Anyone that has ever sat down and played a game knows there is a very distinct difference between watching a story and playing one. Putting you and your choices right at the heart of the action, games have the unique ability to make the story just as much about you as it is about the characters, pulling at your heartstrings all the more.
With both AAA and indie games weaving some fantastic tales this year, 2016 continued to prove that you don’t need a huge budget to tell a great story. And on top of that, a game’s narrative can pull you in just as much with what it doesn’t say as with what it does.
Nominee – Quantum Break
Time-travel has been a staple of science fiction ever since HG Wells wrote The Time Machine all the way back in 1895, and the simple fact is that the majority of time-travel stories have been told. It takes a story as unique and brilliant as Quantum Break to find something new.
From the outset, Remedy treats the idea that you can’t alter the course of events as an indisputable fact. And though it may seem simple, that one choice colors the entire game as a gorgeous tragedy. What lengths will you, and others, go to when faced with the unavoidable end of the world?
Powerful and delightfully complex, the narrative is one of Quantum Break’s most defining features. Split between gameplay focusing on the heroes, and live-action mini-episodes (which change based are your decisions in the gameplay) focusing on the villains, it is a new way for telling a game’s story. Though it sounds like it should be a jumbled mess, Remedy pulls it off in fantastic form, delivering a science fiction tale that is just as deeply personal as it is mind-bogglingly epic.
Nominee – Dark Souls 3
A lot of games get lore videos and plot breakdowns, but even the longest RPGs and most impenetrable, abstract games don’t get entire YouTube channels dedicated to a single series. Except for Dark Souls, that is.
Not only does the lore require guesswork and connecting the dots; not only are there many, deeply human stories intertwining with the downfall of humanity; not only are the story beats shocking and heartbreaking; but on top of all that, it’s all done to say something about the human condition. Many games have complex and intriguing plots, but they’re all about themselves. Meanwhile, Dark Souls 3 has bosses like Aldrich, where just seeing their true “form” is a shocking revelation about the fate of certain characters, the path that an entire part of the world took, and a greater statement on the nature of power and lust for it.
Add the facts that Dark Souls 3 has two prior games to pull from, and two games of experience under its belt, and you get one of the best stories games have ever told.
Nominee – Inside
There is a nearly endless number of ways to tell a story. Luckily for players of Inside, it is not always with actual words. Inside takes us on the journey of a boy as he travels closer and closer to the very enemies that are sucking the life out of his world.
As environments begin to change, and more odd creatures show up in one place or another, new questions appear as often as actual answers. Even after you finish, the true story to Inside is not very clear, and that’s what makes it brilliant. It’s open for interpretation, while also proving to be filled with emotions and the heartbreaking determination of one innocent boy.
Nominee – Firewatch
There are plenty of games that are just as believable and well written as Firewatch. But few of them ever manage to be as devastatingly poignant in their simplicity. You play the game as Henry, a man just looking to get away from his life for the summer. And all of your interactions come over the radio with your supervisor, Delilah.
Campo Santo crafts a story just as much about loneliness and isolation as it is about building a relationship. Henry and Delilah are far more than your usual video game fair, both coming across as more fleshed out, flawed, and human than you would ever expect. The narrative of their growing relationship slips effortlessly from funny, to brutally honest, and back again, all without you ever seeing either of their faces.
Add in the exceptionally heart-felt, tear-jerker of an opening, and you have one of the most unique stories gamers have seen in a long time.
Winner – Uncharted 4
While the Uncharted series is often labeled as the video game equivalent of a summer blockbuster film, Naughty Dog has proven that they can tell an emotional, mature tale on par with the best storytellers in the world. Not mature in the sense of material that is inappropriate for children, but in the sense that it deals with real issues.
There is plenty of treasure hunting, but this isn’t just another Indiana Jones style romp through an ancient city. This is a story that centers on relationships. It is about marriage and the changes that come with settling down. It is about questioning the trust and understanding of the people you are closest to, and rebuilding that trust with people you’ve been apart from. It’s these complex, human stories within the greater plot that make Uncharted 4’s narrative so impactful.
By spending the time to establish what is emotionally at stake for each character, Naughty Dog makes it incredibly easy to get invested in what’s happening, and to make you care about pushing forward. This is the most human, fragile, and believable that the Uncharted cast has ever been, and it gives the story an emotional depth that the series has never quite reached before.