Videogames don’t need stories. Unlike most art forms, they can give you fun things to do and that’ll be enough. It’s worked from Tetris all the way to modern multiplayer shooters. Yet the vast potential in mixing game mechanics and explicit narrative is what attracts so many of us players.
Gone Home left us alone in our family house, finding out why our family vanished by going through their notes and what was left in their rooms. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a louder game, entirely about infiltrating orc camps and slaughtering them, but surviving orcs remembered whatever you did, becoming fearful of fire that had burned them, or cocky at having beaten you. The Mass Effect series has plenty of shooting levels alongside stories where we decide the course of dialogue, who we want to trust and bond with, and if we play it smart, we affect who survives and sees justice.
These are the kinds of experiences that are distinct to games as an art form. With every year, both what audience agency allows and what kinds of stories we find ourselves in have expanded. And next year, for the first time, the Nebula Awards are introducing a category for Game Writing, recognizing that stirring narrative work is happening in this field just as it is in prose and film.
The Nebulas couldn’t have chosen a better year. At least seven times since last winter, I’ve hunted people down to yell about a new game’s plot. Games have baffled me with their accomplishments.
Please, come be baffled with me for a few pages.
Pyre (Supergiant Games) (Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4)
Pyre is half Visual Novel, half NBA Jam. Out in the wastelands, you manage a caravan of exiles—harpies, talking dogs, and taciturn ogresses. They seek redemption and re-entry into society, which can only be earned by playing “The Rites.” Half the game is managing your party through dialogue scenes, building understanding between them and helping them grow as people. But your party isn’t beating up monsters for XP. The other half of the game is in The Rites, a sport that resembles basketball if everything was on fire. You’ll need a good team.
Like Supergiant’s previous games, Bastion and Transistor, Pyre needs to be seen. The character design, visual presentation of both quiet moments and explosive sports, and music are tightly balanced for atmosphere. Everything has personality, and everything is pulled into its core theme: Pyre is a game about the victims of social injustice pitted against each other, and offers enormous compassion. The first time you realize the other side desperately needs a win and consider throwing a match to help them, you know Pyre is something special.
You pick who plays in each match, and if you win enough, you can pick who goes home, and when. The cast develops in surprising ways based on who stays behind, and who stokes the revolution back home.
Which exiles you like best, personally and on the playing field, will be distinct to you. Is it the worm paladin who burrows under the field and bursts into hysterics whenever given the opportunity to show valiance? The ancient bog witch who’s forgotten what civilization was like and doesn’t miss it? My personal favorite is not even a player. She lives inside a bauble I found in the desert, and wanted to be left alone.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory) (Windows, PS4)
Senua is a Norse woman on a journey to Hel itself, plagued both by a real mental illness, and by the spirits that want to stop her. Over the first hour you learn that the awkward bag on her hip holds the head of her beloved. She’s not letting death keep him.
Conventional storytelling in such games alternates between gameplay and cutscenes—you play a bit, and then the story advances. This decade has seen the boundaries between these parts erode. Here, the voices and traumas are just as likely to follow you into the action, revealing story as you progress. The strongest parts, as when Senua gathers herself from an anxiety attack and pushes on through the darkness, play out under your control. You go through more of her experience as her than a normal game would let you.
It benefits greatly from the sound design, which brings wind and whispers from all angles, coherent when she is coherent, and disorienting when she is disoriented. There is one instance where Senua heroically fights back against the spirits that would fit any Epic Fantasy Movie, but is for more stirring for letting you live in its center.
Ninja Theory makes it clear that they researched mental illness and wanted a better representation than all the Evil Crazy Villains out there. Content warnings and contact information for helplines book-end the game. The studio cut its teeth on giant titles like Heavenly Sword and their surreally comic DmC: Devil May Cry reboot. Here the storytelling is more restrained, using what they’ve learned to create Senua with sharp fidelity, never losing track of Senua’s physical and emotional state, even when she stands before the towering nightmare that is Fenrir.
Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall, Finji) (Windows, iOS, Linux, PS4)
Would you like an anthropomorphic cat to make you cry? Then I’ve got a game for you.
Night in the Woods is a game about depression. It’s mechanically simple, following Mae, a cartoon cat-lady who’s dropped out of college and is drowning in the numbness of her own mind. Mae claims to have “just felt like” dropping out, and while we doubt her honesty, it slams into what many of us felt after we left the familiarity of home. We know the familiarity was stifling, even harmful, but it’s what we knew. All of Mae’s friends who stayed in town are moving on with their lives, changing from who she took for granted in her teens, some still planning to get out of the place she dropped everything to return to.
