Dan takes a stroll through some of the more memorable and engaging yarns in gaming and picks his favourites.
We once sat by the fire, content to listen to the tales of our elders. That doesn’t cut it anymore. We crave more than listening or seeing. We want control – the passage from spectator to player. And so we were given video games, the new interactive medium for our tales. But games are still in their preteens, dealing with acne and hormonal mishaps. They struggle to create a coherent narrative identity, clumsily following the footsteps of their cinematic cousins but mostly ending up with the equivalent of fanfics devised by sad and misguided Firefly fans who just can’t seem to let go. Luckily, every once in a while the zeros and ones conspire to create memorable tales, providing a glimpse at a future where video games can proudly stand between Orson Welles and John Steinbeck. So here’s a look at the top five stories that helped push the envelope and solidify video games as a mature medium for storytelling.
5 – Dark Souls
Dark Souls does not scream plot points, twists or character development. There are no scripted events or linear paths, and narrative is only hinted at, but never actually fulfilled. Yet Dark Souls succeeds in filling our heads with tales, through one simple and universal truth – that a picture is worth a thousand words. The loneliness of our journey through the dying kingdom of Lordan is almost overwhelming. You walk alone without compass or safety net. You know nothing of the corpses that surround you, or understand the emptiness of Anor Londo. Yet, through amazing level design and inspired art direction, you can listen to the echoes of its former inhabitants and imagine the life that once was. You are left in a constant state of wonder and melancholy and it strikes you that death has never been so beautiful, yet the permanent sense of unease begs the question, “Am I next?” Even the online component contributes to the overall uneasiness and narrative of the game, reminding the player that, below the surface, this dead world still has a pulsing dark heart. This is a story told through world-building and the player’s imagination and not by overlong speeches from deep-voiced narrators.
4 – To the Moon
Some of the best and most original modern storytelling seems to come from indie gaming. Perhaps it’s the lack of restrictions or the true passionate nature of these developers, but the indie scene has proven that big stories can be told through little games. Despite its cute 16-bit graphics and simplistic gameplay, To the Moon is no exception. The player controls two doctors, attempting to fulfill the dying wish of an old man who wants to travel to the moon. They must, quite literally, delve deep into his memories in order to find his true motivation, and then rearrange them to create a new string of memories where this dream can be accomplished. Seems dubious, but in the end, isn’t reality merely the sum of our memories? This is something of a cross between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento, advocating that our memories, even subconsciously, define us. It’s a deep, meaningful tale, about regret, death and lost dreams, punctuated by a beautiful soundtrack that pulls no punches when it’s time to let the tears roll.
3 – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
When Hideo Kojima created Metal Gear Solid, he reinforced a more cinematic approach to video games and enhanced the traditional gaming experience. But then came Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which unsuccessfully blurred the lines between video games and interactive movies. The cut-scenes that so well complemented the first MGS now seemed like a chore, and the gameplay just wasn’t enough. So with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Kojima returned to the alchemy pot and was able to strike a perfect balance between cinema and gaming. By embracing its camp origins, MGS 3 returned to the James Bond era of cinema and vintage gaming, complete with flamboyant bosses and sexual innuendo. But among poop jokes, government conspiracies and melodrama, there was a very personal story of a man torn between duty and loyalty – our protagonist tasked with killing his former mentor. Who was friend, who was foe? This was the beginning of a Shakespearian tragedy, the creation of an unwilling and sympathetic villain. It perfectly encapsulated the plight of the soldier, always cast adrift to the changing will of nations.
2 – Suikoden II
Japanese Role Playing Games have become something of a joke nowadays. A stale, cliché-ridden genre with unlikable protagonists and soap opera melodrama. Even though they have been experiencing something of a comeback, they are still far removed from their glory days as the grand vehicle for epic storytelling. What distances Suikoden II from its contemporary peers is its intimate and character-focused approach, which owes more to feudal Japan than Japanese animation. This is the story of two kingdoms at war and the people caught in between, mixing the atrocities and strategies of war, with the struggle against Destiny (which seems to permeate all modern Japanese works). Unfortunately, no one ever says, ‘it is your Destiny to eat cake.’ Destiny is never associated with kind ways. It is usually a blunt instrument to the face. But Suikoden II understands that Destiny is merely an excuse. It is, quite simply, a bloated metaphor for coming of age and the harsh reality of growing up and facing our responsibilities. This isn’t about villains with gravity-defying hairdos or angst-ridden teens with amnesia. This is about lost youth and childhood abandoned – the first casualties of any war (after all the corpses and dismemberments, of course).
1 – Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is a game that truly understood its medium and was able to fully capitalize on it. It operates on the subconscious of the player and instead of mauling them with exposition, it slowly creeps inside their mind and plants the seeds to its narrative. In this realm of interactivity, Silent Hill 2 understood that the best tale should also be interactive. Not in an obvious ‘make-your-own-choice’ kind of way, but in terms of perception and understanding – similar to a David Lynch movie but, you know, making sense. It is up to the player to interpret James Sunderland’s quest for his dead wife, as he copes with the literal and metaphorical demons that surround him. The design, monsters and atmosphere work as a door into the mind of our protagonist. For the first time ever, a video game was able to translate psychological development into actual gameplay, resorting to symbolism and metaphors. This is inner turmoil externalised as bashing monsters in the head; insanity portrayed not as the workings of pre-demented minds, but as normal people pushed over the edge. No matter how deep we ventured into the depravity of Silent Hill, no matter how irrational it seemed, it always felt real and relatable. That was the most chilling aspect of this survival horror – that it was credible.
Featured image: Joseph Schreibervia Flickr