There are a couple of reasons why I’m posting this today.
If you remember what I said I was going to do when I finished my Assassin’s Creed Story Analysis, you’ll know that this wasn’t on the plan, but as with life, content creation so rarely goes according to plan. The truth is I have been and will continue to be very busy with preparation for the upcoming Gwent Tournament, Gwent Challenger #5, taking place on the 14th and 15th of September. That’s reason 1, and it might mean there are a couple more posts like this over the next couple of weeks.
Reason 2 is that anyone and their dog can write Top X Lists for their favourite games. I will go right ahead and say it; I don’t like this kind of content very much. It can get really click-baity, which makes me squeamish. However, if needs must, as they now do, then I would rather at least try to make it interesting, and hopefully this slightly different take on the concept does that.
Reason 3 is accountability. I hope Games & Stories isn’t going anywhere for a little while, and the whole point was to play some story-focused games and share that experience with you all. I hope, soon or eventually, I will actually get the chance to play these games, and I expect you all to hold me to account when I ask what I should play for the blog next 😛
Alright. Let’s not waste time! Here are my top 5 story-focused games that I haven’t played yet.
5) Half Life 2
Does anyone else remember when Valve did more than just print money using Steam?
In all seriousness, there have been more recent effort by Valve to actually start making original titles again, with Artifact and Dota Underlords branching the Dota universe out into the CCG and auto-battler genres respectively (and to different levels of success).
However, Valve will no doubt always be fondly remembered for its story-focused franchise. Half Life 2 is earmarked as one of the flagship titles for it’s generation, and it’s a game I am somehow always made to feel ashamed to admit that I’ve never played.
It’s commonly seen as a massive step forward in gaming, opening up a whole new level of opportunities in several aspects of game design. On top of that, it’s widely regarded as having an excellent story set in an incredibly compelling universe; something I have only seen a tiny sliver of in my play-throughs of Portal and Portal II.
I have often thought that if I were to play Half Life II now, I would probably feel very similarly to when I was introduced to Pulp Fiction nearly a decade after its original release – certainly a game of it’s time, but its greatness somewhat lost in the brilliance of what has been achieved since. That said, there must be a reason the fandom has only just stopped crying out for Valve to finally complete the trilogy with the release of Half Life 3, and I want to find out for myself what that is.
4) Tomb Raider
At this point, Tomb Raider has been around almost as long as I have, which is… a weird thing to think about. When it first cropped up in the 90s, I was completely ambivalent towards it, though I distinctly remember it being very popular even then.
However, back then this popularity had little to do with plot. It was lauded as a puzzle and an action game, and while there was a story, the potentially very interesting character of Lara Croft was left largely unexplored. At least that is how I understand it.
But this is why I am curious to try 2013’s reboot of the franchise from Square Enix. It might be a clever marketing ploy that’s very specific to me, or simply the way technology has developed over the course of the 21st century. Look at that picture above. You can only see very little of Lara’s face, but it already conveys more about her as a character then anyone ever could have in 1996. Yes, it’s a stylised image, but it’s very much the thought that counts here. If you’ve followed this blog since it’s inception, you know how I feel about character development, and every piece of marketing I’ve seen for this game hints at this version of the franchise being far more focused on how Lara’s experiences affect her as she comes into her own as a bad-ass explorer and archaeologist.
When I saw the first… half an hour? of Firewatch being played when it was first released in 2016, I knew immediately that it would be a game I’d love playing. Unfortunately, money has been a constant concern for me since I left university and, though I wasn’t fully aware of it then, I was about to be slapped in the face with the harsh reality of my gender dysphoria and the mountains of medical bills that come with it. Firewatch was never the world’s most expensive game, but even £15.00 still makes me a little nervous.
To the game’s credit, when time and finances allow I will absolutely buy and play it. Firstly, It looks absolutely stunning, and I know that just spending time in the game world would just be a nice, relaxing experience, at least until the game takes whatever weird, creepy turn I expect it to from the very little I’ve seen. (No spoilers, please!)
Secondly, and again having seen the first half an hour when it first came out, I know (or at least I think I know) it deals with loss, trauma and how people handle that. For me, that is also what my own book, Thicker Than Water, is fundamentally about, and I’m curious as a creator to see where the similarities and differences lie.
