GameFront 2010: Best Game Stories of the Year

Stories in video games are historically their weakest feature, which is why 2010 was so refreshing. We got quite a few standout moments demonstrating the storytelling potential of games as a medium, and quite a few that stuck with us long after the power light on the console had gone out.

There were quite a few games that resonated with us, but the GameFront team has compiled a list of our favorites of the year — the games that pushed the limits and mapped new territory of storytelling in the medium. Check out our thoughts, and add your own comments, below.

Alan Wake

Mark Burnham’s Pick

What really sets Alan Wake apart is the way the story unfolds. It doesn’t hold your hand. It doesn’t make the central mystery — of why Alan’s wife is missing, or why shadowy beings are out to kill him — easy to predict, or even follow in a traditional linear sense. It demands that you consume the game’s many layers. Conversations with NPCs are actually very important, filled with vital information. TV show snippets offer encrypted hints. The manuscript pages, scattered around the game world, tease you with clues.What are the “Taken,” anyway? Is this even real, or is it in Alan’s head? Who the hell is Thomas Zane? All of these questions are powerful, burning motivators. They make it difficult to stop playing.

On another, somewhat related note. Alan Wake did something pretty risky with its influences. It borrowed really heavily, in really obvious ways. Stephen King, LOST, Twin Peaks, X-Files–shades of these influences are everywhere in Alan Wake. Remedy even talked about all of this stuff proudly in interviews leading up to the game’s launch (which took forever and ever to happen).

From this, Remedy somehow crafted a game that is familiar, and yet totally unique. The setting is well crafted, yet clearly derivative. Somehow this is not not a turn off. It makes you feel right at home, and it’s a solid home-base for all the crazy sh*! that happens to Alan in Bright Falls.

Mass Effect 2

Shawn Sines’ Pick

I’m not sure what the formula is with science fiction epics but it always seems that the middle part of a trilogy is the best part (The Matrix EXCLUDED). Mass Effect 2, being that second installment, was free from all the world-building and got right into the repercussions of and payoffs from the first game. This led to a dynamic story about mankind standing alone, staring darkness down and realizing the greater threat while the universe around us put on sunglasses to obscure things even more.

Mass Effect 2 is my favorite story this year not just because it delivered on, and in many ways exceeded, the storytelling promise of the series, but also because I felt a connection to these people, this setting and the peril it faced. I cared about each of my teammates, and I felt bad for the abused Krogans whose race flailed after a genocidal plague. This was a living universe to me and when it ended I wasn’t ready to leave. What better mark of good storytelling can there be?

Fallout: New Vegas

Ben Richardson’s pick

Fallout: New Vegas takes the staid “find Dad, save the world” narrative of Fallout 3 and shoots it in the face with a Plasma Rifle. Reunited with some of its original creative minds (in the form of Obsidian Entertainment), the retro-futuristic world of the game is restored to the hard-boiled West, where it belongs.

The drugs are back. The hookers are back. The towns feel like the desperate, burnt-out places they ought to be. The sense of dark comedy, pulpy cynicism, and old-school cinematic exploitation suffuses the story. And your character spends the beginning of the game getting shot in the head — not exactly Liam Neeson using his best American baby-talk.

By the time things reach their dramatic crescendo, you’re enmeshed in a world populated by believable characters with believable motivations, all caught up in an epic power struggle that smacks of actual political intrigue just enough to make New Vegas and the Mojave Wasteland feel like real places with with real, rational actors at work. The story’s branching plot necessitates difficult decisions at crucial junctures, all of which come with serious consequences. Depending on what you choose, the ending might be different, but war — war never changes.

Metro 2033

Phil Owen’s Pick

Metro 2033 starts out with a simple task: travel from the subway station that is your home under the irradiated ruins of Moscow to another subway station to ask for help in dealing with some beasties.But as you make your way through the world, what begins as a small expedition grows into an epic journey, and you can feel it evolve. The ultimate objective never changes — kill the mutants — the meaning of it does, and by the time you and your team make your way down into the heart of an ancient nuclear bunker, it kinda feels like you’re taking part in a sort of post-apocalyptic Lord of The Rings. That, as much as anything, is a credit to 4A’s vision for this adaptation.

