In honor of Video Games Day, a number of our video game playing staff have joined me in compiling a list of our favorite video game narratives. These are the stories that excite us, illicit deep emotional responses, allow us to make real choices of moral value, and craft our own tales in ways that only this still young medium can provide. If anyone’s ever claimed that video games can never have the same kind of narrative effect as film, these following games will make them eat their own words.
Mass Effect Trilogy – Diego Crespo
A game that uses strong writing and world building that makes you feel like you’re inhabiting a living universe is worthy of praise in its own right, and no video game series has achieved this quiet like the Mass Effect trilogy, which follows Commander Shepherd (male or female, depending on your choice) across the galaxy to stop a growing evil that could wipe out all sentient existence. The big hook of the series comes in the game’s ceding of narrative control over to the player, a feature of game design and story that drives the majority of the narrative forward, with player choice directly effecting the core narrative arc, and delivering wildly different in-game experiences for each and every player. But the real excitement for me came in spending time traversing the galaxy, getting to know the characters, and going on adventures with them. While ultimately some feel the ending is a betrayal of choice (or lack thereof), I found it to be a testament to great developer BioWare’s innate sense for storytelling, driving home the final verse of a symphony of space opera storytelling.
Persona 4 – Ryan MacLean
The story of Persona 4 is centered on a high school aged boy who, after moving to the small Japanese town of Inaba, discovers a parallel world inhabited by physical manifestations of thoughts and emotions. The premise: someone else is using this world as a means for murder, trapping people where they are attacked by their shadow selves, in the form of monsters that represent their most secret fears and desires. You and your new friends pledge to apprehend the murderer, and launch into a massive, year-long investigation. The writing is sharp, effortlessly weaving between comedy and drama, the pacing is methodical, and as the protagonist, you live out each day of the year, spending half your time on supernatural combat and investigation, and the other half in everyday life. You go to school; you hang out with friends; you can hold a part-time job. And it’s in these little moments that make the story something truly special. Building relationships with some of the most honest, complex, and imminently likable characters of any video game title is just as rewarding as tackling a massive dungeon or moving forward in any given investigation. The characters are Persona 4’s greatest strength, as they are so incredible that when the game finally ended I became a bit depressed, because I wanted more time to spend with them. When the game reaches its genuinely satisfying finale, it’s difficult not to get a bit teary eyed when saying goodbye to the world se brilliantly established throughout by developer Atlas Games.
Ni no Kuni and The Sims – Katherine Shelor
Most of the games I’ve played, I enjoyed for the puzzle-solving, exploration, or simply because I got to create things, or determine my own narrative arc. The typical video game story, in which you defeat a series of bosses, followed by an ultimate boss representative of everything dark and evil, gets in the way of my fun (the bosses are a chore, and I typically quit right before the final battle). But if I had to choose one for its story, I’d choose Ni no Kuni, because it’s about, very simply, a child in search of his mother, who turns out to be far more complex and interesting than the boy originally thought she was (to him, she was just mom). It’s kind of representative of how we think of parents as parents-and-nothing-else when we’re young, when in actuality they have their own personal history and interests outside of ours (also, some of the creatures you collect in that game are adorable).
In terms of games where the story isn’t dictated, Sims is my favorite, because I can do whatever I’m in the mood to do (such as build a mansion, or recreate every character from Harry Potter, and see how Ron and Hermione’s kids turn out, or create a hopeless romantic French woman that lives in a little cottage by the sea and enjoys painting, or create a poor family that eats food from their neighbor’s fridge). Basically, I determine the story, and I determine how challenging the game is going to be on any given day.
The Last of Us – Richard Newby
While post-apocalyptic and zombie games are nothing new, The Last of Us put character first, and stands as a testament to what console games can achieve. Joel and Ellie’s journey across the west is filled with action, moments of horror, and an all-encompassing struggle to survive, but the best parts of the game come in the quiet moments that explore the relationship held between Joel and Ellie throughout. As much as I loved shooting down the infected and tossing Molotov cocktails at cannibals, what I loved even more was Ellie telling jokes, Joel explaining the purpose of college in a world where that’s no longer a determinate reality, and the growing familial bond between two strangers who have lost those closest to them. Both the game’s script and voice acting from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson create a realism in the burgeoning father-daughter relationship established early on, and the game’s ability to make players empathize with its characters comes back ten-fold as the game progresses, through harrowing event after harrowing event. Better still, the characters aren’t built on flimsy definitions of good and bad; they are flawed and are allowed to change and grow as the story progresses. All of this leads to one of my favorite video game endings that speaks to the fact that there are no easy choices when it comes to love.
Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic – Richard Newby
There have been a lot of good Star Wars games, but none has come as close to recapturing the excitement like that of the first film like Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR). Taking place 4,000 years before the Empire gained its foothold on the galaxy, KOTOR focuses on a time where there were more than two Sith Lords, and the Jedi Order was far less organized than they become in the prequel trilogy. Through the course of the game, the character you create learns to be a Jedi, assembles a ragtag band of scoundrels, and explores the galaxy. The story allows you to build relationships with your followers, make choices based on the Light or the Dark Side of the Force, and allows you to take a firsthand role in the mythos that shaped the galaxy we see in the films. There’s a twist about three quarters of the way through that’s almost as good as Empire’s, and while the game is no longer canon after Disney’s purchase, for a time it remained one of the very best stories the Expanded Universe had to offer. Plus, the game played an important role in helping BioWare map out the aforementioned Mass Effect Trilogy.
BioShock/BioShock Infinite – Richard Newby
Not only is the BioShock one of my favorite video games, it’s also one of my favorite works of modern science-fiction. Taking a page from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, BioShock explores the underwater city of Rapture, once home to society’s best, brightest, and wealthiest before corruption and madness led to its ruin. A couple years after Rapture’s downfall, you play as a mysterious man who finds Rapture after his plane goes down. While most of the game follows the survival horror format, the themes and ideas at the heart of BioShock provide for a deeply unsettling reflection on America. Its sequel, BioShock 2, was also a lot of fun, but didn’t add much in terms of the narrative of Rapture. Then BioShock Infinite came along with its city in the sky, Columbia, and delivered the most enthralling narrative in the series yet, one that dealt with parallel realities and American Exceptionalism . All the games in the series deliver expertly crafted twists that are difficult to see coming, and not only create investment in your lead character (sometimes difficult for a first-person game to accomplish), but also generate investment in the world around you. While many games offer you moral choices along your journey, few offer them with such a conscious effort to help the player understand the secret at the heart of American patriotism.