[Featurama] 2012: A Storied Year For Games

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It seemed like one of the hallmarks of last year was open worlds and being able to tackle them however you wanted. Aside from Portal 2, there wasn’t a whole lot in the way of truly unique stories. Sure, Saints Row the Third was hilarious and subversive, but it was a byproduct of the world in which it existed. To be honest, most of the time I couldn’t care less about story in video games. Once in a while however, a narrative comes along that genuinely impresses me with its audacity and ambition. The aforementioned Portal 2 was definitely one from last year, but 2012 has been shocking with its multitude of great narratives. Here are a few shining examples which demonstrate how this year has been a true high point for storytelling in video games.

The Walking Dead has been winning ‘Game of the Year’ awards left and right these past few weeks. Being completely honest, as a straight-up adventure game, it’s really nothing special. What has resonated with audiences, however, is the way it presents the story itself as the gameplay. The primary mechanic is not in puzzles or action, but in managing relationships with other characters. Like every other iteration of the series the narrative is strongly focused on an inevitable path to oblivion, but the choices you get to make are gut wrenching and riveting as you edge closer to the void of the zombie apocalypse.

Speaking of endings, how about that Mass Effect 3? BioWare has always been known for creating complex and mature narratives in its games, but with the Mass Effect series they really went all in. The hysteria that went on back in March about the ending was such a shame because it detracted from detracted from the genuinely moving (pardon the expression) human drama that was going on throughout.

The story in this series (and particularly in this installment) is, like in The Walking Dead, all about inevitability and the characters’ preparation for what they all know is coming. Sure, the main quest of Mass Effect 2 was a ‘suicide mission’ but it was pretty easy to see that as long as you did the necessary preparations (i.e. loyalty missions, ship upgrades), you could bring everyone back. It’s fair to say that the third game was the same, but it did a much better job of hiding the strings and was a much more tense experience as a result.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game that I haven’t shut up about for months now around the Twinfinite office, and I don’t anticipate I’ll stop anytime soon. To sum up; it is a near-perfect blend of providing the player with a difficult and confrontational narrative through equal parts dialogue, cutscenes, and environmental cues. It conveys its story on so many levels that it almost requires you to play through multiple times in order to spot them. What is most impressive about the tale this game tells is that it doesn’t rely on the well-used trick of giving you a short-term choice with the promise of a long-term payoff. The only time it gives you any options about how to proceed is at the very end, when it really doesn’t matter after all you’ve ‘accomplished’ up to that point.

The exchange between two of the characters: “There’s always a choice!”; “No. There really isn’t”, cuts to the heart of the limitations and possibilities of game narrative better than any other title this year. Spec Ops: The Line demands multiple playthroughs to be able to see the story threads on display, but the true challenge with it is whether you have the stomach to look into that game’s heart of darkness more than once.

On the topic of darkness, The Darkness II quietly came and went this year. It was a relatively clever shooter in which the player could ‘quad-wield’ with guns and demon tendrils, but what set it apart from most other releases was in who it kept the player on narratively uneven ground. As you approach the story’s end, it throws a series of twists at you and causes you to doubt the validity of the world around you.

One thing this series does really well is cultivate the player’s investment in Jackie as a character. While The Darkness is most notable for one particular sequence which is only rivaled by the Walking Dead in terms of unsettling the player, the sequel is more inward-looking. It forces you to make decisions about the story you have experienced, and whether you are willing to accept or reject it. It’s this kind of narrative that is only possible in a game, and it’s really too bad The Darkness II wasn’t more of a hit.

Most of the games listed have some kind of precedent for presenting interesting and groundbreaking stories, but this year one of the most mainstream releases even went out on a limb. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is as close as this industry has to a sure thing in terms of sales, but there have certainly been rumblings (to say the least) that the series was wearing out its welcome. Treyarch responded to this in the latest installment by introducing multiple endings depending on that affect how it plays out.

Granted, that’s hardly revolutionary storytelling, but this is Call of Duty we’re talking about here. Black Ops 2 is still very much a linear experience in which your character is literally following and carrying out systematic orders, as with other installments. Still, Treyarch deserves credit for being willing to fiddle with the golden goose, and by all accounts they did a pretty decent job of pulling it off.

At the end of the day, the interesting and provocative stories from the games of 2012 might have just been an anomaly that won’t be replicated for another 12 years, but it has been wonderful seeing these (and many other) video games reach past the format’s comfort zone and push them forward. It’s been an unexpected year but not an unwelcome one, and I look forward to what 2013 holds.

 

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About Author

(Senior Writer)

Born in 1844, I bring a lot of gaming experience to the table. In my day-job, I work for a public library which carries, amongst other formats, video games. I'm very interested in observing and documenting the growing pains this industry is experiencing as it is dragged kicking and screaming towards something resembling maturity. Join me!

  • Karutomaru

    And Xenoblade, riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight?

    • MikeEaton

      I never played that one but I know there are a lot of fans of it. I’m curious, why was the story so memorable?

      • Karutomaru

        Aaaaaaha……. If I were to tell you that, I’d be telling you a gigantic, massive, monumental spoiler for the ages.

        Aside from that though, it’s because it is long and structured. It has a number of different arcs not unlike an anime series. Throughout those 65 or so hours you spend only dabbling in sidequests, the story doesn’t slow down.

        Plus giant mechs, celestial creatures, living on titans, religious references, and Riki.

  • dakan45

    and black ops 2, silence haters, it had the best story so far and for the first time good characters ,connected events and actualy emotion.

    Far cry 3 could be here but half of the game is filled with good dialogue and the other half with bad. ITs weird really.

    • MikeEaton

      I’m a believer that CoD gets unfairly trashed at times for its stories, even though it’s no more ludicrous than most games out there. I was pleased to see that they’re trying new things however, and I’m curious about where it’s going to lead.

      I’ve heard that about Far Cry 3, although I haven’t played it yet. It’s not surprising though, as ‘one step forward/one step back’ is par for the course with that series.

      I’m still looking forward to playing it however.

      • dakan45

        It is unfairly trashed period. Look at black ops 2, the singleplayer might as well have been a diffirent game, kidna like syndicate. If it wasnt a cod games, it would get good ratings. but apparently haters just log in and type a review that have no clue about just to bash cod without even played them.

        if now that it acutally tries, it still gets trashed with stupid arguments like “same weapons” what same weapons? most of the guns are fictional sci fi guns never used before in any game.

        To be honest, the last few years we play cheap cod ripoffs when it comes to singleplayer. medal of honor games, homefront, bf3 singleplayer even darkness 2 went all linear. We should be prasing treyarch for changing the singleplayer so more developers will follow that course.

        The problem with far cry 3 story is that in most cutscenes, your character is treated as a scard wimp and vas is really playing his role well, but when you actually play the game, everyone is like “hey rambo, go blow up that base with no actual training and come back for a coffee” it is just weird.