Video games have come a long way since their pixelated origins. No longer are we simply scrolling from left to right, shooting at incoming aliens from the top of the screen like in Space Invaders, or bouncing a white square from one end of the screen to the other via Pong. Now, video games are just as cinematic, well-acted and well-written as many major Hollywood films, sometimes even more so. So, as we start to slowly leave the last generation of video game consoles behind us, we thought it was a good time to look at some of the best narratives we’ve experienced over the past few years. Bear in mind we won’t be covering remasters or remakes, as they were technically part of a different console generation, so The Last of Us Remastered, Final Fantasy VII Remake and Mafia: Definitive Edition are absent, despite their memorable and iconic narratives. But for the record, the game is a masterpiece and one of the best narratives ever written in the medium. That being said…
The Last of Us Part II
The Last of Us Part II is a game that divided fans, but no matter if you love it or hate it, one thing is certain: you won’t forget it. This is a game about the consequences of violence and the irrational pursuit of vengeance. This hateful theme is a stark contrast to the narrative of the first game, which is thematically about love. She’s on a mission to kill someone, but the game does a good job in asking if Ellie is justified in taking such extreme actions. Her friends, her settlement, they all need her and by going away in the wild in search of one person to kill is quite the reaction. The divisiveness in this game comes from shifting away from Ellie halfway through the game, the co-lead in the first game and the marketed lead in the second, to allow us to play as Abby, Ellie’s quarry. On paper, it’s a very interesting premise, allowing us to empathize with a character we should despise. Abby has seen some terrible things in her life and you get where she’s coming from. But Abby isn’t as interesting a character as Ellie and to split the game time roughly 50/50. I think the game could have been split 70/30, with Abby’s story being told as interludes throughout, as opposed to rewinding the clock halfway through the game. But the narrative is one that sticks with you, even if it doesn’t quite hit the highs of the first game. By the end of the game, you feel as if you’ve been through the emotional wringer and you’re left as exhausted and as drained as Ellie looks. Not only that though, but despite the anguish and even perhaps mixed feelings, there’s no doubt the game’s story made some sort of impression on you.
Red Dead Redemption II
Grand Theft Auto may be Rockstar’s crown jewel, but I’m a bigger fan of their western series, Red Dead Redemption. To say that the game is simply GTA with horses would also be a disservice to the series. While GTA plays heavily into satire, RDR is a more poignant and tragic story. So when a second game was announced, I thought there was no way it would be as good as the first game, which was an instant classic and has aged well well to this day. Then Red Dead Redemption II came out. A prequel to the original story, the narrative jumps back twelve years to the fall of the Dutch van der Linde gang in the period of time when “the west was nearly tamed”. You play as Arthur Morgan, Dutch’s right-hand man, a bonafide outlaw with a heart of gold (sometimes). This is a slow burn of a story, which requests you play attention and become immersed in this world. Arthur begins to see the madness in Dutch’s actions and questions where this gang is going and how he can save it from the inside. At the same time, he’s faced with his own demons and his own problems that eventually come to haunt him as the game goes on. I didn’t think it would be possible for me to care for a character more than John Marsten, the protagonist of the first game, but here we are. Arthur Morgan, with his world-weariness and angry drawl, has won me over. I’ve played this game twice now, one where I was a white hat and actively involved in the well-being of the camp (an optional gameplay mechanic) as I brought them food and such, and a second playthrough where I didn’t help anyone and played as a black hat. I found the slow, hands-on and helpful approach of the first playthrough to be significantly more rewarding as Arthur gets a sense of place and purpose far more than simply going from mission to mission.
God of War
So the God of War franchise wasn’t exactly known for its narrative chops. It was more of a fun excuse to go completely ballistic on the Greek pantheon of gods as Kratos seeks revenge against his father, Zeus. But all that chaos is only good for so long and the game prior to this, Ascension, failed to meet expectations as it was seen as redundant. So Sony Santa Monica had to reinvent the franchise from the ground up. What we got, was a narrative-driven tale of father and son. The premise is, surprisingly, very simple. Kratos, now voiced by Christopher Judge, has settled in Midgard, the realm of Norse mythology and got married. The couple had a son, Atreus (Sunny Suljic), and Kratos found some semblance of normality in the frigid cold. Then his wife, Faye, passes away and her final wish is for her ashes to be spread across the highest mountain in all the realms. Seeking to fulfill this wish, Kratos and Atreus, who are largely estranged from each other, embark on a road trip of sorts to scatter the ashes. Along the way, the Gods will intervene and new allies will be made. But the core of the story is father and son, as Kratos learns to be a man from his child, while Atreus, who is in the dark as to who-and what-his father actually is, learns about his divine heritage and just what that means. This is a game with real-life lessons to be had and it’s fascinating to watch Kratos, the man who killed an entire pantheon in rage, learn to control that hatred for the benefit of his son, as the last thing he wants is for his son to grow up and become him. This story wouldn’t work if the writing and the acting weren’t top-notch and thankfully, both deliver, with Judge and Suljic having amazing chemistry together. I can’t wait to see what happens in the follow up to this game, God of War Ragnarok, which is scheduled to release in 2021.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Writing RPG video games must an extremely long and tedious task. Not only do you have the main story to contend with, but countless other side stories and events to flesh out the world. Quite often, these side tales are meaningless, “go fetch this and bring it back to me” kind of quests with little to no narrative incentive. That’s not the case for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is one of the best RPGs I’ve played. This is one of those cases where the side tales can often outshine the core narrative. The Bloody Baron arc, which contains both side and main mission markers, has some of the best writing in gaming with some morally ambiguous choices. Seriously, the choice at the end of this arc (which is a side quest) had to be stumped as to which was the “better” outcome. This is a story, not about saving the world (but that’s there too), but about finding your family, your loved ones and how your friends and allies can help you achieve that goal. The relationships you build work towards the final outcome and by investing time in others, more of the world and of the scope of what’s going on around you is unveiled. Geralt of Rivia can’t stop armies from marching and invasions from happening, but he can do his best to find his ward, Ciri, who is being chased by the dreaded Wild Hunt, ghostly spectres who herald war. This is a massive fantasy game, but it’s one of those games that root you into real-world conflicts with human connections and unseen consequences.
