If you’ve read Ben Skipper’s recent article, you’ll hopefully be on board with us in feeling storytelling in games has gotten better and better. This year we’ve had some affecting tales and monumental efforts, and here’s to that continuing.
As we run down each position, our writers will have their say on each title, telling you exactly why they think each game is so good. Please leave comments at the end of the article. In reverse order then, let’s get it on!
5: Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar, Multi)
Robin Parker: A lot of gamers are likely to look at the story in Grand Theft Auto V and quickly dismiss it as crass, immature and basic. It is all of those things, but it is also funny, likeable and strangely compelling. It won’t win a Screenwriters Guild award, but it successfully manages to take a step back from the po-faced seriousness that afflicted GTA IV, and steers the game back towards the root of the series: mindless mayhem and ridiculous humour.
The three central characters are all highly flawed individuals, but there is something in each of their characters – even the sadistic Trevor – that makes them a little more relatable and human. The thing that probably shines most about the story in GTA V, however, is the way in which the three different protagonists play off one another, with their banter often being hilarious even in the most unsuitable situation. When the plot feels like it may lose its way a bit, the characters pull the game through.
4: Beyond: Two Souls (Quantic Dream, PS3)
Mick Fraser: How do you follow a game as divisive as Heavy Rain? If you’re French outfit Quantic Dream, you create a game that enhances every idea you explored in Heavy Rain, and divides the gaming community even more. David Cage will never be accused of following the herd, and it’s games like BEYOND: Two Souls that ensure that. More an interactive movie than a game (at least in the strictest sense), BEYOND is the story of Jodie Holmes and a symbiotic, supernatural entity named Aiden whose soul is entwined with hers. With stunning performances from Ellen Page and Willem Defoe, BEYOND’s narrative takes unexpected turns and branches down some very dark paths. It may begin to run out of steam by the time the central mystery (that of Aiden’s true nature) starts to unravel but, as a whole, BEYOND’s story is original, moving and powerfully told.
Calvin Robinson: Beyond Two Souls is an emotional journey about an unconventional relationship between a girl and her spirit friend. Ellen Page puts in a fantastic performance throughout, as we see her character, Jodie, struggle through life with unnatural abilities. The narrative is delivered sporadically, as we skip around her timeline, witnessing the important aspects of Jodie’s childhood, through to her late twenties. It’s an experience unlike any other; maybe with the exception of previous Quantic Dream titles.
3: Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics, Multi)
Robin Parker: Everyone thought they knew what to expect from a Tomb Raider title. The series has been long-established and gamers were very familiar with the strong, confident persona of Lara Croft. What the new Tomb Raider did was take all of that, throw it away and start from scratch. Ok, it was another reboot, but unlike many lazy re-hashed movies we have seen over the last few years, Tomb Raider changed things dramatically and, most importantly, successfully.
Stepping into the shoes of a young Lara Croft, gamers got to find out just what shaped the hero we already knew. The story is sometimes harrowing, and incredibly serious. Although the gameplay sometimes veers closely towards copying that found in the Uncharted series, it featured none of the humour of those games. Taking a straight-faced approach, the game is an emotional roller coaster in which we connect with the Lara character more than ever before, and get to see a different side of her that makes her more human.
Martin Baker: Tomb Raider has just the right amount of twists, enough confusion to keep the story driving forward towards its conclusion and enough of a puzzle element to keep me glued to my seat all the way to the end. Sure, some of the story beats could be seen a mile off, but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable when they happened; especially when it related to anything remotely paranormal or unexplainable.
Couple all of this with the fact that there are small titbits of information scattered all over the island that serve as a treasure trove of hidden information and stories just waiting to be collected, and you’re left with a game that will appeal to almost every single gamer looking for that next story-driven hit.
2: The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, PS3)
Mick Fraser: From the opening moments, Naughty Dog’s hard-hitting post-apocalyptic opus had me gripped, choking back emotions and completely enslaved. Even when the gameplay hit its low points (of which there were very, very few), I was so enamoured with grizzled protagonist Joel and his adolescent ward, Ellie, that I couldn’t put down the pad. Naughty Dog channelled so much raw humanity into the main characters that no other game this year has come close to matching it. It’s not just a question of chemistry, but believability. The characters feel real, they feel human, and so their plight, their struggles, the horrific choices they’re forced to make, have that much more of an impact on us. From the gut-punch opener to the double-edged ending, The Last of Us is video game storytelling at its very best.
Ben Skipper: There’s really not much left to say about The Last of Us that hasn’t already been said. It’s up there with the greatest stories ever told in our medium and also works as a mighty fine example of just how far gaming has come over the decades.
Joel and Ellie’s tale is heartfelt, devastating, wonderfully acted, and a miracle in pacing. Its gameplay feeds directly into a feeling of hopelessness and desperation that runs through all the game’s key moments. Naughty Dog’s greatest achievement is a stunning work that deserves praise not just being a fantastic game, but an unforgettable story.
James Bowden: It’s all about the ending. The Last of Us nails the ending. All throughout the game you’re confronted with scenes, see a world torn apart, experience tone shifting revelations – the game hits all of the essential beats throughout and invites you to read a game world rather than just play through it.
That’s it, The Last of Us nails the ending, but it also lets you wander, and it knows that you’re wandering. The Last of Us’ moments of downtime are glorious narrative lakes that you wade through, with hints of the world’s story, and incidental dialogue, scattered everywhere.
I’m not going to say what happens at the end, obviously, but it’s an ending that feels very un-gamey. It’s an ending that leaves you sat on your seat, mouth bunched and brow firmly furrowed. It’s an ending that makes you think about the entire game in reflection, to add up everything you saw, to analyse it, and to really ask questions. Impossible questions, but questions all the same, and that is the mark of a great story.
1: BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, Multi)
Sean Smith: You knew that Ken Levine wouldn’t mess about. He had to produce a story to rival the classic Dystopian nightmare of the original BioShock; and he succeeded. Keeping you on the edge of your seat and shocking you with twists, turns, and revelations, the world of Columbia and its historically-informed denizens and politics was one that oozed atmosphere and class.
Martin Baker: BioShock Infinite has one of those stories that just keeps getting deeper and, more than that, it almost seems to change every time you look at it from a different angle. Every time you think that you’ve figured it out something shifts and changes, then you’re more confused than you’ve ever been.
That said, when we finally made our way through to the game’s end, we were left with a sense of satisfaction and wonder that we don’t normally get with video games. All of the major questions were answered but there were enough threads left hanging to generate conversation among friends as well as having something for potential future DLC to grasp on to.
BioShock Infinite has one of the most impressive stories in the entirety of video games, not just from the last year or even the last generation. It almost makes me not want any more BioShock games at all, just so that the series can go out on a phenomenal high.
Micheal Murphy: There are few games that are better the second time around. BioShock Infinite, however, is. When I first experienced the world of Columbia, I was blown away by the calibre of the narrative, something that seldom happens in games. The characters, so well written and voice-acted, and the setting, beautifully visualised, formed a stunning world just bursting with life.
The journey Infinite takes its players on is incredible, and more importantly provides a deeply satisfying ending to the game. I revisited that floating city recently and it was even better than the first time, as I noticed so much more detail in the storytelling and the intricacies the writers managed to get across in what is usually a fairly brainless genre. Bioshock Infinite is a landmark game in terms of the progression of narratives and its importance will be remembered for years to come.