I’m surprised to find this year that most of my favourite new video games have been games I’ve appreciated for storytelling more than gameplay. And many of those have in some way subverted narrative conventions in interesting ways only possible in an interactive medium. And I say HOORAY to that.
I don’t really play video games as often as I used to, because of all my responsibilities as a career-less single male in his late twenties, so I like the shorter more self-contained ones generally speaking. Here’s six, in no particular order.
Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons
Brothers is an odd game mechanically. You play as two brothers who you control with a single analogue stick and trigger each. This is hard to really wrap your brain around and makes the game occasionally trickier than it needs to be. There is some though satisfaction in the co-ordination involved, and it is an interesting twist on the expectations of analogue control.
Where this game really shines is the storytelling and the design of the world, which is gorgeous. Not to say too much about the story, but despite the absence of any intelligible dialogue or subtitles, the game is still able to tell an emotionally satisfying (and draining) fairy tale about family, loss, and adventure.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable was a HL2 mod that I enjoyed a few years ago. It was on one level a deconstruction of choice in video games, and on another level simply an incredible example of comedic writing and inventive level design. This year the HD remake was released, which is predictably fantastic.
The premise is simple. You play as an office worker named Stanley. There is a narrator, telling his linear version of the story of The Stanley Parable. However, there are a number of points in the story where Stanley has the opportunity, sometimes obvious, sometimes obscured, to deviate from this story. The narrator continues to narrate, and the results are incredibly entertaining and self-reflexive.
It serves as a really blunt and fascinating look at the inherent lack of choice in designed interactive narratives, but also as an exploration of the ultimate futility of choice and free will. There’s well over a dozen distinct endings, some of which you would never expect them to actually go through with, but no, it seems like they thought of EVERYTHING. Even when you try your best to break the game, to go where the designers never intended, they catch you out.
This subversive meta quality extends outside of the game itself, into the game’s achievements, its trailers, even into a demo they released shortly before the game containing seemingly no content from the real game. This thing is just… Wow. Fascinating.
I played Bioshock and Bioshock 2, and I wasn’t a huge fan of either. I loved parts of them, and I certainly appreciated the narrative and philosophical ideas behind particularly the original; however, I simply didn’t enjoy playing them. I found the controls unwieldy, cumbersome even. I didn’t really enjoy the combat, and I hated the design of every enemy except the Big Daddies. Visually I hated the weird low resolution wet-plastic sheen on everything. It upset me because of how well designed the architecture of the world, and the Big Daddies were. That’s just my two lira.
Bioshock Infinite improves on all of that basic stuff, and it plays fine for what it is, a shooter. I’m not really into shooters, and while I enjoyed the combat a good deal more than in the first two, it was still a chore at times.
What really sets the Bioshock games apart is the world, the story, the structure, and that remains true in Infinite. The world here is, if anything, more interesting than Rapture was in the first two. As Rapture was built around Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, so Infinite’s floating city of Columbia explores ideas of American Exceptionalism, which turns out to be stunningly àpropos. This game addresses racism, xenophobia, evangelical Christianity, socialism, violent revolution, metaphysics, quantum mechanics… This is a world where Washington, Franklin and Jefferson are held as Christian prophets, blacks and Irish immigrants are demonised, and an early 1900s era city is able to float through the sky on a mysterious quantum field, just because THAT’S AWESOME. Looks real pretty too, very well designed to be an all-American carnival.
The narrative in Infinite is ludicrously ambitious at times. So ambitious that it falls flat on its face in a few spots. When it flies though, it can be incredible and ridiculous and exciting. It seems at times like the narrative is spinning all too many threads out in all directions, but then at the end all those threads are pulled taut and everything magically coalesces into a single complex but specific idea, and the effect of that last 20 minute stretch is, much like the reaction to the first 20 minutes, one of slack-jawed wonder.
In the end they manage to address a couple of questions that you never even asked, but having had them answered they suddenly seem blindingly obvious and important. It’s something you can pick all manner of holes in, but in its execution, it is so ballsy that you can’t help but admire it.
Read my review for my full feelings on this game.
Short version: I love this game. I love that it is a game. I probably enjoyed it more than I enjoyed any other game this year.
You might not love this game, that’s okay. You’re allowed to. Don’t be a fucking dick about it though, alright? It’s not the end of everything you love in the world of gaming. Critics are not trying to push some queer overly PC interactive fiction agenda on you, they just liked the game for whatever reason. The world is big enough for all types of games, even games you don’t think are really games. Okay? Cool.
And to the Fullbright Company, what made this here game, I await with bated breath, everything you do from here on out.
Kentucky Route Zero (Acts I & II)
I hesitated to put this on here, as this game was announced as five acts released throughout the year and so far only the first two have emerged. But it’s my list so I can do whatever I want, and assuming they keep up the good work, this may turn out to be a genuine masterpiece.
Kentucky Route Zero is basically a point and click graphic adventure game, with a unique and beautifully realised vector-based art style and abstract impressionistic storytelling. Set in Kentucky, the game revolves around the titular mythical underground highway that will take the game’s protagonist delivery man Conway to his final delivery address.
The game presents a series of dialogue options that allow the player to flesh out a specific background for the characters. This has no appreciable effect on the game’s linear story or the overall tone of the interactions, but it allows every player to experience it in a context of their own choosing. It’s a neat and subtle trick that works very well as the game shifts tense and perspective in all kinds of metaphysically intoxicating ways. The writing has a wonderfully dry tone that perfectly complements the absurdity the characters routinely face.
Beyond this, the art design, the music, the writing, is all so unique and singular that even though I honestly have no idea whatsoever what is going on in the story, if anything, it is resonating with me in a deep way. It feels heavy with pathos – an incredible blend of ambiguity and style. There’s a sense in some artworks that ambiguity is a substitute for content, but here it’s used so well to frame the narrative that it works to a degree I haven’t seen in a long time, since perhaps Limbo. It’s cinematic, like a cross between the Coen Brothers, David Lynch and Wes Anderson. It’s a game that sort of drifts through incredibly vivid metaphors and allusions about family, loneliness, life, death and of course the very nature of reality. Beautifully profound sadness.
The soundtrack by Ben Babbitt is thrilling, evoking the dark acousmatic soundscapes of Martin Stig Andersen’s Limbo soundtrack. Each episode also features a slowed haunting rendition of a bluegrass song. In Act II, the sequence towards the end featuring Long Journey Home is just so perfect that I can’t explain it in words.
Hope the rest of this is released in 2014, and lives up to the hype.
Ah, the inevitable exception to the rule this year. Here is a game with no appreciable narrative, one that is decidedly non-linear and non-euclidean in its design. What does that mean though?
Basically, it’s a first person puzzle game, like Portal. Except the game is an open-ended labyrinth of shifting geometry. You might walk down a corridor, and turn around to find only a wall. You might look up at something, and then look down to see the floor vanish beneath your feet. It’s confusing and infuriating and wonderful. For as much as it doesn’t appear to make logical sense, it is not random. It is in fact consistent and precisely designed to bend the rules of geometry.
Progress is structured around a series of “gun” upgrades that allow the player to manipulate little blocks in the environment to open locked doors, clear barriers, and cross great chasms. Visually, it’s unique and makes up for its lo-fi nature with incredible design work throughout.
In first person games, things haven’t really changed too much since Doom. Rooms are just boxes attached to other boxes, and you just run through them. You can plan them out on paper. I defy anyone to do that with Antichamber. Yet from the mind of a single man, Antichamber spawned, in all of its intricately convoluted logic. Mind-boggling.