Single Player games often find their greatest strength in the stories they’re able to tell, taking on a distinct role in our lives by allowing us to participate in fiction, rather than simply read or watch it. While most have elements of traditional storytelling structure, some of the most memorable define totally new forms of it through their unique digital formats. The following is a list of five titles of the recent era (roughly analogous to the most recent console generation, and spanning from mid 2013 in the earliest) that left us with extremely memorable stories and, in the case of a few, truly pushed the envelope of what gaming narratives can be. It’s not presented in any order because I frankly couldn’t even try to directly compare the different storytelling approaches these games represent.
The Banner Saga – Advertising its epic nature and inspirations in its title, The Banner Saga brings a tone of elegiac, mournful majesty to its storytelling. With more than a bit of unique world-building to back it up, it taps into a Tolkien-esque sense of fictional history or living mythology, and then makes the player witness to that history as it unfolds. There is something grand and weighty to all of it, a sense of inevitability while leaving one to wonder if the looming outcome is good or ill.
The potential death of a named party member early on is proof that the story is not just a record of heroic accomplishment, as much as an ongoing memorial for, and running tally of, the lost. Choice and consequence is a a specter that haunts the player throughout the game as its systems feed back into the narrative of mounting casualties, hunger, and struggles with morale. Yet adversity builds the game’s successes into something more satisfying and makes certain key achievements, like the arrival of the caravan at one safe haven or the next, truly triumphal. While plenty could be said for the fascinating details of the world, plot, and characters, it’s the sense of bleakness and grandeur alike that makes The Banner Saga a stand out.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Open-world RPGs loom large in narrative gaming. On one hand, they’re the vanguard of its grandest possibilities, offering huge worlds packed with lore, massive casts of characters, and sprawling quests, main and otherwise. On the other, their grand ambitions can lead to criticism of breadth over depth and storylines lost in the weeds. Making a huge world feel believably lived in is a monumental challenge from every perspective, be it writer, coder, or developer faced with budgetary realities. The Witcher 3 doesn’t totally overcome these challenges, but it backs it up by investing in its main character, a compromise to openness (compared to CGing your own avatar) that yields dividends.
From Geralt’s old allies to a cast of minor refugees, plotting nobles, religious zealots, criminals and others (and with a nod to the Bloody Baron!), the game’s cast brings its lore-rich setting to life. But so much falls to Geralt himself. We know the man very well by now but even without the earlier games, he’s a weighty character. That Geralt is a Witcher means everything – in how he operates, in how people both scorn and rely on him, in how he fits into the story of fantastic racism that is so core to the series. More, his history defines his relationship to many characters, and invests us in their fates and his long struggle against the Wild Hunt and death itself.
The Wolf Among Us – The popularity of episodic games hasn’t just created a distribution model, it’s carved a space for a certain kind of storytelling akin to the serialized forms of comics and TV. While game chapters might not stand quite as well on their own as individual comics or TV episodes, they’re still designed to be digested in a sitting and leave you wanting more. And The Wolf Among Us does this in spades.
The episodes are moody and tense, moving deftly between atmosphere and action, light exposition and big shock moments. As a mystery, it does have some meaty dialogue, but it rarely drags, especially with its willingness to (sometimes literally) burst in on any given interaction with a sudden fight or reveal. Mixing the humorous and dark, it manages to be adult without pandering, something more “serious” works can sometimes struggle with. The credit for a lot may go to the colorful cast. A study in how characterization can be strong without (aside from Bigby) being deep, each character’s broad personality comes across quickly through strong mannerisms, aided by their loose basis in common folklore. Its also worth note among its Telltale cousins how the game handles its big plot decisions. All of the titles employ a certain false choice techniques, letting things branch off only to reconvene at the same point later. Yet Wolf’s alternate routes provide different, enlightening perspectives on events, inviting one to play them all to get the whole picture.
This War of Mine – Many games expand traditional storytelling structures with interactive elements, allow the player to explore variations on a single narrative arc, branched and embellished to the degree that budget allows. But technology gives us some interesting tools, as procedurally generated games have shown us since the days of Rogue and Nethack. This War of Mine is among a class of games taking this approach to story as opposed to monster-slaying, allowing gameplay to shape a set of arbitrary events into an emergent narrative.
Of course, in This War of Mine, the story that emerges is almost certain to be bleak, with the prospects of a happy ending uncertain. The game upends the typical approach to war in gaming, and casts the player in the civilian role, confronting them with the struggles of noncombatants in a war zone. While the overall course of a given playthrough is random, every individual event represents a story of its own, and each is a grimly gripping window into the harsh realities of war. Inspired by real accounts, it bares not just the brutal events and hard choices faced by bystanders to such conflict, but also the psychological toll they take. In delivering this heavy subject matter, the game finds a meeting of mechanics, form, and narrative intention, showing how, for the truly powerless, life really can be reduced to narrow choices reacting to seemingly random events.
Undertale – Undertale comes last for a reason: it’s a game about a genre of games, with a narrative that unfolds not merely inside the space of a single defined story (or even within a single playthrough of the game itself), but within the act of playing the game as the person at the keyboard. But it’s more than just metafiction, and I doubt it would earn the the high praise it has or personally give it a place here just for some genre commentary and fourth wall breaking. It’s an examination on the way we’ve all learned to play games, especially RPGs, and even on the larger world: violence is an instinctual default, and we have a choice to act to avoid it. And most fortunately, it’s a form of commentary that actually has some heart and is fun to play, too.
It’s this latter fact that makes the game as memorable as it is. Games frequently come with messages (several of the prior titles do), and the better ones thread them into the narrative without beating you over the head, letting you come to those emotional responses naturally. Undertale presents a very personal, even familial story through its bizarre cast of characters, all with enough depth of ambiguity in their motivations (and sometimes identities) that players are still arguing about who they really are or trying to puzzle out their goals and the bigger picture. Through these characters and its myriad collection of alternate routes, choices, and game branches, many affected by prior saves or playthroughs, the game creates a layered and deep story, one that is really unique to its form of media.
The above list, of course, is just the opinion of one writer (with some input from other staff), and is in no way meant to be wholly definitive. A number of other titles could have fought for places on the list, but space is what it is. If you object to any of these titles being worth the distinction, or have ones you think should have made the list, you can let us know in the comments or on Twitter (@Official_OnlySP) or Facebook.
The opinions in this editorial are the author’s and do not represent OnlySP as an organization.
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