2012’s Best Interactive Video Game Stories

After looking over the games released in 2012 that have garnered high critical praise, made it on to Game of the Year lists and the games that have personally left the largest impression on me, there is one theme that has emerged, 2012 was a year where storytelling in games was at the forefront of many peoples minds. From games that focused on it at the expense of gameplay polish, to games where interpretation of the story fell squarely on the player, we saw a lot of discussion on the importance of story in games and how storytelling could help to make even a buggy or unpolished game shine. In no particular order I’ll be breaking down the titles from last year that I feel did the best job of pushing forward storytelling in games, helping the games industry to appeal to a broader audience of gamers and non-gamers alike.

Journey 

Journey is one of those games that is difficult to talk about when it comes to its story due to the personal nature of it being highly open to interpretation. Every person you ask about the game will have a different story to tell. For me it was a story of ascension, of following someone greater than yourself until you’ve acquired the skills to surpass them and take that mantle of teacher on to the next generation, but I’ve heard equally compelling arguments made for it being a story of desolation and abandonment or even a story about humanity’s struggling relationship with sharing finite resources. While the game’s story is not one handed to you on a platter, it is very much present in the way the game is designed.

Without going too deep (this game is best experienced with little advance knowledge), the game’s main mechanic is jumping, and gaining additional scarf material to improve your ability to jump. You’re presented with a mountain that is shining at the top and your aim is to head for the top. Along your way you may meet other players, silent characters you can communicate with only through a chirping sound to let them know where you are. You don’t need this other player to complete the game, but the way you interact with them through the game’s trials and tribulations informs a lot of the way you interact with the world and the challenges it presents.

With a phenomenal score and beautifully detailed world, the game’s relatively short story (around an hour and a half to complete) is a beautifully personal tale that left me feeling I had experienced something truly special. It’s simple enough in its mechanics and short enough to complete, making it a great game to show to that family member who usually doubts the legitimacy of video games as a valuable entertainment form and may even give you something to discuss after you’ve both finished it.

The Walking Dead 

While Telltale Games have created some terrific point and click adventures, their recent forays into the world of licensing Back to the Future and Jurassic Park were largely unimpressive. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the release of The Walking Dead caught many people off guard early in the year. Sure it was still plagued by some of the graphical hitches and performance issues that have been a staple of many 3D point and click games, but for many gamers that was completely overshadowed by how terrific the story, voice acting and time limited choice system were. The game took many of us on an incredibly emotional ride, and will stick with us for some time to come.

Following the story of Lee Everet, a convicted criminal who escapes from the police in the early stages of a zombie infection outbreak, you spend the game’s five episodic segments trying to help a little girl called Clementine stay alive long enough to find her parents. You’ll be forced to make tough choices that will effect the way the story plays out, you’ll be hit by unexpected twists and by the end of the game’s first series I was in floods of tears. I genuinely cared about many of the people I was travelling with. I felt horror, tension and fear during my journey, eventually finishing the game and feeling a sense of loss and a need to recover. It’s the sort of game which proves that with a strong enough writing team you can create a story that is not just “great for a game” but phenomenal without needing to qualify it. I’ll stay away from spoiling the plot but by the end of the game there was nothing I wouldn’t do #ForClementine.

Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone is an indie game that didn’t even have a story to begin with. It started life as an online platformer with small coloured blocks moving about, each exhibiting different properties. It wasn’t until people in the comments section started talking about the personality of the blocks that creator Mike Bithell went about creating one of my favourite gaming stories to date. He gave a series of otherwise uncharacteristic blocks personalities, deeply linked to their properties and the way they worked inside the gameplay. In the process they became more fleshed out characters than any other game this year.

