Like many people, I have been extremely curtailed in my options how to spend my time for the last year. I do not mind escaping into books or films or indeed games for a while – but the past months have made the while longer and longer … so why not share a few of the more interesting narrative experiences you can have in the realm of video games.
In order to make it a bit more difficult for myself, I have decided to mix up genres. It would be very easy to simply list the best RPGs and call it a day. However, I was trying to find games from very different genres that have managed to evoke something unusual with the way they are telling a story. I am not looking for the best stories (although I would include some of the games here in that list as well) but mainly for games that try something strange (and successful) with their narrative aspects.
No need to talk a lot, let’s instead make the favourite kind of article of the Internet: a list.
To pick one RPG isn’t the easiest task. You all know how they work – you play as a character with different attributes and during challenging situations those attributes get tested in the form of a dice roll. Now imagine that your character has to roll a dice just to successfully look at himself in the mirror after several days of binging himself into personal oblivion. Your abilities are parts of your psyche that talk to you in different, very distinct voices at mostly inopportune moments and some of them are thoroughly mad. Outwardly, the story of Disco Elysium is a neo-noir detective adventure with a very European flair (it was made by ZA/UM an international studio from Estonia) but the true story is the internal exploration that its protagonist is offered by those inner voices and they might take him to dark, strange, hilarious or very vulnerable places.
The ambitious and somewhat precocious games of David Cage, the creator of (among others) Heavy Rain and Detroit Become Human have spawned admiration and memes in equal measure. I loved Heavy Rain when I first played it. The immersion that the simple quick-time reaction mechanics offer have been used in a lot of later games but rarely to such effect. It is a murder mystery that puts you into the shoes of several of its protagonists and your success (or failure) in advancing the story, finding clues, reacting properly to subtle psychological hints determines the ultimate direction of the story. Heavy Rain is a game that is almost entirely geared towards the narrative experience and as such it has to take a spot on this list.
What Remains of Edith Finch
This is the game that is closest to a short story collection in the way the player experiences the narrative. It is surprising and weird and uses all the tricks in the book (and invents or repurposes a few more) to give you a magical and emotional experience. It tells the story of a family through the protagonist’s memories of her own childhood. They serve as a gateway to her explorations of the – now empty – family home, where she finds traces of all the other members of their family and their respective stories. It’s a game where you shouldn’t give anything away other than this: it’s really good and unique.
Do you want a philosophical game? A game that shows you a dark mirror of America in the early 2010’s and the twisted psychology that underlies a Utopia? False prophets? A brainwashed society? The Great American Video Game? There are no better dystopian games than the Bioshock series and, in my opinion, Infinite tells its story in the best possible way. Ostensibly, Ken Levine’s game is a shooter. You run around, shoot baddies and get stuff. The high-octane action, however, is laced with chilling and shocking philosophical implications that would not be out of place in a dystopian novel.
Tacoma might not quite be in the overall echelon of the preceding games but what it does with its narrative elements is quite original and effective. It’s basically a walking simulator on a spaceship where something mysterious and terrible has happened. The player takes on the role of the person sent to clear up that mystery and all you have to do that are the logs and personal effects of the vanished crew. So you start traveling through highly subjective time, pieceing together the characters and their states of mind – it’s a kind of reverse storytelling that video games, due to their format, can excel in.
For the last pick (for now), I will go small. Gorogoa is a puzzle game that leads you through the memories of its protagonist. It is calm, somewhat sad and occasionally seems like an experimental graphic novel. You move the hand drawn pictures around, can enter and leave them at will and find the secrets hidden within them. It’s a wordless story and it seems like something a dying artist would leave behind, to explain things that cannot be said.
There are, of course, a lot more games that did interesting things with their narrative aspects. This is just a brief glimpse and a short list. I might return and add to it in the future.