A look at some of the best stories in games from the current generation of consoles.
Well, fellow gamers, the smoke is clearing from this generation of console warfare. For nearly eight years we’ve been playing our Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles and arguing about which one was better while Nintendo managed to financially crush them both with innovatively accessible twists on last-gen tech. But one thing we can all agree on is that the games were great all around.
A lot of people initially complained that the PS3 and Xbox 360 weren’t enough of a leap forward to really justify new console purchases. Although the visual differences may not have been staggering at first, I think the definitive trademark of this gen came in the form of in-game storytelling.
In the PlayStation 1-2/Xbox days, storytelling came largely in the form of static cutscenes or text. You played the games and every once in a while you watched a CG movie, and when that movie was done, you played some more. Much of the story was separate from the actual gameplay. But with the smoother capabilities of the 360 and PS3, storytelling became a more fluid art, and companies were able to create better realized worlds with real depth that were stories unto themselves while relying less on cutscenes, keeping the gamer involved at almost every junction.
With the crop of outstanding stories told through games that we’ve been treated to, I don’t think there’s a single credible pop culture critic who could still claim that gaming is not art. We’ve been served powerful political commentary, hilarious satire, deep themes and metaphors, mind-boggling explorations of the concepts of space and time, and experienced the consequences of our actions in new and exciting ways like never before. Here are some of my favorite multiplatform games that have served as example of this.
Grand Theft Auto IV
Previous to the last iteration of Rockstar Games’ flagship franchise, Grand Theft Auto was known for mainly two things: controversy and mayhem. The idea was to run/drive around a fictional city and just go to town in the craziest way you can think of. There was a story, but it was hardly the focus. I seldom made it to the story mission because I was inevitably distracted by a “rampage” mission or just a random urge to go pimp my ride or pick up a hooker for laughs. It was all about spur of the moment insanity.
Grand Theft Auto IV changed the focus of the game and eliminated a lot the superficial distractions in favor of deeper world, better story, and more interesting character interaction. There was still plenty of mayhem out there to be caused, but the tone of the story was a lot more philosophical and serious while still steeped in the comical satire that the series was known for.
You played Niko Bellic, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who came to America to get a new start and escape his violent past in the country that is supposed to be the land of dreams. Over the course of the game’s Tarantino-esque story, Niko finds out that no matter where you are, people are pretty much the same and he finds himself battling the same old demons with new faces.
In addition to the main story, Liberty City is a wonderland of exploration. I found myself surfing a fictional internet, putting out personal ads and going on dates, attending comedy shows, or just kicking back in Niko’s home watching television (Republican Space Rangers ftw!) among other leisure activities that completely immersed me in the world of the game. You could even call up your friends and go hang out at the bar or wherever to bond with the other characters over darts and drinks, among other activities. It was a level of depth never before seen in a game of this type, and it was amazing to experience.
Catherine is absolutely one of my favorite games of the last decade. It’s one of those unique experiences that surpasses “just a game” and becomes a part of your personal life. With it, Atlus created one of the definitive stories exploring the anxiety behind adult relationships in any medium and it should not be missed by any fan of story-based gaming under any circumstance. I’m seldom obsessed with a game like I was with this one while I was playing it.
You play as Vincent, a man in crisis. He has a beautiful, dependable, understanding girlfriend, Katherine. She is clearly ready for marriage and is not shy about expressing this desire, but Vincent is terrified that the commitment would mean the end of his lifestyle as he knows it. He begins spending more time at the bar with his friends, even staying there after they’ve all left. A young, vivacious, and seductive girl named Catherine begins showing up and flirting with Vincent and every night, he falls asleep to suffer horrific nightmares based on his relationship fears. At the same time, mysterious deaths are occurring around town with people dying in their sleep.
The game unfolds in several ways. First come cutscenes portraying Vincent’s interactions in his relationships, where players are often prompted for reactions that influence his morality meter (which affects the game’s ending). At the end of the day, he ends up in the bar where the player can drink and converse with friends, fellow patrons, and bar employees, and answer texts among other things.
Once it’s closing time, Vincent must go home and go to sleep. This is where the main gameplay happens. His nightmares include people he knows in his life and has him climbing obstacles to avoid his fears, which include horrifying representations of everything from children and marriage to sex itself. He sees every other character in his subconscious as sheep, where all of them see him the same way, kind of a literal example of what we all do subconsciously in the waking world. It’s a harrowing and cerebral nightly struggle to make it to the next day alive for player and protagonist alike.
