If there’s one aspect of video games that’s most improved in the past decade, it’s probably writing. We used to get by with a hero’s journey and maybe a big twist, but over time the bar has been raised significantly. We now expect fully-fleshed-out characters with complex motivations, rich backstories and authentic dialogue, intricately detailed worldbuilding, and gripping plotlines.
The discussion for “best narrative” has become fiercely competitive as a result, yet a small handful of games stand out above the rest because their narratives speak to us at our core and stick with us for months, if not years. Which narratives and/or performances stood out most to you this year?
(@Niko: Thread Description)
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim wins this one for me. (Because I’ll have a million other places to sing praises for Kentucky Route Zero.) The final twist is actually really stupid and there’s probably a million holes. But it’s not about the explanations, it’s just that this game is twists a mile a minute. Every chapter it just gets weirder and weirder. If there’s a trope to a time travel nonsense story, Aegis Rim has it.
It’s ET meets Gundam meets The Terminator meets Primer meets Macross meets Sailor Moon meets Total Recall meets Megazone 23 meets Memento meets The Matrix meets The Girl Who Leapt Through Time meets Fight Club meets War of the Worlds meets Godzilla with a queer romance actually handled pretty well!
I thought Paper Mario: Origami King had some really strong writing in parts. Without its issues on the combat front (bring back the pre-Sticker Star combat situation IMO) I think I would have the game much higher on my GOTY list thanks to the strength of its writing, as it can both be funny and also have some genuinely touching moments,.
I want to shout out Signs of the Sojourner for having a really strong theme and really enjoyable characters. I think that’s a game where most people will have their version of how events played out. Really good stuff.
I also enjoyed Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I have only absorbed a few things about FF7 from cultural osmosis, and so while I had a general understanding of what I was getting into, especially with the game just being in Midgar, I really liked the story beats and the characters. It is fun to watch Cloud slowly become not a shithead through that game, and the other party members are just fun to be with. I also loved the total bullshit of the metanarrative and ending stuff. I played a lot of this game streaming to a friend who was really deep into FF7 when it was new, and like has consumed the various anime movies or whatever, and that was a great experience to get her input and reactions to the game. I hope it doesn’t take five years to get the next one out, but also, if it does, that’s okay.
I’m playing through Paradise Killer right now and some crazy shit is happening. I haven’t finished it yet though, so can’t say with finality.
Vampire The Masquerade Night Road is the winner though definitely. I love me some Masquerade story, and this one has a pretty damn good one. You can do some amazing stuff in that game, and the writing is phenomenal.
Not in the running for my final goty list due to the worker abuse in making it, but a special mention for being the primary good thing about the game is Cyberpunk 2077. This isn’t a game where you’re gonna be smashing capitalism, it’s a smaller personal story with personal stakes and personal resolutions, but in that regard it is pretty compelling. There’s a lot of good interactions with good characters in there. Shame about the marketing, the lies, the unfinished final product, and the worker exploitation.
Spiritfarer - I think death is overused in games as a way to manipulate emotion. That said, I think Spiritfarer explores death in interesting ways, not uniquely, as games like A Morticians Tale and Everything is Going to be Okay also explore death in more interesting ways than “damn, look how sad this is”, but Spiritfarer handles death very carefully and I appreciate that. Beyond its broader themes, the characters are mostly delightful to get to know, and it has a few jokes that were expertly executed in delightful fashion.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I’m not big on the metanarrative stuff, but the writing and characterization are fantastic throughout the game, specifically the high five scene.
Yeah FFVII Remake really hit it out of the park in ways I wasn’t expecting. The characterisation, writing and performances in that game are really exceptional. It had bite where I didn’t think it would dare.
Xenoblade Chronicles DE came out this year too tho, and yes it’s a rerelease but it’s still a brill game with a brill story. Xenoblade 2 does better by it’s characters I think, but the overarching narrative of the original is way stronger imo. And the actual new story stuff in Future Connected is fantastic, really great (if slightly long winded) character stuff and focusing on Melia is a great decision. Jenna Coleman went off to do big name live action stuff and came back to carry the epilogue, that’s Queen shit.