Honorable Mention: Red Dead Redemption

I could go on all day about the John Marston’s external conflict paralleling with his internal conflict, but what I want to talk about the ending (in non-spoilerish terms).Most games fail hard at endings. Games like to build up and build up and build up and then climax right at the end. Red Dead Redemption, however, is one of the few games out there with true falling action. It makes you feel exactly what you were fighting for all along, and it provides a real emotional payoff. An epic tale like that of John Marston needs that, and Rockstar delivered.

Limbo

Phil Hornshaw’s Pick

“Wait,” you’re probably saying, “what story?”

No, you didn’t miss it — LIMBO was about as minimalist as you can get, but it didn’t need dialogue and exposition and a bunch of text or voice work to tell a tale of horror and confusion. From the opening moments of the game, you’re given the very palpable sense of having no idea where you are or what’s going on. Your only option: go forward.

What follows is a murky few hours of traveling through a land you can’t identify, where the dangers grow increasingly more deadly and more horrifying. A village filled with traps, where everyone seems hell-bent on killing you; a group of natives that chases you, so intent on your death (and the deaths of nameless others, apparently) that it costs them their lives; slugs that take hold of your brain and try to force you to suicide.

Without a word, LIMBO places you in a world of horrors and leaves you and your imagination to figure out what story you’re being told. Are you dead already — is that why you can face your demise a thousand times and then wake up and have to face it again? What have you done, and what are you doing, that would drive so many others to attempt to stop you?

There’s definitely a story to LIMBO, and it’s a great one: you pen it yourself as you wander that dark forest and decrepit city. There were a lot of well-designed plots and characters this year, but I was enthralled by LIMBO, precisely because there was so little to glean from it. I turned it into my story and drew my own interpretations and meanings from that world, and that story became much deeper than many of the other games that were released this year or any other.

Honorable Mention: Heavy Rain

I’m probably going to get comment-bitch slapped over this one, but hear me out.

I grant that Heavy Rain is not the piece of genius I (and just about everyone, it seems) initially thought it was. Yes, the game is painfully full of plot holes, and yes, it’s peppered with elements, tropes and stupid devices that amount to exactly nothing. Here’s a good one: why does Ethan have blackouts? Um, basically because we need to suspect he’s the killer for a bit. (And if I just spoiled that for you, I’m sorry that you’ve never seen a movie or read a book and couldn’t see that coming. You should really get on that.)

But! Heavy Rain deserves some mention here because despite being god-awful on paper, while you’re playing it — the game is terribly engrossing. It’s hard to put down, and as you wander about crime scenes looking for clues, you should be extremely bored — but you’re not. Because you’re looking for clues to a story you’re watching unfold, and it unravels at such a pace that you’re always wanting more.

Writing in Heavy Rain might be weak but presentation of the story it tells is phenomenal. And for no other reason than that, it deserves to be counted highly among the year’s best games because it got people to say, “Cool story in a game, bro.” Heavy Rain is as fun to watch as it is to play. It’s smart enough, even though it’s dumb, to get the people who play it to eat of its palm as they progress from scene to scene. It signals a great deal of potential and importance for video game story, and that’s a big deal; we’re usually left with tacked-on stories that are as derivative as they are idiotic.

At the very least, Heavy Rain garnered a lot of attention for games as stories, without being an RPG, without being science fiction and without being dismissed out of hand by anyone who doesn’t regularly play video games. That’s definitely a feat.

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1 Comment on GameFront 2010: Best Game Stories of the Year

Feebo

On December 15, 2010 at 5:03 am

@Here’s a good one: why does Ethan have blackouts?

Because hes traumatized.