Before moving on to each new obstacle, the player is asked personal questions. The answers on the first playthrough are saved and the percentages of answers given from all gamers are shown, which is a fascinating feature in and of itself given the nature of the questions. There’s nothing else like Catherine out there. If you haven’t played it yet, now’s the time.
The Walking Dead
More story than game, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead eschews most traditional ideas about gameplay and focuses instead on the characters, their relationships with each other, and the consequences of their choices in an interactive narrative full of horror, tragedy, and regret.
Playing as Lee, you soon encounter a lost little girl, who you take in. The search for her parents leads you from one hellhole to the next, and the experiences are seldom pleasant and regularly heart-rending. The Walking Dead is one of the few gaming experiences based on a popular media franchise that manages to capture the true spirit of the source material, and it did it on a small budget with an original cast and story rather than relying on familiar faces or pretty graphics to sell it.
Who dies, when they die, and/or how they die are things that are directly relatable to the choices you make as a member of your own ragtag group of zombie apocalypse survivors, and you’ve got to do what is best for the child in your charge. But the right thing to do is not readily apparent. But no matter what you decide, prepare for the worst. There was a time when admitting a video game made you cry would be a source of shame. This is one where you should perhaps be ashamed of yourself for not getting at least a little misty-eyed.
Portal, you ask? Portal, I say. Valve’s offshoot from their spectacular Half Life series came packaged with the murderers’ row of Half Life 2, its Episode One and Episode Two extensions, and the multiplayer instant classic Team Fortress 2 and still managed to be the standout game of that set. How? Beauty in simplicity.
While Portal is a simple puzzle game at its core where you utilize a gun that can generate portals to advance through a series of physics-based tests, the clever narrative and razor-sharp humor that permeates it makes this more than a video game. It’s an experience.
While your character struggles like a rat through a maze guided by a cynical passive-aggressive AI promising you cake, you come to realize that perhaps doing as you are told is not in your own best interest, pastry or no pastry. While your character, Chell, is mute, her personality is expressed through her/your actions in defying her captor and seeking freedom rather than captivity/incineration, simply ignoring the increasingly ridiculous attempts to trick or coerce her into falling back in line.
It’s a short game, but Portal is such a memorable experience that it leaves a huge impression. It is compact, but full of creative dilemmas and personality that stays with you long after it’s over; a definitive experience of interactive fiction.
Anchoring this list, I’ve got what was for me one of the finest experiences in gaming narratives I’ve ever experienced. Even with all of the hype and shouts of “Game of the Year”, I still feel like people are underrating this one.
Why not the original BioShock? The original was amazing indeed, but what shocked me the most about Infinite is that it completely blew the original away in terms of storytelling sophistication. I loved uncovering the story of Rapture and the political implications along with it, but reflecting on the final act of Infinite, it not only outclasses other games, there aren’t a ton of films or even novels out there that are on its level either.
How often do we get a story that uses concepts of space and time to illustrate human equality in such a way? With minimal spoilers, I’ll just say that if you pay attention you can see that Irrational Games has painted a picture where all of us are the heroes, all are the victims, and all are the villains. It’s just a matter of perspective and opportunity. Today’s oppressed will be tomorrow’s oppressors given the chance, and one simple choice can entirely change the trajectory of your life’s journey and turn good intentions into the road to Hell.
Like The Matrix and other science fiction masterpieces before it, BioShock Infinite does not require any questing for deep philosophical understanding to appreciate its charms. There is plenty of superficial brilliance, thrills, and feels to satisfy anybody looking for a good roller coaster ride. But for those who are looking for something sophisticated enough to keep you thinking for weeks after the jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching finale, there is more than enough food for thought in this video game, and I’ve barely touched on it here.
I’m sorry, am I forgetting someone?
Yes, Mass Effect was indubitably the best thing about this gaming generation. But BioWare had introduced many of the features in their previous games, so their epic sci-fi trilogy was more of a culmination than a landmark in innovative storytelling. But it deserves an honorable mention anyways because it introduced a feature that will pay huge dividends in the future by allowing saves to be ported from one game to the next, allowing you to pick up where you left off with consequences of your previous actions affecting the story in the sequels as well. I can’t stress enough how great this is and will be.
So those are my picks for the best of this generation’s multiplatform games to advance the cause of games as art and put them one step closer to having the same esteem as film, literature, and television in popular culture. I know you’ve got your own. I’d love to hear about games that changed your perspective on the medium.