If there’s one aspect of video games that has most improved over the years, it’s probably the writing. We used to get by with a hero’s journey and maybe a big twist, but over time the bar has been raised significantly. We now expect fully-fleshed-out characters with complex motivations, rich backstories and authentic dialogue, intricately detailed worldbuilding, and gripping plotlines.
The discussion for “best narrative” has become fiercely competitive as a result, yet a small handful of games stand out above the rest because their narratives speak to us at our core and stick with us for months, if not years. Which narratives and/or performances stood out most to you this year?
As with Game Music, I’m going to briefly turn up to shout out actual-game-from-2021-I-played-in-2021 - Loop Hero for having a surprisingly philosophically deep narrative for a game which is about a hero walking in circles all the time. (And even the side bits in the Encyclopedia are really well written, and quite evocative not just of the horror of the current “mostly forgotten/dissolving” world, but also of the horrors of the world that was lost, whilst also retaining a certain sense of humour).
…but my real pick is one of my “games of 2021 that wasn’t actually released in 2021” - Heaven’s Vault. It’s unsurprising that a game which is essentially a long piece of IF with a Unity engine interface strapped to it runs entirely on having a great narrative, but Heaven’s Vault really does go some places - and does a lot with a not entirely likable protagonist (whose own history we also get to explore). As with all IF, what’s especially impressive is how resilient the narrative flow is designed to be to people just “not doing the right thing” - someone on the Inkle discord tried a playthrough where they deliberately did the wrongest, stupidest thing in all situations, and it still manages to guide them mostly in a direction where narrative progresses, mostly apparently naturally.
Heaven’s Vault is good, and reminds me to give a nod to Overboard!, also from inkle. It’s a detective game in the same style as their other games; you are solving a murder on a cruise ship… except your character is the murderer, so it’s more of a ‘framing someone for murder by acting as a detective’ game.
Also, a quick shout out to the interactive fiction/political sim from December 2020-so-maybe-it-counts?, Suzerain. Loved the worldbuilding in that one, and it’s pretty cool to see how many different ways a scene can go if you replay the game a few times with different choices for Rayne.
Deltarune is incomplete, so it feels odd to give it a narrative nod when we’re only 2/7ths of the way through the story, but each chapter feels complete in its own right. Queen’s fantastic, my top villain of the year for sure. It’s maybe the funniest writing of the year, and that’s saying something in a year where I also played An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs (which also rocks, that’s my fourth nod).
But my actual, actual pick is gonna have to be Cruelty Squad. Fuck capitalism! It’s an extremely bleak story, with endings that are either bleaker or hopeful in the way you could call some of the Evangelion endings hopeful. But so much of it hits with a good mix of dark humour and ‘oh, yeah, we’re a biopunk tech boom away from this in a lot of ways’ that it works. It’s an immersive sim that tells half of its story through a stock market screen. It’s weird, it’s rad.
Look, I love timeloops as a narrative device. Always have. Groundhog day? great. Happy Death Day? Fantastic. Edge of Tomorrow? Also great. The last year or two in videogames might have finally out-timelooped me. Fucking hell, I know it’s an easy narrative way to explain why your game is run based but I’m so over it at this point.
Gnosia is a visual novel that pulls in elements of social deduction games, like Werewolf or to a lesser degree Among Us, to figure out which characters in the colourful cast are evil aliens called Gnosia before they kill everyone on board. But, it’s so much more than that. Each loop things change a bit. Different people will have been replaced with Gnosia, different events happen that flesh out each character’s story and why they’re there. And each loop brings you closer to figuring out why things are looping at all.
It doesn’t really do anything new, these are all tried and true concepts that have been in many Timeloop stories and honestly, the resolution of them is pretty by the numbers too. But how it’s told and the characters you meet along the way are what escalates it up to my choice for this category.
My other choice is surprisingly (to me) Guardians of the Galaxy. I expected less than nothing from this game. Before release it looked like another Avengers-style misfire from the licensed Marvel games. And in many ways it is. I think the combat kinda sucks and the level design is…fine but uninteresting for the most part. But the story? They fuckin’ nailed that part of it. It’s heartfelt and fleshes out each of the Guardians in ways that make you really care for them, then knows exactly when and how to play with your heartstrings when the time comes.
