Long gone are the days in which a simple story will get you through a playthrough. Slowing fading are the generic stories of save the princess or save the world. Games today are starting to focus on bringing a narrative that packs an emotional punch on par with Hollywood’s best movies. With all the technological advancements in the world of interactive entertainment taking flight and subsequently breaking down barriers, games are starting to deliver on narratives that push gamers through to the end and make them question what comes next. There would be times where I would enjoy a game on gameplay alone, but as I grew older I wanted games to deliver more mature and thematic experiences. This generation more than any other included narratives that were mature, thought provoking and powerful. Here’s a look at games that are lauded more for their story.
Mass Effect was one of the first major games that proved that the power of choice was one not to be taken lightly as its effect in the series could be felt in every game. While Bioware had solidified itself as a narrative leader in the videogame industry with the release of Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Jade Empire. Mass Effect is highly regarded as pushing the narrative in the direction where it is today. The series is known for its gripping action, but also for the subtle moments in dialogue which heavily reflected on the player. It wasn’t evident of how powerful a player’s choice was until you played its sequel and you saw that the events in the first game had a wide reaching effect on the universe. While it still heavily focused on the tried and true narrative of go save the universe, it was its subplots that were its most interesting. I t showed that regardless of how big of a hero you could be, there were still tough decisions to be made and that not everyone can be saved. Sometimes you would see entire colonies disappear or characters you were attached to die because of the players inability to choose. I found this to not punish the gamer, but to show that not everything should be seen through rose tinted glasses. Everything isn’t black and white in the Mass Effect universe the gray area was a place that many games feared due to the possibility of reprisal from fans. While I still laud the series for its strong connecting narrative through three games, I still criticize Bioware for its ending. Regardless of whether you were a paragon or a renegade, the ending was still the same, it felt like a cop-out, and while it was a hiccup in an otherwise mature and fantastic experience, this resonated throughout gaming as a bizarre misstep in an otherwise powerful narrative.
While Bioshock Infinite is one of the finer games of the last console generation, Bioshock was a game that pushed narratives into darker waters and never let up. Most games give you a glimmer of hope and have that hope guide you through the darkness. Rapture was once a beautiful, ideal place in which the elite could live and flourish. Innovations were made in the name of science, a new plasmid was discovered and once it spliced with someone’s DNA a person was given metaphysical abilities such as telekinesis and pyro-kinesis. But like any great society that heavily features one class, eventually dissent and prejudice gave way, and this lead to the crumble of Rapture, one side lead by the creator Andrew Ryan, and the other lead by Black Market Businessman Fontaine. Each side had used plasmids in the hopes of dominating the other, but the plasmids effects on a person’s psyche led to disturbing results.
Enter the protagonist, a character who at first winded up in Rapture by coincidence, he survived a plane crash and found safety at a light house. The light house acted as a hub to Rapture and from there the fight to uncover the truth began. Bioshock’s narrative heavily focused on morality, once you’re introduced to the little sisters and explained that their heavy exposure to ADAM is an excellent way for you to upgrade your various abilities the player is given a choice: Do you save these children and release them so that they can be taken care of by the mysterious Dr. Tenenbaum, or do you follow Atlas’s orders and consume them, adding to your abilities which will greatly help in the fight against Andrew Ryan and his tyranny? What was fascinating was that while the player’s choices did affect the outcome of the game, it also spoke to the players ambitions. In a game filled with darkness and despair, could you act as a beacon of hope? Would you sacrifice these children for power? It was something that many gamers struggled with because having more ADAM made the later levels easier while foregoing meant employing different strategies. While I won’t mention the twist that shook gamers everywhere, I will say this, when Bioshock pushed, you couldn’t push back, and that was fantastic.
The Last of Us
It was a stroke of genius by Naughty Dog in crafting a non-linear narrative as gaming was trending toward player choice. The Last of Us strictly focused on Joel and Ellie’s relationship with each other, not our relationship with them. There were numerous points during the story where I didn’t agree with Joel and that there were points of the game where I wanted to follow a different path. But that was because of my moral alignment, I had forgotten that this wasn’t my story, it wasn’t my path to choose, it was Joel’s and it spoke to his nature. A man who was completely in his element, the only thing known about him prior to the events of the outbreak was that he was a man dedicated to his daughter. Once that was lost, he became callous and cold, he became a man strictly concerned about his survival. His decisions may not have fell in line with what I would’ve done, but there was no primer on who he was during the 20 years since the events of his daughter’s death. But you could tell that her death weighed heavily up on him. His relationship with Ellie was strictly business related and with time she represented the humanity that was lost long ago.
While many gamers have struggled with the ending and were hoping for a different outcome, Naughty Dog stuck to their guns and delivered a powerful message that has polarized gamers. While every story ends, not all of them have a happy ending; this to me was more in line with the realism that gaming has avoided due to fear of fan backlash. Joel is a fantastic, layered character who is represents the best and worst of all of us. This wasn’t a stoic and optimistic figure, he was a realist, a man who teetered on the edge and lived with the consequences. The ending of the Last of Us is still one of the best in gaming, it was never our story to tell, players happened to be along for the ride.
Who would’ve thought that a platformer would feature such a powerful narrative? Celeste is easily a game of the year contender as it combines intricate and intense platforming with a narrative focusing on inner turmoil. Protagonist Madeline acts as a representation of those of us who are still looking to find their way in the world. Her demons physically manifest itself in a twisted doppelganger that looks to prevent Madeline from progressing up the mountain. There are numerous powerful moments in Celeste in which Madeline has to confront her inner demons and accept the fact that she may never escape her mental illness. She admits that putting on a façade in front of her co-workers is weighing heavily upon her and this is something that I can relate too. While I had my moments of frustration because this game was so damn hard, the journey of Madeline is one of the best in recent memory. This game acts as a reminder that life’s difficulties do not have to be challenged alone. It’s brilliant and should see it’s share of awards for its deft blend of storytelling and gameplay.
Spec Ops: The Line
Military shooters are never known for their narrative. The emphasis of a shooter should rightfully be on its gameplay as this is what drives the game. Spec Ops: The Line acts as your run of the mill cover shooter but it also happen to feature one of the most powerful narratives in gaming. Displaying the after-effects of poor decision-making in a combat zone is striking as in the case of most military shooters, its fire and forget. The consequences of the players actions are never shown and if they are, its always mentioned in passing. In Spec Ops, Capt. Martin Walker and his squad are constantly operating in life or death situations in which their decisions will effect not only themselves but the surrounding populace. PTSD is rarely mentioned in any military shooter, but Spec Ops ensures that its characters are aware of their decisions and will make the player navigate through the consequences. There are moments in this game that will make you uncomfortable, but this story needs to be told. In war, there are no victors, just victims and Spec Ops The Line represents this in full. As a veteran who served with those afflicted with PTSD, I truly do appreciate the developers realistic take on the harsh decisions that get made in combat.
What are some of your favorite narratives in gaming?