For players with manual dexterity issues, Night in the Woods is much more accessible. It’s easily played with a few keys on a keyboard, hopping around town and engaging with life there, trying to accomplish something while pushing against what depression allows. Mae is surrounded by reminders of times she embarrassed herself, hurt others, or failed to seize the moment—things she would’ve left behind if she’d stayed at college. When she gets her old band to play one of their songs together, the lyrics are about escaping this town.
How do you participate in this story? Mundanely. The jam session is a sequence of timed button presses, like a hipster Guitar Hero. Most of your days are spent scrolling left and right, through Mae’s phone, through the town in search of new anecdotes without actually building anything. It’s a sensation too familiar to sufferers of depression, and it’s unsurprising that many members of the development team have experienced it personally. Their game is paced just lightly enough that many sufferers of depression, unable to grab onto a more mechanically complicated game, have been able to dig deep into it and find resonance with their struggle.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 (Larian Studios) (Windows)
A game all about fun with Chosen Ones. The gods have died and need to be replaced. All around the world, “Godwoken” have been born—people with the potential to ascend. You play a Godwoken, and assemble a party of other Godwoken who are cooperating for right now, but could easily stab you in the back. There are other Godwoken hunting you, trying to eliminate their competition on their way to divinity. It’s a classic premise that allows for an astounding amount of player choice.
The whole first act is about escaping the prison that one very powerful Godwoken built. I found at least four ways to escape the island, but could only succeed at two. Your available methods depend on what prisoners you help and befriend, what you discover by sneaking and politicking, and which side-quests you complete. One quest might have you robbing the person who’d otherwise be your best lead to a boat. Every act of the game has crisscrossing quests like this; later on, you can even pick a side in a small war between opportunist factions, or go it entirely alone. And similar to being able to opt into sides of conflicts, it’s also quite possible to talk your way out of fights all the way to the final hours of the story.
How the world treats you depends on who you decide to play. You can create your own character, or pick from six existing people, who have their own backstories that will come back to haunt them on their journey. Humans are the majority in many environments and are treated with privilege, while elves, dwarves, and half-dragons are not. You can also play as a living skeleton, whose mere presence causes many NPCs to flee or even attack. You can be polite as you want, but people are terrified of the undead.
Original Sin 2 is a staggering achievement of roleplaying game design, harkening back to classic CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. It is all about player choice, letting you walk away from or interrupt conversations, flirt broadly, and solve anything in whatever way you find. There is nothing quite as satisfying as letting your main character listen to a villain’s monologue while you send the rest of your team to surround them with hellfire.
Hollow Knight (Team Cherry) (Windows)
One of the first things I did in Hollow Knight was visit an aged bug (although insectoid, he literally had a gray beard). He was sobbing, and surrounded by empty eggs. I thought it was weird. You probably agree.
An hour later, I came across a tiny grub trapped inside a bottle. When I smashed it, the grub dove into the earth and disappeared. On route to something else, I passed by the aged bug, and found the grub was with him—the grub had gone home to its dad. They cheered and tossed money at me, coins clinking off the floor beside all the other broken eggs, which showed me how many other grubs had been kidnapped and could be found out in the world.
Many characters won’t talk to you, and almost none recognize who you are. It’s up to you to traverse the ruins of a kingdom of bugs and piece together what went wrong here. There’s so little exposition that you could beat the game without knowing why your character is here, although if you search thoroughly, there are clever answers buried throughout the ruins.
Hollow Knight grasps that if a game puts compelling activities in front of you, you’ll do them with little context. Fun game design is its own motivation. You get so wrapped up in exploring that you can’t help but figure out why two environments neighbor each other, why the once-great university was locked up, and why the Mantis Tribe attacks anyone (including you) who comes near it. Hollow Knight has a lot to say while never requiring you to listen.
What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, Annapurna Interactive) (Windows, Mac, Xbox One, PS4)
Few genres are as controversial as the Walking Simulator. It’s a silly name for a low-impact type of game, one relying on you to explore environments in sequences, overhear conversations, find notes and clues, and gradually immerse yourself in a plot in ways 3D movies want to do and never will. That simple form has made huge impacts in storytelling this decade with the Edgar Allen Poe-like surrealism of Dear Esther and the intimate story of coming out as a lesbian in Gone Home.
