It seemed like one of the hallmarks of last year was open worlds and being able to tackle them however you wanted. Aside from Portal 2, there wasn’t a whole lot in the way of truly unique stories. Sure, Saints Row the Third was hilarious and subversive, but it was a byproduct of the world in which it existed. To be honest, most of the time I couldn’t care less about story in video games. Once in a while however, a narrative comes along that genuinely impresses me with its audacity and ambition. The aforementioned Portal 2 was definitely one from last year, but 2012 has been shocking with its multitude of great narratives. Here are a few shining examples which demonstrate how this year has been a true high point for storytelling in video games.
The Walking Dead has been winning ‘Game of the Year’ awards left and right these past few weeks. Being completely honest, as a straight-up adventure game, it’s really nothing special. What has resonated with audiences, however, is the way it presents the story itself as the gameplay. The primary mechanic is not in puzzles or action, but in managing relationships with other characters. Like every other iteration of the series the narrative is strongly focused on an inevitable path to oblivion, but the choices you get to make are gut wrenching and riveting as you edge closer to the void of the zombie apocalypse.
Speaking of endings, how about that Mass Effect 3? BioWare has always been known for creating complex and mature narratives in its games, but with the Mass Effect series they really went all in. The hysteria that went on back in March about the ending was such a shame because it detracted from detracted from the genuinely moving (pardon the expression) human drama that was going on throughout.
The story in this series (and particularly in this installment) is, like in The Walking Dead, all about inevitability and the characters’ preparation for what they all know is coming. Sure, the main quest of Mass Effect 2 was a ‘suicide mission’ but it was pretty easy to see that as long as you did the necessary preparations (i.e. loyalty missions, ship upgrades), you could bring everyone back. It’s fair to say that the third game was the same, but it did a much better job of hiding the strings and was a much more tense experience as a result.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that I haven’t shut up about for months now around the Twinfinite office, and I don’t anticipate I’ll stop anytime soon. To sum up; it is a near-perfect blend of providing the player with a difficult and confrontational narrative through equal parts dialogue, cutscenes, and environmental cues. It conveys its story on so many levels that it almost requires you to play through multiple times in order to spot them. What is most impressive about the tale this game tells is that it doesn’t rely on the well-used trick of giving you a short-term choice with the promise of a long-term payoff. The only time it gives you any options about how to proceed is at the very end, when it really doesn’t matter after all you’ve ‘accomplished’ up to that point.
The exchange between two of the characters: “There’s always a choice!”; “No. There really isn’t”, cuts to the heart of the limitations and possibilities of game narrative better than any other title this year. Spec Ops: The Line demands multiple playthroughs to be able to see the story threads on display, but the true challenge with it is whether you have the stomach to look into that game’s heart of darkness more than once.
On the topic of darkness, The Darkness II quietly came and went this year. It was a relatively clever shooter in which the player could ‘quad-wield’ with guns and demon tendrils, but what set it apart from most other releases was in who it kept the player on narratively uneven ground. As you approach the story’s end, it throws a series of twists at you and causes you to doubt the validity of the world around you.
One thing this series does really well is cultivate the player’s investment in Jackie as a character. While The Darkness is most notable for one particular sequence which is only rivaled by the Walking Dead in terms of unsettling the player, the sequel is more inward-looking. It forces you to make decisions about the story you have experienced, and whether you are willing to accept or reject it. It’s this kind of narrative that is only possible in a game, and it’s really too bad The Darkness II wasn’t more of a hit.
Most of the games listed have some kind of precedent for presenting interesting and groundbreaking stories, but this year one of the most mainstream releases even went out on a limb. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is as close as this industry has to a sure thing in terms of sales, but there have certainly been rumblings (to say the least) that the series was wearing out its welcome. Treyarch responded to this in the latest installment by introducing multiple endings depending on that affect how it plays out.
Granted, that’s hardly revolutionary storytelling, but this is Call of Duty we’re talking about here. Black Ops 2 is still very much a linear experience in which your character is literally following and carrying out systematic orders, as with other installments. Still, Treyarch deserves credit for being willing to fiddle with the golden goose, and by all accounts they did a pretty decent job of pulling it off.
At the end of the day, the interesting and provocative stories from the games of 2012 might have just been an anomaly that won’t be replicated for another 12 years, but it has been wonderful seeing these (and many other) video games reach past the format’s comfort zone and push them forward. It’s been an unexpected year but not an unwelcome one, and I look forward to what 2013 holds.