflict: 8/10
  • Change: 6/10
  • Choice: 6/10

8. AI Dungeon by Latitude

  • Published in 2019
  • Available on mobile and PC

AI dungeon gameplay example

AI Dungeon is an intriguing game. It’s wholly text-based; you can type in anything, and the story will continue. It’s a creative person’s dream. You can do, say and experience whatever you imagine. The crew at Latitude worked alongside artificial intelligence company, OpenAI, to create a truly unique adventure text-based game.

Consider partnering with other companies

True. Developing an AI is beyond most budget games – AI Dungeon manages to understand what the player is saying and builds on the story. But the thing to take away here is that every decision has a meaningful impact on the rest of the game. It’s a design principle to remember.

We recommend watching the interview with the developers to learn how they did it.

  • Character: 8/10
  • Conflict: 8/10
  • Change: 10/10
  • Choice: 10/10

9. A Normal Lost Phone by Accidental Queens

  • Published in 2017
  • Available on mobile, PC, and Switch

A Normal Lost Phone is a narrative-driven mystery game. Similar to Simulacra, this title starts with, as you can guess, you discovering a lost device. As you dig through, you learn more about the owner – his life, issues, friends and family.

What’s brilliant about this title is how much thought Accidental Queens have put into the story and characters. The characters are relatable and realistic, and you’ll find yourself feeling attached to the phone’s owner.

Design and text can work in parallel

Although the core gameplay is within the text, the design is simple but beautiful and unique. Which only adds to the experience. Choice is limited – this is much more of a mystery and puzzle-type game. And that’s fine. Adding narrative doesn’t mean creating hundreds of branching paths. It can mean choosing the right option to advance.

  • Character: 9/10
  • Conflict: 7/10
  • Change: 7/10
  • Choice: 7/10

10. The Dreamhold by Andrew Plotkin

  • Published in 2004
  • Available on mobile and PC

One of the earlier interactive fiction games to be released. The Dreamhold is easily AI Dungeons’ predecessor. It’s not as custom or advanced as the more recent game. But The Dreamhold still holds up on its own.

A simple UI and design can support a rich story that all types of gamers will enjoy. And, it’s free. Completely free. No IAPs. No ads. No subscriptions. All you’ll need to spend is your time and attention when researching this title.

  • Character: 8/10
  • Conflict: 8/10
  • Change: 7/10
  • Choice: 7/10

11. Google’s text adventure

  • Published in 2018
  • Available on… well, Google

Google’s very own Easter egg (well, at least one of them). Google’s text adventure was originally a hidden game in Google’s source code. Players would have to search for ‘text adventure’, look at the source code, and then head to the console and enter commands to play the game.

You can get the game on Chrome now as an add-on. It’s entirely text-based. And although one could argue that it’s not a serious title, we still recommend giving it a whirl to see how the devs made it.

12. Magium by Magium Games

  • Published in 2018, we think…
  • Available on PC and android

Magium gameplay example

Another interactive fictional game. Magium is heavily influenced by DnD (Dungeons and Dragons), and it shows that the developer clearly loved this franchise. The writing is rich with story, and it’s easy for the player to get lost in the world that Magium has created.

Consider what features can add to the experience

The responses are limited and sometimes vague. But alongside the story, the developer has layered in a points system where players level up based on their actions (most likely inspired by DnD). Keeping them hooked and engaged in the game.

  • Character: 8/10
  • Conflict: 7/10
  • Change: 7/10
  • Choice: 6/10

13. Device 6 by Simogo

  • Published in 2013
  • Available on iPhone and iPad only

Simogo’s Device 6 is a surreal story-driven thriller but with a twist. The interface at first seems relatively straightforward. But you soon realize that the text is everything. The words change to reflect what’s happening in the game. It’s a pretty ingenious approach to a mystery game and only adds to the player’s confusion – reflecting how the character in-game is feeling.

Think outside the confines of the code

There are other ways to invoke emotions than just words. For example, Anna, the main character, turns a corner at one point. The text describing what’s happening also turns 90 degrees, forcing players to rotate their phones. This is a compelling story, but Device 6 has found a unique and exciting way to tell it. Definitely worth a play during your research period.

14. Unmemory by Patrones & Escondites

  • Published in 2020
  • Available on PC

Another text-adventure game with a mystery and detective theme. Patrones & Escondites described this game as “an escape gamebook about a girl gang with a broken mind”. Still arguably in its early stages, the story is filled with twists and turns, although some have argued that it is sometimes somewhat predictable.

The devil is in the details

What we love about this title are all the little moments – the details. The developer has gone the extra mile to layer in beautiful, clever puzzle elements that keep you wondering and coming back for more.

Think we’ve missed anything?

These are just a few of our favourite story-driven games. If you think there are any that deserve a spot on our list, let us know, and we’ll give them a try. And if you’re making your own story-driven game, set up your analytics as soon as possible. Data can tell you a story of its own.

If you happen to be one of the many developers we’ve mentioned above, we’d love to have a chat and learn more about your process. Get in touch with us.

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