Games are meant to be played, but ever since Space Invaders introduced the idea of narrative scenarios, the digital medium has recognized its potential for storytelling. Over time the writing has improved, better graphics have allowed for more interesting techniques, and every now and then a game pushed the boundaries of just how mature a story could be. By this point gaming is undeniably a storytelling medium, and we’ve experienced some incredible stories in our history of gaming.
I went over all the games that I have played myself and have felt connected so much so that when they ended, I felt sad. These narratives made me feel, made me think, and kept me glued to the screen until I reached the resolution. These games all told stories that only could be possible in a video game, as is evident by all the failed video game movie adaptations and if we want this medium to keep evolving, then this is the perfect time to celebrate them.
Assassin’s Creed 2
How often does a games story its actual, core narrative hold your attention for 25 hours? Assassins Creed 2, which tells the life-story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, perhaps the fan favorite of the entire Assassin’s Creed series, is one of those rare games. It confidently introduces you to the cheeky Italian when hes a young man, scrapping in the street and climbing into his girlfriends bed via the balcony. Then it shatters his world, leaving you to rebuild and revenge over the course of a life, all within the beautiful surroundings of Renaissance Italy.
The fact that it takes place in a computer simulation (based on historical memory) adds a delicious extra layer to the plot, and provides handy background information on pretty much everything in the game. The sci-fi ending and hidden video leaves you with a simultaneous feeling of insignificance (the purpose of Ezio’s entire life was to deliver a single message) and awe at the potential for the series overarching plot. Which Ubisoft then over-complicate in subsequent games. Ho hum.
After taking gaming subject matter to new heights, game creator Ken Levines next title after BioShock had huge expectations, all of which BioShock Infinite was prepared to meet. The impossibly floating world of Columbia is a cutting critique on the perils of American exceptionalism, but Booker DeWitt is only after Elizabeth, the special girl he must abduct if he wants to be free of his debt. However, just as the Infinite in the title implies, the plot is far bigger than that.
Infinite approaches so many important subjects–racism, socialism, colonialism but in the end it all comes back the demons in Booker’s past. Like monstrous Songbird and the comical Lutece twins, Booker’s choices come back to haunt him again and again, but Elizabeth’s reality warping powers might finally give him the chance to make things right. BioShock was about choice, Infinite was about fate, and both gave us a lot to think about when they were over.
To The Moon
To the Moon proves that a game doesn’t need convincing voice acting, fancy polygons, and an orchestral score to make grown men cry. The score did help though, but the sad notes are a heartbreaking reminder of the tale about a dying man with one last wish: to go to the moon. The story follows two doctors who are trying to fulfill the Johnny’s wish using technology that creates artificial permanent memories. In order to do so, they need to hop through his memories and implant the desire to go to the moon in his childhood so that he creates a new life in his mind.
Along the way we learn about River, his now deceased wife, and it’s hard not to get teary-eyed when the doctors go through their happy memories together. Or, if you want to be sadder sooner, just listen to this. If this game doesn’t make you cry, I’m not sure if you have emotions. To the moon is also arriving for mobile devices soon.
Red Dead Redemption
Some of the greatest film Westerns deal with the death of the Old West, and Red Dead Redemption strikes gold exploring that subject. Protagonist John Marston is a man out of time. He wants a steady home life, but is pushed back into the saddle by government agents that hate his outlaw past. Marston has to hunt down his old posse of bandits, effectively killing off the last remnants of the era that defined him.
And its not just Marston and his former friends that have trouble transitioning into the 20th century. Over and over John meets individuals coming to terms with the end of the West, whether happily or through gritted teeth. Marston himself wants to leave his past behind despite being so good with his revolver, which makes him easier to connect with than every previous Rockstar hero. The ultimate question is: will the world allow him the happy ending he deserves?
Persona 4’s greatest strength comes from pacing. The life of the protagonist plays out one day at a time for an entire year in the quiet town of Inaba. You dig deep into a murder mystery while also attending high school, working part time jobs, and (most importantly) bonding with your new friends. You may enter a shadowy world of dungeons and monsters, but you become so attached to your new friends that a small moment in the park with one of them has more impact than most boss battle.
Persona 4’s tale takes more than 80 hours to experience, but it never feels drawn out as every day is a new chance to get closer to your friends. Characters like Teddy, Kanji, and Chie are well-defined by scenes that shift between comedy and drama fluidly, and you express your unique feelings for them through the expansive dialogue choices. When the story reaches its satisfying climax, you feel like you’ve gone through a life-changing ordeal with your best friends. When the game ultimately ends, its hard not to shed tears for all you’re saying goodbye to.
The Last of Us
Where most tales of this type are made of good guys, bad guys, heroic challenges and redemptive resolutions, The Last of Us has none of these things. Instead, it has reality. Protagonist Joel is no hero. Neither are his friends. No one at the start of the game is even particularly like-able. They’re just broken people trying to survive a broken world by any means necessary. The eventual change in Joel is a gradual one, forged by the immaculately subtle evolution of his relationship with Ellie, as well as the various pockets of humanity and brutality (both of which are experienced in uncompromising extremes) discovered along their journey.
Through delicate, fragile interactions with each other, most often subtly supported by gameplay, both characters change and evolve almost imperceptibly, they and their relationship becoming completely unrecognizable by the end of the game. Their story comes with no clean morality or neat solutions. But that is exactly why you’ll care, and ultimate be more affected by The Last of Us than any other action game. Epic, apocalyptic scenario, small, intimate human story. That’s why it works, and that’s why it will stay with you.
The Walking Dead
An intense, emotional ride until the very end, The Walking Dead could easily be the game of the year in many 2012 lists because of its gut-wrenching story. Lee Everett, a man on his way to prison, plays the unlikely hero who stumbles upon Clementine, a young girl whose parents were vacationing in another city when the zombie apocalypse happened. Their unexpected journey takes them to Savannah, where her parents should be, and along the way you meet a cast of characters that you grow to love (or hate with a burning passion). It’s okay though, because there are instances when your choices affect their chances of staying in your group.
The game’s strengths are its dialogue and character development, and it’s impossible not to feel sad, guilty, or angry whenever Clementine witnesses or experiences anything horrible. It’s a given that when the dead start walking that there will be gruesome scenes, but the pacing, the execution of each scenario made The Walking Dead stand out.
With so many successful story driven games and with so many previous franchises turning into one, its clear that we have a lot more engaging entertainment on our way but surely, I possibly could not have covered every great video game story there ever was.
Have you played any of the games above? Do you have any suggestions for me? Games you think can top this list of mine? Do let me and everyone know in the comments.