A great story doesn’t need to be layered like an onion, confusing purely for the sake of it. Indeed, if it needs an entire article devoted to explaining it, much like a painfully pretentious work of art, then I’d argue that it wasn’t a particularly well-delivered tale to begin with.
Less, as they say, is more.
The greatest stories often arise from the most simple of premises but are delivered in innovative ways or from unusual perspectives. Or just with real heart and passion. By doing so, a story takes on an entirely different and more profound meaning. It evolves from something that started out life on paper to something that is actively experienced and thus committed to the minds and hearts of others. When you think about stories like this – the active experience – it makes you wonder why games, the most interactive of all mediums, are generally so poor at delivering them.
Or are they?
Lets take a look at some truly stellar examples of storytelling in games, shall we?
Bioshock Infinite might be making a big song-and-dance about time-travel, alternate realities and the butterfly effect, but the 2004 Xbox exclusive Breakdown did it almost a decade earlier – and did it better. Managing to tackle the complexities of the above issues without taking itself too seriously or coming across as a load of old pretentious, existential bilge; Breakdown remains one of the greatest examples of storytelling that games have ever seen. A sparse experience in many respects with an eastern flavour and an unusual FPS/Fighter hybrid set of mechanics, this rare gem is well-worth tracking down if you’ve never played it. Like so many great stories, it’s a slow-burner that teases to begin with before really picking up in the final third. Stunning craftsmanship and one of only a few games that has left me with a sense of euphoria upon completion.
Thief : The Dark Project
A ground-breaking title in many respects, Thief was the very first FPS-stealth hybrid. Given that this was the days of Doom, Quake and Unreal, Thief was a breath of fresh air and was supported by a compelling and absorbing narrative. A child-beggar-done-good street thief – partially trained by a religious order – Garret is a one-man show and perhaps the most alluring anti-hero gaming has ever seen. Drawn into a web of mystery and intrigue set in a deliciously dark and seedy steam-punk city, Garret shows no allegiance other than to the next mark and the next pay-day. The game soon takes even darker turns and Garret finds himself rooted against a pagan demon known only as the Trickster. The final level in the Trickster’s mansion was as insane as the games cut-scenes were beautiful.
Valve plain set the benchmark for in-game storytelling with their 1998 PC masterpiece. The premise was quite simple: mad scientist opens portal to another dimension and aliens duly walk right through, wreaking havoc and destructions wherever they go. Nothing out of the ordinary there, you might say, but Half-Life was perhaps the first game to tell such a story solely through the eyes of the protagonist (a silent one at that) without any cut-scenes, loading screens or breaks from the action. The sense of immersion was a nothing short of a revelation that still holds its own, fifteen years later.
Stephen King sure knows how to write a great horror story. Alan Wake sure nailed his style. In a genius move, it put you in the shoes of a horror writer with writer’s block and plunged him into the middle of Creepy Townsville USA, presently host to one pissed-off spirit seeking revenge and a way to punch through into the real world. Simple premise, beautifully told and completely gripping as a result. A perfect marriage of plot, mechanics and atmosphere.
Halo : Combat Evolved
A game that divides opinion like no other. Sure, successive entries in the franchise were somewhat convoluted to say the least, but the first, taken as a separate entity, had a wonderfully intriguing premise. Like so many great stories, it knew that to maintain suspense, it shouldn’t reveal all of its cards. Who were the Forerunners? How were the Flood trapped? What drives the Covenant? What events preceded the start of the game? What would happen afterwards? Would the Chief survive?
Sometimes questions are more intoxicating than answers.
The graphic-adventure genre rarely reached heights higher than Delphine Software’s sublime 1989 classic. You begin as an unassuming window cleaner before stumbling upon an intergalactic plot to destroy the Earth through a series of cunningly placed time-bombs. Darting from the middle ages to the 44th century, the game was not just a wonderfully crafted adventure, it had a stunning art-style and, for its time, perhaps the most compelling plot that had ever been seen in a video game. Years ahead of the curve, this remains a true classic. Its Bond-inspired sequel, Operation Stealth, was pretty special too.
