Storytelling is a lost art. But despite its status as a treasured relic to be dug up by a few determined folks, it remains no less moving or valuable when it is brought into daylight. All of the most important things in life are stories; memories of loved ones, chronicles of history, religious texts. Even if the memories are perfect, the histories accurate, and the religious texts true, they are still stories.
Perhaps the most exciting and scary revelation in storytelling is the idea that the mediums are changing. While the classic written word stories still remain as the gold standard, slowly movies became a huge part of humanity’s concept of storytelling.
And now, venturing into the brave new world, video games have become the new medium. It is still a very flawed, imperfect method of storytelling, as it inevitably shares control of the story with, well, the ‘reader’, ‘viewer’ or in this case, player. But nevertheless, it is masterful in its own way; in the past decade (or even two) some incredible stories have been experienced with controller, mouse, or portable in hand.
Some incredible stories like Final Fantasy 6, 7 and Tactics have reverberated through the minds of the millennial generation. Games like Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, the Zelda franchise, the Fallout games, the Wacraft saga, the Halo experience, and the incredible Mass Effect franchise all had borderline transformative storytelling power on millennials everywhere. And that list hasn’t even begun to plumb the depth of video game epics.
2013 was a banner year for video games, specifically video games strongly based on a combination of great story and playability. In some cases, the stories were so compelling the gameplay seemed to play second fiddle. For people who aren’t entrenched in the video game world, that might seem surprising. However, such a reality might be perceived by gamers, it’s hard to deny the exciting future video games have if the level of storytelling continues to be held at such a high standard–one could argue it’s the most important facet of games today.
Without further digression, behold the glorious fruits of 2013 in the video game world:
Honorable Mention: Grand Theft Auto V
You have to give Rockstar Games credit. It’s easy to see another incarnation of the GTA franchise and just roll your eyes, wondering how many times can they make a game where you steal cars and generally be an uncouth lout. But the truth is they continued to refine the franchise as the games came out, finally arriving at GTA V. This game is not only wildly entertaining, but genuinely funny, something of a satire on the American lifestyle, and is groundbreaking in its scope of open-world gameplay. It’s so massive, detailed and unexpected that it’s hard not to be impressed as you wander the streets of San Andreas. Sure, you can get your car chase on like the old GTAs, but Five has a new depth to character, experience and story that blows the previous incarnations of the franchise away. It’s so successful, many critics have even rated it as high as the best game of the year.
5. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
It’s something of an incredible accomplishment that a game franchise can churn out so many games in the same kind of style, with the same characters, in so many different ways. In the case of A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo knew what they were doing. If you think about why the franchise can be so monolithic and successful, it’s because it thrives off of its most powerful quality–consistency. Gamers have been playing Zelda games undoubtedly for their whole lives and thus, each game is part of a continuing legacy in their minds. In short, people love classic game style and the nostalgia–with innovations. A Link Between Worlds is a stroke of genius because it essentially revamps one of the most classic Zelda games, the 1991 release of A Link to the Past. Rather than reinvent the wheel, they supercharged it, giving both first time Zelda players a great classic game, and Zelda lifers the game they have always wanted.
But don’t think this is a simple repackaging. A Link Between Worlds combines both the classic elements to A Link to the Past with totally new content, better gameplay, new game mechanics, and just more polish in general. And of course, like any good Zelda game, the music does not fail to enthrall. The thinkers at Nintendo hit another one out of the park here, giving yet another generational classic to the people.
4. Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite certainly had an inordinate amount of hype to live up to. Quite possibly the most anticipated game of the year, Infinite had to live up to the dark epic predecessors it had in Bioshock 1 and 2,along with the eagerly awaiting fan base and what seemed like the entire gaming world. With a brave step out from the underwater world of the earlier Bioshocks, to a paradise in the sky Infinite embarked. The change of scenery was a bit shocking, so to speak, but done masterfully. With gorgeous visuals in what looked like a steampunk heaven, the reality of a radical despot controlling a floating city of cult-like extremists came to light. Murder bordering on genocide, bigotry, separatism, and just general hatred; Infinite pulled no punches in depicting a horror show of despicable humanity.
