A new year means a new era of hope and better things to come. The stories and storytelling techniques in video games have impressed across 2019 and preceding years, but improvements can always be made. This final StoryPlayer Chapter of the year looks ahead to the most promising story-based games of 2020.
The first entrant on the list is also the most contentious. Since Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune launched more than a decade ago, Naughty Dog has established a reputation as one of the foremost developers for narrative games. The Last of Us Part II is unlikely to change that, with the brief glimpses already provided suggesting another topical, mature, emotional adventure.
Where the doubts arise are in the game’s structure. Naughty Dog is masterful at creating engaging cutscenes, but the team often uses them as a crutch, with the strength of the storytelling diminished during gameplay. Moreover, the team has the unenviable task of following up a title widely considered as one of the best from the last decade. Risks need to be taken. Only time will tell whether The Last of Us Part II and its tale of Ellie’s anger truly earns its place here.
From one of the biggest games of 2020 to one that has only a tiny profile. Sonder. has been in Early Access since 2017 with no confirmed final release window, so including it in this list is questionable. Encouragingly, the team at KAMAi MEDIA has recently announced an update featuring significant overhauls to the game’s systems, so hopefully that signifies a final release sooner rather than later.
Sonder. earns its place on this list because of its sheer ambition. As with this year’s Outer Wilds, players enter a time loop. In this sci-fi mystery game, the goal is to discover what has gone wrong with the automated systems of a spaceship. However, rather than being forced to relive the same period over and over, players have an unprecedented level of control. Not only can time be rewound, but any character on board can be controlled at any time, with a huge array of possible interactions with other characters and the environment possible.
KAMAi MEDIA promises that every action and every choice influences the story in some way, so Sonder. may well be the most reactive, immersive narrative seen in any game to date.
A sequel more than 15 years in the waiting, a classic table-top RPG returns to the world of video games next year. Released in 2004, Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines is still regarded as one of best-written games available, and although the sequel is being handled by a new development team, Hardsuit Labs has drafted the first game’s designer Brian Mitsoda, as well as acclaimed writers Cara Ellison and Chris Avellone to craft the story.
At present, little is known about the adventure that players will experience, though it begins with the player character being turned into a vampire during what the developer describes as an act of vampire terrorism. From that point, the character descends into the supernatural underworld of Seattle. With the vampires divided into five warring clans, Hardsuit Labs promises that player choices will have real effects on the way the world changes and the story plays out. Moreover, the world will also respond to the player’s moment-to-moment decisions, as killing indiscriminately will result in a police response and NPCs avoiding the streets or hunting the player.
Another time-loop game, 12 Minutes aims to offer an in-depth examination of choice, consequence, and reactivity. As the name suggests, the game plays out as a 12-minute long sequence, with the player restricted to an apartment. Across that time period, the protagonist learns that his wife is pregnant, before a police officer arrives and kills the wife. The player then has to use subsequent playthroughs to achieve an unclear best possible outcome.
The storyline itself is mundane and unremarkable, but what makes the game so promising is how it involves players in the narrative. Games where the player’s choices affect the story through bland, binary branching are everywhere. 12 Minutes is more comprehensive in the way that dialogue choices and actions affect the behaviour of the NPCs. Importantly, the tiny scale of the story ensures that responsiveness is no idle boast, with players able to pick up and use almost any item in the house and engage in a wide array of different dialogue paths. The story is entirely dependent on the player in a way that few, if any, other games have achieved so far.
Clint Hocking, the creative director who coined the phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, returns with a game that invites reconsideration of what a video game story looks like. In a dystopian, post-Brexit London, the populace becomes protagonist. The latest entry in the Watch Dogs series continues the theme of fighting back against the powers that be. The difference is that the story this time centres on the rebellion as a whole, rather than the small, rebellious acts of an Aiden Pierce or Marcus Holloway.