Prince of Persia : Sands of Time
Although Ubisoft didn’t seem to have a clue as to what to do with The Prince after this title, this original reboot captured perfectly the atmosphere of the Spielberg classics it modelled itself upon. A leftfield love story, superb action, a sense of freedom and intriguing mechanics: this was pitch-perfect, fairy-tale escapism at it’s best.
How on earth they thought that going for the whole rock-goth vibe for part two was a good idea is quite beyond me.
A prime example of how a seemingly simple concept can be adapted into a bold, disturbing, deeply funny and touching drama. Chell’s exodus from the beautifully Orwellian ‘Enrichment Centre’ is one filled with intrigue and mystery with very few questions actually being answered. The dynamic between the mute Chell and the drop-dead hilarious GLaDOS is one of the all-time great character dynamics in any medium.
OK, so I have my hang-ups with the game’s mechanics and open-world nature, but there’ absolutely no knocking the plot. Borrowing from book, The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail and the iconic films Tron and The Matrix in equal measure; this sci-fi masterpiece weaved its logic into the mechanisms of contemporary game design with aplomb. Darting from the past to the future whilst basing the entire journey around the captivating Animus, set the stage brilliantly for a whole slew of equally rich and diverse sequels. A master-class in establishing a franchise and hooking a whole generation of gamers into a narrative that’s likely to run for a long time to come.
A dark, claustrophobic tale of death and despair, this simple yet timeless premise of good versus evil sticks with you like very few experiences can. It’s not a game that, to my shame, I’ve ever persevered with a great deal. That’s not because I’m not cable of enduring its punishing difficulty or because I don’t like it; it’s because I know exactly how much of my life and soul it will suck away. It’s narrow and yet deep (should you wish it to be) plot is a huge part of that oceanic, foreboding atmosphere.
A genuine work of art.
A charming, child-like experience born of a desire to encourage players to explore and feel a sense of wonder; Unfinished Swan chose the backdrop of a child’s storybook to hang its mechanics upon – and what a stunning juxtaposition it is. Wonderfully short and touching, like all good children’s books should be, this is a story that is tinged with joy and sadness in equal measure. Unforgettable.
Metal Gear Solid
Don’t tell our Ben, but I’m no huge fan of MGS. Convoluted, bizarre, overtly-sexualised, self-obsessed, in desperate need of a good editor and deeply pretensions: this is a series that commits just about every cardinal sin going in terms of storytelling in games. MGS1 does have one saving grace, however: we’d quite simply never seen anything quite like it before. So whilst I didn’t have a Scooby-Doo as to what was going on, I was utterly gripped from start to finish. Bonkers.
Whilst the game itself may have felt like one, long, protracted QTE, the plot was superb. Games rarely take the time to get to grips with characters because they’re so busy attempting the bombastic. In the first hour of Heavy Rain you’re taking a shower, sketching a building, playing with your kids in the garden, setting the table and shopping at the mall. Sound boring? It was gripping. Strangely.
A gritty noir-mystery thriller with a stunning plot, this is perhaps the closest that a game has ever come to being interactive film. Unless you’re including Space Ace?
If you’re not planning on re-inventing the wheel – nay, if you’re planning on wholesale emulation of Hollywood feel-good action – then you only need one thing: great actors. As much as I’m a bit tired of hearing Nolan North’s voice-acting talents here, there and everywhere, the man was plain born to be Nathan Drake. The dynamic between Nate and his surrogate dad Sully is pure cinema gold and is more than enough to sustain the entire franchise and it’s Saturday popcorn nonsense.
Best. Bromance. Ever.
Shadow of the Collosus
Another shining example of how a basic premise and a series of seemingly crucial, unanswered questions can forge a truly magical and unforgettable experience. Coupled with a stunning game world and some ingenious play mechanics and you’ve got what many would argue is a perfect game and a perfect work of art.