I am not going to try and dissect or explain Returnal’s narrative here because there are way too many long reddit posts trying (and in many ways failing) to break down all the composite pieces of that game’s convoluted story and lore — because the reason I liked its narrative so much was only partially about its actual story. Selene’s descent into her own mental and/or physical hell is a fascinating web to untangle, but the thing that really stands out for me was how comfortable that game was with its own ambiguity. I think games — at least those that really do focus on narrative — sometimes have a tendency to overexplain. It’s one of the things that’s in some ways refreshing about Souls games, that the story is found obliquely, where you least expect it — but Souls games are built more on vibes than real, solid narratives. Returnal has a narrative; it’s complicated, convoluted, and difficult to parse out with certainty, which made it particularly interesting to dive into again and again because each development would both add a new sense of clarity and destabilize something that had previously seemed secure. Moreover, it supports quite a few different interpretations and readings of its events without it (to me at least) ever feeling like it was internally incoherent — a tremendously difficult tightrope to walk.
That said, I also want to throw in what, I think, might have been the first game I played in 2021: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Another piece of hard sci-fi (please games, give me more) that spends 25 hours pushing and pulling you in a billion different directions, often in complete confusion, until it somehow weaves all of its wild threads together in the last couple of hours into a pretty masterful and moving meditation on stories, what they mean, and why they matter. It’s a genuinely brilliant piece of narrative storytelling and probably the only visual novel-like game didn’t quickly burn me out, and I’m really, really glad it’s coming out on Switch in a few months because that seems like the best possible way to experience it.
I’m all about misfit characters finding friendship and family in the midst of nonsensical quasi-religious world ending events, so my favorite narratives this year would have to go to Neo: The World Ends With You and Guardians of the Galaxy.
These are also two single-player action games that manage to devise clever ways to use party synergy in combat, and that really helps build the bonds I feel towards all these figures.
I love comedic adventures with a lot of heart and a dash of melancholy beneath all of that, so I’m picking Psychonauts 2. It really hits all the notes for me: there’s friendships lost, then rekindled, several romances, characters learning to work through old traumas, and families learning to accept each other… Plus, the comedy helped make it come across way less sickly-sweet than it sounds from my description.
This is gonna be a bit of a left-field thing, but while it’s not really narrative, I love the narrator in Age of Empires IV. The campaign has live-action documentary style clips between missions that are narrated, and that same narrator continues through into the gameplay. So it makes the gameplay feel like a natural extension of the documentary, so it’s like you’re playing out historical scenarios as a narrator describes your actions within the context of the events as they unfold.
I will gush about it extensively soon, but An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs has some of the most charming writing in any game I’ve ever played and smiled pretty much the entire time I played it
I’d really like to just “yes and” a couple of entries that have already been raised here.
Heaven’s Vault demonstrates how IF can feel authored and still maintain a huge degree of player agency. That game feels like a an excercise in both elegance and brute force, there’s just so much work that went into it.
I said it at the time but NEO TWEWY is probably the only time the current “nostalgia farming” trend has really landed for me. I just found how it centred friendships as something valuable to be really enjoyable.
Gnosia is such a strange game. “Single player werewolf” is a niche pitch, but if you’re even vaguely interested in interactive fiction and creating game mechanisms to simulate social systems it’s incredibly interesting. I also have to shout out that it was great that the game’s main NPC (Setsu) was both nonbinary and ace, which isn’t something I have seen often in media.
I’m going with Unpacking. Maybe some will shrug this suggestion off because there really isn’t a lot of storytelling happening in the game, and its nothing too philosophical or fantastic, but damn, the bits of environmental storytelling the game accomplishes can hit hard. Here’s my favorite bit: I think its at the third move where you notice a pair of rock climbing shoes with the characters stuff, ok neat this character climbs. Now I can’t recall how soon after those shoes disappear but they are replaced eventually with a cane. So my reading on that was she suffered an injury climbing, had to stop because of it, and now needs that cane to walk. I may be wrong, and there may be way more ways to interpret that bit, but the game gave me enough hints and allowed me through play to come up with that take. It feels some times, especially with modern AAA games, that the player is constantly hit over the head with “BIG IMPORTANT STORY EVENT, DON"T MISS THIS” and rarely does it feel like the narrative can push forward organically through player discovery and play (item descriptions don’t count!), but when games are successful with it, it becomes an experience no other medium can deliver on, and its great.