What Remains of Edith Finch pushes that genre until you’re not sure it has boundaries. It puts you in the shoes of the entire Finch family on the days they died. Some of them believed the family was cursed; others thought it was the pathology of the family that drove them to such ends.
As one of the last members of the family, you come to the family estate where everyone has a room commemorating who they were and what they loved. Each room takes you into a vision of the previous occupant’s life, each in its own theme and genre. An early vision is of a Horror actress who was stalked through a tribute to scary magazines, complete with the actual theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween. Another is the melancholy realism of a family hunting trip. The most infamous is a young man’s exhausting day job cutting the heads off fish, where you mechanically mimic his task, while on the other half of the screen his imagination takes you both on a fantastic RPG-like journey around the world. The array of genres blended into one house is stunning.
What’s most surprising is the game doesn’t feel as morbid as it could. Several of these are tragic, and one about the loss of an infant is intensely uncomfortable, while others are celebrations of the lives of unique people, or snapshots of how family members can fail to understand each other. It’s a game about living with expectations, of what your family wants and fears for you, and sometimes how we hold ourselves back.
NieR: Automata (Platinum Games, Square Enix) (Windows, PS4)
Humans have fled earth, leaving violent machines to take over. From a satellite, androids launch a religious war against the machines, declaring, “For the glory of humanity!” These androids barely ever hear a human voice. The humans are letting their creations do the work. You play a few of these androids, learning about the bizarre evolutionary paths and dead-ends that robot life has taken, while carving out a haven for your creators to return to.
NieR: Automata wants everything to be diegetic. “Saving” is the process of backing up your consciousness on a server; when you die, your old body stays out there in the world, and your previous “save state” mind gets a new 3D-printed body to resume work. Your health bar and minimap come from plug-in chips, which can be unplugged to make room for attack upgrades or time-slowing powers. On Easy Difficulty, there are even chips to automatically dodge attacks and fight for you. You first play as 2B, a warrior android, and bond with her peer as he teaches you how to fix your internal volume control.
2B has fascinating character depth, along with a slit up her skirt that turns half her cutscenes into accidental panty shots. She’s struggling with morals programmed into her by absent creators in thigh-high stockings. It harkens to Ghost in the Shell, whose Motoko Kusanagi is one of anime’s deepest protagonists, but who is also shamelessly the franchise’s pin-up mascot. Fans will defend it, saying Automata comments on objectification. The androids are replicating fashions and fetishes of the absent humanity, but it’s touched on infrequently. Most of the time the game is trying to have its cheesecake and eat it, too.
“Humans were the real monsters all along” is a trope fading in the distance of NieR’s rearview mirror. Ultimately it’s about generations and cultures giving way to inevitable change, and what we can do live meaningful lives in the middle of those times. It’s also about robots reclaiming Disneyland as a pacifist utopia. The strangeness only deepens after you beat the first “story.”
You’re going to hear that you have to play the game three times to get the real story. People say it because we don’t have the rhetoric yet to express what this game does. There are three “campaigns” or routes through the game, which unlock sequentially, telling different and deeply interconnected stories about how androids live in a world they are programmed to be hostile towards. Across the three routes are twenty-six different endings. Most of them are jokes, like walking out on a pivotal boss fight and letting civilization fall. Other endings are re-contextualize huge swaths of the plot. One turns the final credits scroll into a boss battle, something that is both deeply silly and goes such unexpected places that it has made players cry. Those credits are NieR: Automata in a nutshell.
2017 isn’t over…!
No artistic medium this decade has seen the explosion of narrative possibilities like videogames. It’s a form that can be observed and interacted with in so many different ways, allowing boundless remixing. The tools for making them are more accessible than ever, and more thought is being put into what they can do.
Resultantly, somebody is yelling at their screen because I haven’t talked about the game story they loved the most this year. Please share what’s touched you in the comments here and on Twitter. The field of games is too broad—in a good way.
As games diversify how and what they do, more people will find themselves in games. Games will cover more mental illnesses, and cover them more intimately and accurately. People will see their disabilities represented as something more than a trope of weakness, and be given more options for how to act in those fictional spaces. If the upcoming Detroit: Become Human’s cyberpunk slavery story is bad, other games will rise up to do racial justice right. We’ll have more gay dating sims, more space flight simulators, and more fantasies about loot filled dungeons. This is overwhelming, and it’s great. The less any one videogame is for everybody, the more the medium of videogames will be for everybody.
© 2018 by John Wiswell