Almost any character within the game’s vast recreation of the English capital can be recruited and controlled by the player, who acts as a stand-in for the anarchic DedSec organisation. The available information suggests that Watch Dogs: Legion will have a fairly traditional story structure, divided into missions that advance the overarching narrative. The idea of having multiple characters for different missions is hardly novel—strategy games are particularly fond of it—but the technique has never been attempted in a story-driven third-person adventure.
Speaking of strategy games, the genre gets a bold entry next year with Burden of Command. Most of the time, strategy games would not warrant consideration for a list like this; as good as XCOM, Phoenix Point, or Starcraft are, their stories are unimpressive at best. Where Burden of Command differs from its contemporaries is that it focuses on the psychological toll of war.
Burden of Command is set during World War II, with players becoming the captain of the Cottonbalers. The campaign is heavily inspired by historical events, but by far the most intriguing aspect of the game is the way that narrative affects the battlefield (and vice versa). For example, the player character may give a speech prior to a skirmish, with the result being either a motivated or demotivated squadron. Similarly, the player’s choices on the battlefield affect units’ moods and mindsets, which means they may not follow orders.
Burden of Command takes the typical morale or willpower stat from strategy games and expands upon it through factors such as respect, experience, and trust. That psychological element combined with the overarching war story makes Burden of Command one of the most narratively intriguing games of 2020.
No list like this one would be complete without the inclusion of DONTNOD Entertainment. Having just wrapped development on Life is Strange 2 earlier this month, the studio is already working on at least three new projects. One of those remains under wraps, Twin Mirror appears relatively unambitious from a narrative standpoint, but Tell Me Why holds promise.
Much has been made of the game’s transgender protagonist, but that territory has been trodden by indie developers. Tell Me Why’s true innovation lies in DONTNOD’s return to the theme of memory. As the twin protagonists Tyler and Alyson explore their childhood home, the player experiences their divergent memories and has to choose which is true. Those choices, among others, affect the relationship between the twins and will ultimately influence the ending.
Whether or not the game utilises the dynamic AI developed for Daniel in Life is Strange 2 is unclear, but Tell Me Why promises to once again challenge the perceived boundaries of interactive storytelling.
Some readers will no doubt rejoice in the decline of walking simulators across the past few years, but The Suicide of Rachel Foster comes as a reminder that the genre still has legs. Like many of its precursors, the game has players taking the role of a woman arriving at an empty building—in this case, a remote hotel owned by her estranged, deceased parents.
As may be expected, the game revolves around a mystery, the decade-old death of teenager Rachel Foster, who suicided after falling pregnant to the protagonist’s father. The central theme is a sensitive one, so developer ONE-O-ONE GAMES will have to treat it with an appropriate level of gravity and seriousness.
If the team is successful in doing so and if, as the latest trailer suggests, the gameplay involves more than just picking up the detritus of lives left behind, the title could enter the annals of legend alongside Gone Home, Firewatch, and What Remains of Edith Finch.
Last, but certainly not least, is what may well be the most anticipated game of the entire year: Cyberpunk 2077. With The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, CD PROJEKT Red became a household name among gamers, delivering a title with both stellar gameplay and writing that continues to be cited among the best in the industry almost five years later.
Relatively little is known about the story embedded within the game, but players take control of a highly customisable mercenary known as V. Keanu Reeves stars as a character from the original board game, Johnny Silverhand, who lives as a digital ghost in V’s head, but the specifics of the central questline are entirely under wraps. The reason why Cyberpunk 2077 makes this list (beyond the developer’s proven expertise) is because of how reactive the world seems. Player choices affect the way certain events unfold, and a choice of backstory will affect the way that NPCs view V. The ideas are promising, but whether Cyberpunk 2077 really moves the bar for dynamic narratives in open worlds is something that only time will tell.
Have we missed any story-based games that you think will leave a lasting impact on the shape of ludonarratives after 2020? Let us know in the comments below.
The rest of the OnlySP team will be sharing their most anticipated games of 2020 starting on New Year’s Day, so watch out for that. Meanwhile, the StoryPlayer Chapters will return in mid-January.