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Weekend Hot Topic, part 1: The best video game story

GameCentral readers discusses their favourite video game stories, from NieR:Automata to God Of War.

The subject for this weekend’s Inbox was suggested by reader Cranston and inspired by the release of The Last Of Us Part 2, although readers were free to discuss any game from any era.

The work of Naughty Dog did certainly get plenty of mentions but so too did Life Is Strange, Mass Effect, The Witcher 3, and many other classics.

Branching stories
I guess a lot of people are going to be saying The Last Of Us or its sequel but I’ve always found Naughty Dog’s games to be fairly dull. The gameplay is okay at best and all the story is told in cut scenes, there’s really little point it being a video games as far as I’m concerned.

For me, the best storytelling in video games is in Life Is Strange which probably cost about as much to make as Naughty Dog’s catering budget for the month. But despite low-tech graphics I’ve never felt for two characters as much as I have for Chloe and Max. Not only that but the choices you make have a real effect on how things turn out. Character live or die, relationships are completely different… it’s a genuine interactive story.

I didn’t like the sequel nearly as much, which I felt took far too long to get going and then seemed incredibly rushed in the end. To my surprise though Before The Storm was just as good as the original, if not better, and made me appreciate Chloe as a character even more.

Bound to be impressed
EarthBound drew me in with its storyline. I’ve never been a huge fan of turn-based role-playing games but having heard lots about the game over the years I felt the need to dive in when it was released on Wii U Virtual Console.

The graphics are charming but I wouldn’t say they initially have a ‘wow factor’, the soundtrack is amazing but it was the story that dragged me through the initial grind, as I just wanted to see what happened next. It is weird at times (which adds to the appeal in my opinion) but at times can be touching and for a mid-nineties 16-bit game it has a surprising amount of depth. The game deserves all the praise it gets.

Interactive storytelling
For me, the best video game story is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
The plot is actually incredibly simple: the two brothers go on the hunt for a MacGuffin to save their ill father, something bad happens, and they partially succeed.

It’s difficult to go into details without spoilers but the bad event is cleverly foreshadowed if you’re paying enough attention. Most importantly though is the incredibly emotional ending, delivered purely through gameplay, and thus would be impossible to achieve with a movie, book, or song. The control scheme for the game has you controlling both brothers simultaneously, with one stick and one shoulder button for each, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the entire game was built around making this one moment work perfectly.

It’s so good that I asked my wife to play it so we could talk about the ending, and we had different interpretations of just how the younger brother overcame his obstacles.

I’d love to see more games take this approach, where the connection with the characters is built, and the story is told, through actual gameplay, rather than through cut scenes. Video games are uniquely placed to put you in the shoes of another person, and it’d be great if more of them took advantage of this innate advantage they have over other storytelling media.

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People change
If you’d ask me 10 years what was the best story and suggested it was one of the God Of War games I would’ve thought there was something up with you. They were decent games but just dumb dude bro action and mangling of the Greek myths. But the… whatever you call it PlayStation 4 game (soft reboot, is that the right term?) blew me away.

It didn’t retcon anything from the original games and just ran with the idea that Kratos was a monster that slowly began to realise it himself. He’s not repentant exactly at the beginning but he’s mellowed at least somewhat and then gradually, over the course of the game, he begins to change. Mostly because of his son but also the people they meet and his own reaction what his son might become.

It’s done perfectly because there’s not that one special cut scene where he suddenly switches, it’s just a gradual shifting of his position until by the end he’s something approaching a decent guy. Great game as well, unlike Naughty Dog’s stuff, and doesn’t ever feel preachy or unearned in its plot twists.

Getting the balance
I think The Last Of Us games deserve a mention in the Hot Topic. The first was a good character study, showing the relationship between two people and the second was very ambitious narratively and is an important stepping stone for the medium. It requires players to challenge their own initial perceptions and their capacity to forgive. It also pitches the characters’ motivations against that of the players.

The Last Of Us Part 2’s story is a long way from perfect though and is in parts heavy handed and emotionally manipulative, it tries to make the player feel guilty but never gave them the choice not to commit the act. A game like Undertale therefore achieves guilt more honestly as it gave the player the choice in the first place, but this also makes it possible to circumvent the main message entirely.

Game stories must be very difficult to pitch as there is a balance between showing versus telling, such as the indie game Virginia which tells the player virtually nothing and most of Hideo Kojima’s games which tell the player everything in minute detail. I personally dislike both extremes; I tend to prefer games that focus on characters and not just the scripted Rockstar approach of a lot of conversations but the mailable, organic interactions of Oxenfree and Firewatch which can also change the outcome of the story.

I also like distinctive characters like Wheatley from Portal 2 or strong narration like in Thomas Was Alone, where the narrator elevates the game. There is even a game where the main character is so strong and the story so intriguing that the player forgives almost every gameplay sin imaginable and even begins to like the oddness: that game is Deadly Premonition.

When I started writing this I intended to name What Remains Of Edith Finch as best story in video games, as the story is woven into the gameplay throughout and there is just the right amount of narrative to pull you through. Although having written the rest of the letter I am questioning myself. I still think What Remains Of Edith Finch is the best story I have encountered in gaming but every other game I have mentioned by name is more important than it in their own distinct way.

Perfect story
It’s NieR:Automata for me. That game blew away my expectations in every way, and not just in terms of the story. I’d never heard of Yoko Taro before the crazy world and characters he created drew me in I was more than happy to replay multiple times to get all the endings.

The story deals with deep issue but it’s also crazy and funny and has some really good fighting. It’s almost the perfect video game really, at least as far as I’m concerned.

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Open problem
Interesting question to ask, personally, I tend to find a story succeeds if it gives me a sense of purpose and drive to see its outcome. Some of my most endearing games across multiple generations, that I’ll always champion, lack a sense of urgency in their narrative. Zelda: Ocarina Of Time will always be a game I remember fondly but equally the curse of any open world title is the temptation or drive to explore at the expense of the story. Princess Zelda may be being held captive by an overpowered Gannon but that shouldn’t afford me an excuse not to go fishing or collect jars.

Dragon Age Inquisition was one of my games of the last decade but equally, through the progression system to exploring new areas, you were forced to spend a lot of time gaining influence through accomplishing side missions and tasks and you quickly found yourself forgetting what was driving you to actually play the game and experience the story.

The only game in recent memory that has delivered a somewhat expansive open world game of sorts, whilst maintaining a sense of purpose and drive and delivering a well told story, was Mass Effect 2. It built on the first game, improving in areas that needed work but avoiding, for the most part, drowning under expectations. It added little fat or padding to the narrative and actually delivered an experience that could be told in short order.

The cast were memorable and distinct, the mechanics improved to the point you could enjoy the narrative without any undue frustrations – as felt in the first game with the appalling elevator loading scenes, for instance. t was an integrated, cohesive experience that consistently pushed the narrative forward, allowing you to actually push through to the finale in short order if you wished, though of course that was unadvisable if you had any attachment to your companions.

Arguably the third game jumped the shark, to use a cultural adage, and failed to deliver a satisfactory conclusion to the overall narrative. A victim of its own success but I would argue vehemently the second was actually one of the best examples of storytelling in recent gaming history, delivering a tight experience with a great, fake-out opening sequence that built up the tension and menace right up to the final moments then left your with the shadow of the reapers on the horizon.
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The small print
New Inbox updates appear every weekday morning, with special Hot Topic Inboxes at the weekend. Readers’ letters are used on merit and may be edited for length.

You can also submit your own 500 to 600-word Reader’s Feature at any time, which if used will be shown in the next available weekend slot.

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