Ghost of Tsushima
For years, fans have been begging Ubisoft for an Assassin’s Creed game set in feudal Japan, but time and time again, the studio denied fans their biggest wish. So Sucker Punch Productions, the studio behind Sly Cooper and Infamous, decided to make it themselves. What we got was a love letter to samurai films, specifically those made by acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa. This game feels grounded, without many trappings found in open-world games these days. Everything feels scaled back, but in a good way that doesn’t feel like bloated padding or useless mechanics. The story is set in 1274, during the first Mongol Invasion of Japan, who meet the Samurai in open battle in the game’s opening. The Samurai, bound by honour, are horribly outmatched by the Mongols, who use deception and honourless tactics in order to achieve their goals. Nearly all the Samurai are killed, but the game’s protagonist, Jin Sakai, and his uncle, Lord Shimura, survive. Jin must gather allies in other to take back the island of Tsushima back from the invaders and question his honourable upbringing: must he use deception and honorless tactics in order to win the day? The player has that choice, opting more a more noble Samurai path, which leans heavily into katana duels, or that of the Ghost, which is basically a Ninja who uses smoke bombs, stealth and assassinations to eliminate the invading army. Jin grapples with these conflicting ideologies. He knows that his Samurai upbringing is the noble thing to do, but at the same time, that mindset resulted in the Samurai’s defeat. Should he be dishonourable for an honourable cause or can he stick to his beliefs and come out victorious? Cinephiles will be glad to know that the game can be played either in English or Japanese and there’s a filter called Kurosawa Mode, which turns the game black and white with a film grain filter layered on top of it.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
I love me some Uncharted. They’re fun, swashbuckling adventure games full of fun banter, memorable locals and iconic set pieces. But Uncharted 4, helmed by The Last of Us‘ Neil Druckmann as opposed to Amy Henig, is a different beast altogether. This game is far more nuanced, layered and grown-up than its colourful predecessors. The game takes place a few years after the third game and sees Nate retired from his treasure hunting activities. He’s married to Elena and works for a salvage company but misses his old life. He scurries off to the attic and reenacts his old shootouts with inanimate objects and a nerf gun before diner. Then, in one of the best character moments in the game, plays video games with Elena to see who does the dishes. Who puts this in a game? It shouldn’t work, as it should throw the pacing off, but it works so well. Then, one day, Nate’s brother Sam, who has been presumed dead (which likely explains why he’s never been talked about at all in this franchise cough cough), shows up knocking, seeking Nate’s help. Sam has found a clue that will lead them to Captain Henry Avery’s lost treasure (which remains lost to this day). Sure, it’s been a childhood dream of theirs to find the treasure, but finding it will also save Sam’s life from those who will kill him unless he finds the treasure. Treachery, betrayal and adventure await in this tale about family, which is far more mature and grounded than any of the games before it, with plenty of unexpected emotional depth to be found here. Nate and his companions have never been more engaging.
This entry is written by contributor Alex Callard. Check out his art on IG at @alexcallard
Behind stunning graphic design and art direction, Firewatch’s story appears to be a typical mystery-in-the-woods adventure. Below the surface, however, we get a deeper story about life, responsibility, when to run away and the places we’ll go to look for peace. Brilliantly voice-acted, Henry’s is a story of self-imposed exile in 1980s Wyoming wilderness with only the disembodied radio voice of Delilah, a fellow forest fire ranger from the next valley over, for company. The main plot, with Delilah guiding Henry through the valley as he tries to get to the bottom of some mysterious forest goings-on, is a suspenseful story of the tricks one’s mind can play in strange situations, the true reward of Firewatch is coming to know Henry and Delilah’s relationship over the summer. The ending is a moment that’s profoundly bittersweet in the most beautiful, human way, and will stay with you long after you leave the Shoshone National Forest.
Those are the games that did it for us but were there any that we missed that you loved during the last generation? If so, let us know in the comments!