Story is something that is simultaneously overrated and underrated by video game developers. Almost all games in the modern market have one, even sports games feel the need to give players a narrative reason to keep playing. Unfortunately, many of these games strive to replicate a style that was developed for books, TV, and movies which are all passive mediums that do not account for the audience’s participation in the story. Thus, as games have evolved, developers have slowly figured out how to include the audience in their stories and push the boundaries of storytelling within all mediums. These games, in my opinion, embody this evolution of video games from copying other forms of media to developing their own narrative techniques to become the unique medium that it is today.
Planescape: Torment (PC, Linux, IOS)
Planescape: Torment helps to close off the first generations of games grasping at how to tell a story within a basic structure. Up until this point, bar a few exceptions, game stories have always served as convenient excuse to make you kill things or participate in whatever shenanigans that drive the core gameplay.
Released in 1999, it is the culmination of now-defunct Black Ilse Studios works within the RPG genre at the time. Well versed in the tropes and expectations of the genre, the studio made the decision bring the story of the game to the forefront with combat taking a back seat for much of the game, depending on the choice of the player. Through the eyes of “The Nameless One” players assumed the role of a man who cannot die. Since your last death, your memory had been wiped, forcing you to confront decisions and actions you took in previous lives to an often gut-wrenching effect. This device also allowed players to explore, experience and define themselves in the strange world of Planescape on their own terms. On top of this depth of player choice and plot, Planescape: Torment has been wildly acclaimed for its quality of writing, being cited as one of the few games to possess the literary weight and depth of a novel.
Silent Hill 2 (PS2, PS3)
Silent Hill is often cited as one of the scariest games of all time. Unfortunately, what is not normally mentioned in the same breath is that its sequel has one of the best stories told in the horror genre (aside from some very questionable dialogue and voice acting). Silent Hill 2 is a disturbing examination of human relationships and how we deal with the trauma we cause one another within them. This thematically rich plot is supported by a game world and characters that all feed directly back into the main character’s struggle with guilt and desire.
The developers use everything at their disposal to explore the themes brought up throughout the game, from enemies such as the iconic Pyramid-Head to portray the main character’s violent sexual desires and fears, to puzzles such as the hangman puzzle used to explore the ideas of guilt, judgment and justice. The game even features multiple endings based on how often and in which way the player interacts with certain characters and items. Unlike many current horror movies and games, everything in Silent Hill 2 has been done with a purpose. It understands that to be truly terrifying, to really get into someone’s head, you have to explore very real and very disturbing aspects of the human condition.
The Last of Us (Ps3, PS4)
The Last of Us is arguably one of the most successful video games of the last generation of consoles, and for good reason. While everything from the gameplay to major plot elements has been explored in games and other media before, what makes The Last of Us different, much like the developer’s Naughty Dog’s past work, is simply the level of quality the developers managed to achieve. Everything from the heart pumping, grounded gameplay to the heavily nuanced performances has a polish that few other media manages to accomplish. Though, it is worth noting that this is the game where the developers at Naughty Dog have become more experimental.
For example, while there are many cut-scenes in the game, most of the events that begin to form a bond between the two main characters of Joel and Ellie were done directly through gameplay allowing the player to form a bond with the characters as well. Naughty Dog also started experimenting with player choice, allowing the player to engage in conversations and actions with the non-playable character Ellie on their own terms. While this may not be the most ground-breaking experimentation in terms of design, the idea that player choice is seeping into games that many argue are of a higher quality than most novels and movies, it is certainly an exciting prospect.
Hellblade (PC, PS4)
On the surface, Hellblade shares many qualities of cinematic, story-driven games such as The Last of Us or Uncharted, with its weighty, intimate combat and camera perspective as well as a heavy focus on storytelling. What sets Hellblade apart is its themes and how it chooses to tell its story. Hellblade is a story of a Celtic Pict warrior named Senua who suffers from Psychosis. Through rigorous research, help from those who suffer from the condition and experts in the subject of psychosis developer; Ninja Theory manipulated the conventions of gameplay to place the player directly in the mind of someone who suffers from this condition. The game features haunting voices called The Furies that follow you throughout the game, accurately simulating auditory hallucinations reacting to almost everything you do. Other symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, mental blindness and increased pattern recognition are worked into the game as mechanics for the player to directly interact with. Which puts Hellblade in a unique position to allow players to form empathy for those who suffer from psychosis by simulating its symptoms. Hellblade isn’t necessarily what one would call a “fun” game because mental illness is not fun. More than anything Hellblade helps show what sets video games apart from other media. Through its interactive elements, a game can transcend story and narrative to become a tool to build empathy for subjects that are extremely nebulous and hard to discuss, such as mental illness.
All that being said, These are just my picks for games demonstrating the evolution of story in video games, what are your picks for the games that pushed games as a medium for storytelling? Let us know in the comments below!
Gabriel Planas is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario Canada who is passionate about video games, movies, punk rock and fantasy fiction. With over 20 years of experience playing video games, he is dedicated to spreading the word on the fledgling medium’s endless narrative potential.