Not only does the game play fluidly and at a break-neck pace, but like the other iterations of the franchise, it takes the first person shooter into its own hands, into more of a first-person adventure. But the game doesn’t begin and end with tone, theme and gameplay. It carries with it a harsh reality of the consequences of your actions–the indiscriminate violence displayed in the game comes at deep cost. The struggle at the core of humanity to well, be ‘human’ in response to oppression isn’t lost on this game. True to the franchise, Bioshock Infinite offers more than just a well crafted story with twists and turns; it offers an experience, thoughts and ideas that linger in your mind.
3. Fire Emblem Awakening
Fire Emblem is yet another long-standing franchise that has simply created a masterpiece in 2013. As with any well-made tactical RPG, the gameplay experience is simply addicting. Awakening continues its franchise’s legacy of incredible tactical gameplay with another enthralling character-driven story. But Nintendo outdid itself yet again here. The story, the fluidity of the game, the connection to the characters the game creates in the player, the presentation– Awakening is the grand phoenix that bursts into the sky from the egg of the Fire Emblem franchise.
True to the franchise, character deaths in game have a unequaled finality to them. So many gamers playing this game go to incredible lengths to keep their characters alive in battle so that their story may continue. That’s just how much Awakening creates a sense of connection between the player and the characters. You care about them, you want them to live, and succeed. And if you fail to keep them alive, you feel like a general losing beloved soldiers to war. It is an incredible experience. Awakening takes the best qualities of the franchise– the scope of war, the compelling large-scale story, the endearing characters, and absolutely makes a masterwork of those qualities. Much like Nintendo’s other game on this list, they didn’t reinvent the game, they perfected it.
2. Gone Home
Many games try to push the boundaries of gaming in many different ways. Usually incrementally, pushing some taboo here, or innovating a gaming quality there. Gone Home innovated in a huge, sweeping stroke.
Some people may argue that Gone Home took away the most important part of video games–the game. There’s no fighting, no violence, no wool pulled over your eyes. Gone Home is simply an unadulterated, powerful, incredibly real story. It also manages to accomplish an incredibly rare feat–it is scary, spooky even, with no gimmicks. Purely through storytelling, atmosphere, sound, lighting, and the player’s imagination. It is absolutely masterfully done. The fact that the story that drives the whole game is so true to life–it could be someone’s memoirs–enhances the downright creepy atmosphere of the game. As you play through, searching the dark, empty house for signs of your family, the everyday nature of the plot leaves a feeling of dread. What happened? Where are they? What don’t I know?
It’s simply incredible. Aside from the brilliant use of plot and atmosphere, the story itself is… well, for no other word, beautiful. Moving. Powerful. It is yet another bold step forward in gaming. It doesn’t rely on flashiness or gimmicks. It’s just an incredible chronicling of humanity.
Gone Home is not describable as anything else other than an experience. The Fullbright Company grabbed the gaming world, and jumped off a cliff into an abyss with it, only to find an uncharted continent. The success, even if it was small scale, of Gone Home has paved the way for more subtle, well thought out, story driven games. The gaming world owes Fullbright their thanks.
1. The Last of Us
There’s no other way to epitomize this game than to say it is perfect.
No hyperbole here. Incredible dialogue and writing. Stunning and powerful realism, both in story and in depiction. Characters that feel so real it almost seems like a lie to say they aren’t. Gritty, challenging gameplay that seamlessly goes hand in hand with the atmosphere and stylistic depiction of the world. To sit here and type away all of its successes would only succeed in creating a wall of text. Someone would have to struggle to muster up some facet of this game that is somehow a disappointment.
Naughty dog wanted to tell a story when they created The Last of Us. The execution of idea to game was perfect. The entire game is a masterpiece. As a player, you are wowed almost constantly by the stunning nature and depth of detail of the visuals. This is usually coupled with believable and meaningful dialogue between Joel and Ellie, and whoever else is present. The ability to have natural dialogue in-game that endlessly draws you closer and closer to the characters and their flaws, fears and personalities all while you’re actively journeying across the countryside is nothing short of genius. Even the secondary characters are hardly ever flat or tropes, with their own expressive nuances and quirks. Furthermore, the story is extraordinary, unpredictable, and so realistic it grabs you by the neck and doesn’t let you go. Games with this much subtlety and attention to detail, when those qualities aren’t the main focus of the game are… well they didn’t exist before The Last of Us came around. Do yourself a favor, borrow your friend’s ps3 if you don’t have one, or build one out of legos, whatever you have to do. Get The Last of Us. Call in sick, ward off sleep. It’s just that good.