Narrated by Danny Wallace, we follow the story of a series of A.I.’s that seemingly spontaneously come into existence, each trying to make sense of the world around them. You have Thomas, whose initial fears of facing the world alone manifest in somewhat obsessive observations of the world around him, Claire who feels that her ability to float on water makes her a superhero and makes it her mission to help her new friends survive the coming trials, Chris who deeply resents Thomas due to the fact he can’t jump half as well as Thomas can and so has to rely on him as a stepping stone and Laura, who fears being used for her unique properties and abandoned yet again. Along with the other characters you meet along your journey, the puzzles all require clever use of your party of blocks and help to emphasise the character in these nondescript simple shapes. By tying the characters so closely into their gameplay properties, Thomas Was Alone was a game I connected to more than perhaps any other in recent memory, including big budget 3D worlds with voice acting and flashbacks to show character history. Sometimes less is more when it comes to good characters and story, and Thomas Was Alone is the perfect example.

While the later stages of the game can get difficult, the story is wonderfully family friendly and has grabbed the interest of multiple people I’ve shown it to who otherwise wouldn’t think of playing a video game. This is something the games industry needs more of, games that use story as a way to provide an experience that can connect gamers and those who don’t play traditional games.

Little Inferno 

Little Inferno is an unusual game. Your objective is to burn items. There are no points to earn and there is no real challenge besides working out what things will burn in combination. You’ll regularly receive letters from three characters, each giving you a different view of the world around you as a character. That’s it. Doesn’t seem built for a great story does it?

While these letters start off fairly superficial, commenting on how fun it is to burn things and not much else, the letters you receive from a little girl called Sugar Plumps quickly reveal that there is more going on than meets the eye. From the social commentary on gaming cultures ultimately unimportant nature, to the way it examines us as human beings, the letters you receive from her take you on a dark but mesmerising journey that won’t leave in a hurry. It’s another game where the basic mechanics are easy for non-gamers to get onboard with and because of the story the non-gamers I introduced it to were compelled to keep playing, even when given opportunities to stop.

Mass Effect 3 

Lets start with the elephant in the room. Many people didn’t like Mass Effect 3’s ending. DLC was released that for some people solved their complaints, for others it just brought them new ones. For the sake of avoiding arguments I’m going to avoid discussing the pros or cons of the last twenty minutes of Mass Effect 3’s story, instead focusing on what the remainder of the game did right.

Mass Effect 3 is the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s battle to protect the galaxy from a threat only he/she saw coming. For many the draw of the game was the development of relationships with your squad as you went through the series, and in that regard the game shone brightest. All the choices you’ve made, the friendships you’ve developed and the relationships you’ve had all come to a head and can make for some truly emotional scenes depending on your choices. In my first playthrough I saw a party member make the ultimate sacrifice to make up for the misdeeds of his past, I saw a comrade end their life in disgust at the choice I made attempting to bring unity to a planet at war, I saw a friend fight his way out a situation that should by all accounts have killed him and ended a war that had lasted for many generations.

Regardless of if the ending gave you enough closure, the game did a tremendous job of giving closure to many of the big themes that the game has discussed since day one. We see a huge set of branching choices meet their conclusions and the journey to the final mission is a very impressive one. In my mind the ending is almost irrelevant, it’s the journey that was important, and we get some truly touching and heart wrenching stories on our way there.

Spec Ops: The Line 

Last up is the game that probably tells the most easily summed up story. Spec Ops: The Line is about a soldier struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder while on deployment in Dubai, attempting to rescue a superior officer who went missing there a number of years earlier.

The game is fairly short, but well suited to a second playthrough due to the nature of its story. I’ll keep myself from saying too much but the game has a surprising trick up its sleeve that turned the way I saw the game completely on its head. It’s not often I complete a game and instantly start it up again for a second playthrough, but the conclusion was so strong that I had to go back and see the story again in a new light. I never stopped to question what the game was telling me, and its revelation was completely obvious once I knew it, making me feel in some ways stupid for not working it out sooner.

The game deals with difficult emotions throughout, creating a believable main character and charting a descent and breakdown that feels incredibly real and relatable. I will likely never see the horrors a soldier will face, but I feel like this game gave me a start at seeing that world through a new set of eyes. It’s an emotionally draining experience, but one that is completely worth investing your time in.

 

There you have it. What do you think of this list? Are there any games you would add or remove? Have you had any positive experiences playing these games, or showing them to friends or family? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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