I’m seconding @Glorgu’s thoughts on Spiritfarer, and I want to add: one character is an antifa union organizer lynx who you can give a hug, so I don’t think anything else was ever going to top it.
Shoutouts to some games I haven’t actually finished: I’ve found the mysteries simple but charming in Murder by Numbers. And Umurangi Generation I desperately need to play/will probably buy for Christmas, but I watched an LP and really loved where the story goes (+ in the DLC).
I suspect Umurangi Generation will make it onto this list for me by the end of the week, but I’m still very early in it.
This was a year where I didn’t play a lot of narrative-heavy games. Heaven’s Vault and In Other Waters are the big ones that come to mind. IOW tells a pretty straightforward story, but it was told very effectively and it was easy to get emotionally attached to the alien ecosystem at the center of it. HV, on the other hand, had a very clever take on the idea of historical cycles repeating themselves. The character writing was great as well.
Having now just finished Paradise Killer yeah that game is up there on this list. It reaches a very satisfying conclusion, plus the setting and story itself is just so fucking weird and unique.
I recently finished Kentucky Route Zero. Hard for anything else I played to stand up to that. Before that though I was all in on Wide Ocean Big Jacket for narrative. Now I just can’t decide between the two.
Yes, Umurangi Generation is indeed on this list for me.
I think we’re allowed to post “games we first played in 2020 that weren’t released then”, which is good because there’s nothing released in 2020 which has surpassed Disco Elysium, one of the first games I played this year. It’s an absurdist and politically cynical takedown of a murder mystery, with enough sort-of-side plots to flesh out its world and message exceptionally well.
For the record: yes! You can talk about whatever you want when it comes to what you’ve played this year. The only thing is that games not released in 2020 will not be present on the polls we plan on running.
That’s fine: there’s nothing from this year I’ve played that I’d put on a best narrative list
Kentucky Route Zero for me. In college I minored in Spanish, studying Latin American literature/poetry with an emphasis on magical realism. It’s the first piece of work I’ve engaged with in English that has gotten that genre right
Kentucky Route Zero is one of my favorite stories of all time, let alone in games, so yeah, consider me in that camp. moon: Remix RPG Adventure also is utterly brilliant, but it’s a re-release. (Come to think of it, KRZ came out over 7 years…)
But frankly, I didn’t play a lot of narrative-heavy games this year. The truth is, given world circumstances, I really just wanted games where I could stop thinking for a minute and focus on making my hands do things.
I have a few games I want to get to in that capacity, given I hadn’t gotten to them. I’ve heard If Found… is incredible and would love to know if other people have played it in this thread. Umurangi Generation, too.
There were also some really cool experimental story-based games like Family and A Hand With Many Fingers. I’m a huge fan of this continuing trend of “storytelling-by-reconstruction”, it’s something that I have yet to tire of as a mechanic.
Definitely between Kentucky Route Zero and 13 Sentinels for me. The first two acts of KRZ really nail building the world and establishing tone in a wonderful way, while Act 3 onward does some unbelievable stuff within that world. One gut-punch after another that manages to be a disturbingly clear portrait of how America is crumbling with a message of hope buried among the rumble.
13 Sentinels is weird in really fun ways, and I think uses tropes for an effective message about those tropes and what role they play in our culture. And honestly, it’s utterly shocking to me that they can make the narrative have very distinct “what the fuck” moments with the way they told the story through episodes split across 13 protagonists. All a totally tangled mess that shouldn’t make as much since as it did!! No small feat for the writers.
I think the only other game I really played this year with a prominent narrative was FF7: Remake but I completely forgot about that game after finishing it
My two favorite narratives this year are Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
FF7R managed to recapture the anti-corporate themes of the original while having some really good metacommentary on the nature of remakes. It was also just really charming.
YLAD is a story of a bunch of middle-aged unemployed LARPers taking down brownshirts. It’s humor is hilarious, but it knows when to get serious and the result is my favorite narrative in the Yakuza series thus far.