Most enticing for me though is my love of character work. It might be surprising, particularly if you know the game better than I do, but I don’t actually expect to find a lot of character development in Firewatch. I do, however, still expect it to be incredibly focused on and driven by the characters, as well as how they interact with one another. If you have somehow read some of the fiction I’ve previously published, or remember me saying this when I inevitably share some of it on a page of this website, you’ll know that that’s how I do most of my story-telling too. I don’t doubt, at all, that Firewatch is an experience worth having in that regard.
2) Life Is Strange
At this point, I am… almost sick to death of people telling me I should play Life Is Strange. Sick to death because so many people have said it that I’m starting to be a little worried that it’s being over-sold to me. Almost because I know it probably isn’t.
There was an unreal amount of hype surrounding this game when it was first shown in August 2014. By then, the novelty of Telltale Games’ player choice system was already starting to wear off as multiple games showed its limitations, and with the release of Life Is Strange, and the mechanics it employed to bolster the experience, it looked like there might be some serious competition in the market of interactive story-telling. People were certainly not disappointed, and the game quickly picked up more than a handful of Best Narrative, Best Adventure and of course Game of the Year awards or nominations.
It shouldn’t really come as any surprise that the reason I want to play Life Is Strange is, again, the characters, but it is actually more specific than that. I don’t know a lot of the plot details, but I know enough to know that Max’s age is really important, at least to me. She’s a 12th-grader. I was never good at converting the American school system to the British school system, but I think that makes her 16? Maybe 17? That’s part of a really important time in a person’s life, and I know myself that if something happens during that time, how you deal with it can completely reshape you for a long time, perhaps even permanently. When I think about what I want to get out of Life Is Strange, it’s exactly that. I want to see that character development, not just for Max’s sake, but also for how it affects the characters around her. It might be expecting a bit too much of such a small game, but… I don’t know. I just have a sneaking suspicion I won’t be disappointed either.
1) The Last Of Us
And finally… the big one. While I worked at Egosoft, it became tradition for our Universe Designer to tell me at least twice a year that if I cared even remotely about story-telling in games, I had to play The Last of Us. I have also continuously heard pretty good things about the game’s voice-acting, particularly on the part of Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie.
It feels a little bit ironic to me that the game at the top of a list of story-focused games I most want to play isn’t there because of the characters. I expect them to be well-designed and, no doubt, they’ll end up being one of the parts of the game I enjoy most, but the reason I look forward to The Last of Us so much is actually to appreciate the game’s craft.
Environmental design, graphic style, voice-acting, character rigging. All of them and more are just as much a part of telling a story in gaming as what the characters say, do and what happens to them and the world they inhabit. More than the actual plot, it’s these things that help games (and films, as it happens) stand the test of time, and they’re very much a part of why I love the original Assassin’s Creed so much. When The Last of Us originally came out, I had my head buried in the sand and it kind of passed me by, and even when my colleague kept telling me to play it I kept protesting as I said I would. Then I saw the reveal trailer for The Last of Us 2 last year. More precisely, I saw 1 minute and 57 seconds of it, because it was at that point that I realised how unbelievably stupid I’d been not to make the investment sooner and stopped watching so that I didn’t accidentally spoil the first game for myself. Of course it’s not fair to make any judgement about the first game based on the second, where newer and better technology was applied, but I also don’t think Naughty Dog were slacking that much back in 2013.
And that is why I chose that phrase to sum up the above picture. Plot aside, I know I’d appreciate The Last of Us as a piece of art, and the fact that it’s said to have a pretty awesome story on top of that just makes me relish the opportunity to play it even more. I’ve already lost count of the number of times I’ve glanced down at the packaged up Play Station 4 at my feet. I need more space, more money and more time. Like… now.
And there we have it. Those are the five games I really wish I’d had the chance to play because of their story-telling, and the ones that I want most to cross off my list, hopefully in the not-to-distant future!
Like I said at the top of the article, I am stupendously busy at the moment, so I’m sorry if I am a little sporadic with my posting throughout September or if I have to take a shortcut with more posts like this. Thank you for sticking with me. It is definitely very much appreciated, and I will continue to try to make it as interesting as possible for you along the way.
Feel free to leave a comment to share the games you wish you’d played, for whatever reason, or tell me what you think of the ones I’ve listed here (without spoiling anything for anyone else!) I’d love to hear your thoughts and I look forward to chatting to you all again soon.