I would actually contest the idea that there isn’t a lot of storytelling in Unpacking. I haven’t played it myself, but I think that storytelling through objects is its primary focus. Storytelling is all over the damn thing!
You are absolutely correct. I think what I meant to say is there isn’t a lot communicated through the more traditional means that games employ. No dialogue, no text boxes or narration, etc. A whole hell of a lot is said through the objects and their placement. Damn that games awesome!
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The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles was definitely my most thrilling narrative experience of the year. Ace Attorney games always have a fun plot, but this one went places that I haven’t seen the series go before.
I only started Suzerain this month after hearing the Waypoint GotY discussions but it’s definitely up there for me. A lot of stuff that I’d love to discuss with other people on why they made the decisions they made, because in the end I made plot decisions that I didn’t really expect to.
I’m only just getting into it, but Jett: The Far Shore is currently a strong contender for me this year. It takes you on an almost magical space adventure as one of the first to land on and explore another planet in a space craft.
I like how it goes into the mythical aspect of sci-fi, but more than the writing the narrative structure itself excels. The developers are meticulous in how they frame and cut between scenes, leading you into a very fluid story that quickly can ramp up the awe, uncertainty and fear of this new space.
Elsewhere, I feel like shouting out what I’ve seen of Wildermyth during its Waypoint streams. I need to get around to it myself, but it was really impressive how it weaved Rob’s and Austins’ action into its story. I also really want to play Gnosia, having heard so much praise of it not just in this thread. Seems like it’s been a great year for narrative directors.
Best cinematic story: A Plague Tale: this game takes the Naughty Dog model the cinematic game and produces something miles beyond anything that company has put out. Following a found family of kids through a fever dream of war and disease the game was constantly surprising me with its character work, world building, and acting. These are maybe the best written kid characters I’ve seen in a game, under estimated by the adults around them, they approach the horror of the world with an agency and intelligence that most games let alone media forget kids have. The game also uses visual and gameplay cues really well to give characters beats outside of dialogue and cutscenes, who you’re in control of and where companion characters are says so much about the dynamics of the group without the need for anyone to say anything. The games slow shift into pure cosmic horror is also perfectly timed.
Best thematic story: **Soma:**its rough that the first two enemies in the game are also the hardest to deal with, but once you get past them you find a thoughtful, well written story about the entanglement of humans and technology. Soma doesn’t think that all technology is inherently evil, but it also doesn’t believe that all of it is neutral either. It knows that there is an exchange when humans interact with machines that can change both; as much as humans invent machines, machines can invent human behavior. It also understands that humans are not a monolith, and everyone will respond to technology differently. It tells this story so well and with so much nuance that I ended up sparing the ‘final boss’ of the game because the game convinced me it wasn’t a hostile being.
Best environmental storytelling: Dishonored series The Dishonored series never feels staged. When you come into a new space it feels as if it has always existed and will continue to exist beyond the time you spend there. The best example of this is maybe Dishonored 1’s hub area, The Hound’s Pit Pub. A group of people from across the class spectrum brought/forced together by political action, over the course of the game you learn about both the world and this cast as their relationships shift and new actors enter.
Haha man there’s so many others I want to shout out! Ok two short ones:
Best rebootquel: Kings Quest 2016, a funny, well paced story that tweaks the lore with its eyes firmly on the future. A story about how stories lead to legacies.
Best idk a cute category for this but I loved it: Even the Ocean, just finished this this week and wow did I adore it. A bit of a FF7 tribute in some ways while still very much it’s own thing, I’m still working through some of the thematic messages are while loving the smaller scale character work it weaves throughout.