Man, I love a good video game. Ever since I was a kid, hopping Mario onto the head of a sentient-fungus monster, I’ve relished the feeling of being transported into a new and wonderful place. As I’ve aged, while I still enjoy gaming, I’m looking less for the twitch action of an old school platformer or racing game, and more for something that is going to keep me engaged mentally, something that’s well-written, cinematic, and still makes the most of the medium.
Thankfully, I didn’t play every game that came out last year, because that would’ve left little room for things like a job, or eating, but I did play a handful. Of the games I did play, since I’m a fiend for a good story, I thought I’d share the ones that made the biggest impact on me.
If you would like to suggest a game to check out that had a really great story, feel free to add a comment. I’m always keen to try something new.
Here are my favourite gaming narratives of the last year:
This one comes with a caveat. Bloodborne was, hands-down, my favourite gaming experience of the last year. This is a game that actually asks you to learn and improve, making each miniscule step forward a rewarding experience. There is a rich story hidden within Bloodborne, but it is incredibly hard to discern without a bit of help. Instead of a story told through dialogue or cutscenes, most of the narrative is conveyed through the environment (which is awesome), or through… uh… item descriptions (less awesome).
While I didn’t quite get the full story out of the game as I was playing it, I loved turning to the online community of From Software fans who spend their time making lovingly crafted videos, essays and podcasts that discuss everything from fact to speculation. The Lovecraftian lore becomes much more engaging after hearing from passionate fans, and I found myself seeking out as much information as I could process while I gobbled up the game level by agonizingly difficult level.
Life Is Strange
Life Is Strange is an episodic series that was doled out in five chunks over the course of last year. It tells the story of Max, a teenage photography student at a school for the arts in a fictional Oregonian town. Max accidentally witnesses the murder of a childhood friend that she’d lost touch with, and in the fear and anger of the moment, she discovers that she has the power to rewind time and save her friend.
The story flows out from that point of rescue, as Max reconnects with friends she’d left behind, eventually uncovers a criminal conspiracy and deals with small town politics, all while working out how to prevent an ominous tornado from destroying everything in sight.
The teen drama writ large is well done, though the dialogue is often a bit on the awkward side. What made the game so memorable is the way in which it handles the concept of grief, and a person’s need to say goodbye to a loved one on their own terms. It’s a slow burn, but a very moving one.
Batman: Arkham Knight
The previous two Rocksteady-developed Batman games were great, though they weren’t much to write home about from a narrative perspective. Arkham Knight however, plays with the way a video game is structured to tell one hell of a story that keeps throwing interesting ideas at the player. The way Batman’s hallucinations are presented, the way a major character’s death is portrayed and the way the concept of internal demons is handled are all done in a way I’ve never seen before. Take those ingredients and add in a well-written and executed story, and you have the rare action game that delivers on all fronts.
Normally, when a game tells you that you have the ability to make decisions that affect the outcome of the story, you are being lied to. Maybe “lied to” is a bit too strong a turn of phrase, but you’re definitely being told an exaggeration of the truth. Normally, choice in a game boils down to how a character reacts to you, and little more. That goes for the above mentioned Life Is Strange, as well as every single game from developer TellTale (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones). Not to say this is necessarily a bad thing. As long as the story is strong, your choices add a bit of flavour and a level of player investment as you move along the rails.
Until Dawn is the rare choice-heavy game in which the decisions you make actually do have an impact. The story is the classic cabin-in-the-woods horror trope: a group of friends reunite at remote location in the forest on the anniversary of the death of two of their comrades. Your role as the player is to guide these kids through the night, keeping as many of them as you can alive until... uh… dawn. Duh.
What’s so great about this game is that the choices you make actually impact the story in a real way, to the point that you can either complete the game will all of the kids alive, or will all of them having died. My first play through ended up being somewhere in between, but I’m excited to go back and see if I can get them all out.
Oh, and it takes place in Alberta, which happens to be where I take place as well, so it has the home front advantage.
Soma’s story is all about what it means to be a person, and was by far my favourite narrative experience of the year. It was one of those games where I would pause every so often and go run over to my wife and bother her with tales about how amazing the ideas were, how constantly impressed I was with what I was experiencing.
No spoilers, but the gist is that you play a young man with a brain disease who is undergoing an experimental treatment that involves a full scan of his brain. Where it goes from there involves an underwater facility, the end of the world, an AI with a really creepy definition of what it means to preserve life, and an ending that fully duped me, even though the game had already telegraphed how it was going to go.
I’ve never played a game as thought provoking as Soma and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Seek it out!
Honorable Mention – Fallout 4
Fallout 4 almost had a really great story, but after the main thrust of the narrative is out of the way and you’ve had a surprising revelation presented to you, things sort of fall apart.
I absolutely love this game, but after completing two of the four endings, I’ve not been happy with either option. That said, there’s nothing more fun than encountering the little stories that pepper the wasteland, and I had a blast with some individual quests, like the Silver Shroud stuff, or the Lovecraft horror mine.
There was one game I played this year that included a narrative that made me incredibly angry, but I think I’ll save that for its own post.
Any great gaming narratives you experienced in 2015? Feel free to share if the mood strikes.