NOTE: This article will touch on some of the details found within the stories of several games, and thus, will contain some spoilers. Among the games discussed will be some of the best that 2013 has offered so far, and they include the following: Ni no Kuni, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Metro: Last Light, and The Last Of Us. If you haven’t finished these games yet, you may want to do so before reading further. So go. Finish them. They’re all great games. Finished? Good. Then you may proceed. Remember, you’ve been warned, but in case you missed this-
*********SPOILER WARNING! SPOILERS MAY APPEAR BELOW! AGAIN, SPOILER WARNING! **********
Now that that’s out of the way….. Let’s proceed.
We’re just over halfway through 2013, and we’ve seen some very strong contenders emerge for GOTY. These contenders vary in content and tone. A young boy is accompanied by his stuffed toy come to life through a magical land. A young woman endures dangerous trials on a remote island. A man frees a girl in a city in the clouds. Underground tunnels infested with monsters and hostile factions threaten the remnants of humanity. An embittered man escorts a young girl on a journey across post apocalyptic America. All of these games are tied together by one thing- a strong story. Even in some not so successful titles released this year (Remember Me and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance come to mind), story has been a driving force to help push players through the game.
Strong stories in games are not new, but they are a growing and ever evolving trend. Much as the comic book heroes that once only existed in the art on the printed page have made the jump to the silver screen due to advances in visual effects, so too have games become a growing medium for telling a tale. The industry has come a long way from just shooting pixellated enemies in the arcades. Role-playing games were among the first to tackle different themes by employing story telling methods. Among these were the Final Fantasy games, and many still look to Final Fantasy VII as a great example of the use of story in a videogame that stirs emotions. This was especially true in the death of Aerith, one of the game’s main characters. And this wasn’t just limited to RPGs- other series appeared on the scene, each with their own mythologies. Some of these were developed with intricate plotting, while others were more akin to a B-movie, but regardless what form it took, gamers were increasingly treated to rich stories to enhance their gaming experience. As gaming entered the 21st century, story really began to take hold, becoming just as important as pretty graphics or tight controls.
Games in the last generation continued to expand the role of story, making them even more intricately plotted, and placing a greater emphasis on characters and character development. Long running franchises, like Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid, expanded their mythologies. Others had thinner stories, but no one could doubt the growing influence of story as a whole, even making games like those in the Grand Theft Auto series richer despite their overall thin plot lines. While these stories were more loosely told, and served as a device to propel the main characters forward in an open sandbox ruled by mayhem, they still caught us up in the characters’ exploits. This made characters like Tommy Vercetti and CJ all the more memorable, while affording players a freedom in well constructed gameworlds to do as they wished, making places like Vice City or San Andreas enticing playgrounds. Others, like Silent Hill 2 and Fatal Frame, explored psychological horror on a scale not seen on consoles before, giving us characters to be frightened for as we encountered horrific images and bizarre plot twists. The trend continued into this current generation, spawning detailed universes and well defined characters. These varied settings and situations served to give us some of gaming’s more memorable characters, like Nathan Drake (the Uncharted series), Master Chief (Halo), John Marston (Red Dead Redemption), and the computer GLaDOS (Portal and Portal 2). Games like L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain began to explore more mature subject matter, and they did so in a mature fashion.
Which brings us to this year. So far, 2013 has produced some excellent games, among them Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, from Studio Ghibli and Level 5, Tomb Raider (Square-Enix), Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games), Metro: Last Light (4A Games), and The Last Of Us (Naughty Dog), and more are on their way (GTA V, Beyond: Two Souls, Watch Dogs) as well as the next generation of consoles from Microsoft and Sony. The five games I’ve mentioned could all be considered to be contenders for GOTY, and all of them are tied together by the rich and relatable stories that they tell and the strong characters they develop. All have rich, detailed backdrops: the parallel magical world in Ni no Kuni, the island of Yamatai in Tomb Raider, the city in the clouds, Columbia, in Bioshock Infinite, the dark tunnels and blasted swamps of a nuclear ravaged Russia circa 2035 in Metro: Last Light, and the post apocalyptic vision of America in The Last Of Us. In addition to these well designed settings, each of these games has at its core very human stories, stories that many of us can relate to. Among others, one common theme that runs through each of these titles is that of loss. In Ni no Kuni, Oliver must cope with the loss of his mother. Lara Croft loses both her innocence and some of her friends while trying to survive bands of pirates and cultists on the dangerous island of Yamatai. Booker has previously lost a child, and his self respect has fallen by the wayside as he sinks into debt brought on by gambling, a debt that he can only clear by traveling to the city of Columbia. Artyom is haunted by the loss of his mother when the bombs fell on Moscow. Joel, after losing his daughter, has also lost hope as a deadly disease transforms the United States and society fails.
But negative emotions aren’t the only ones explored in these games. Oliver has a sense of wonder as he explores the magical parallel land with Drippy, King of the Fairies. His good heart aids those who he comes in contact with, helping them regain what they have lost, be it their courage or their determination. By aiding these people, his own heart is healed as he overcomes the devastating loss of his mother. Lara Croft revels in the discovery of tombs and artifacts long hidden on Yamatai. These quieter moments kindle her passion for archaeology, giving her spirits a boost as she finds the courage to tackle the dangers that are never far off. Elizabeth is frightened at first, but soon takes delight in being free from her tower, and we can feel Booker’s heart lift as he watches her dance to music on a pier and when she feels joy viewing little shows in an arcade. Artyom even gets a break from the oppressive dangers of the Metro, as he watches a lengthy variety show at the Bolshoi, which entertains us as well, and he gets to show a softer side by returning a child’s lost teddy bear in Venice. Ellie whistles and hums as Joel escorts her across a ravaged countryside. She muses on how things were as she reads a diary. She delights in finding comics, and looks forward to learning how to swim. In one especially touching scene, she gazes in awe at a herd of giraffes who have been set free from the zoo in Salt Lake City.
Each game runs us through a gamut of emotions, which, at least to me, provides testimony as to the strength of their stories. We experience sadness when Oliver loses his mother to a freak accident, or when Joel’s daughter Sarah is fatally shot by a soldier. We experience fear as Lara is stalked by pirates and Artyom confronts skittering creatures in the dark. We experience joy as we watch Elizabeth dance, and smile as Ellie tells her bad jokes. Our hearts lift up as we watch Oliver redeem a villain, and empathize with Booker and Joel as they struggle to keep their young charges safe. And we also experience the thrills and revel in the action that inevitably explodes in these games, using strategy to help Oliver and his companions fight off monsters, stealth to help Lara and Joel through tense encounters, and resort to all out firefights to aid Booker and Artyom in dispatching groups of foes. Each game offers us a rich and diverse experience, along with giving us characters that we grow to care deeply about.
The stories in all of these GOTY contenders are well written, create richly detailed game worlds and give us memorable casts of characters that extend beyond the main roles. Each has their share of villains, yet even these villains are more rounded than your stereotypical bad guys. In some cases we get to see redemption for some of these villains, like when Oliver restores Shadar’s heart, or Elizabeth grants a release to Songbird in the bowels of Rapture. All in all, it’s been a strong year for story driven games. And we’re only halfway, with more stories to come.
I’m sure I may have missed some points, but feel free to bring them up in the comments section. Let us know what your favorite stories are for 2013 so far, and if you think the games mentioned are truly worthy contenders for GOTY, or if you have another title in mind. It’s been a great year for gaming so far, and it’s not over yet, so here’s hoping you enjoy the stories we have and those yet to come.