Clearly this is going to be an incredibly subjective article but with all the press surrounding ‘The Last of Us’ re-release we’re still surprised at how many people seem to give that game praise as if it was doing something new, different, or even particularly well. The characters were more interesting than the majority of action-adventures, but then so were the characters in Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series. The plot was passable but many games have interesting plots. The biggest crime for us was that The Last of Us had characters making horrific decisions with no input whatsoever from the player. Essentially you were along with the ride and there to take over when something needed shooting (and they really do kill a lot of people in that game, like enough to top the Wikipedia chart of most prolific serial killers of all time).
From here on there will be major spoilers for the following games: The Last of Us, Spec Ops: The Line, Red Dead Redemption, Grim Fandango, Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead Seasons 1 and 2
The Last of Us’s greatest flaw was that ending. We were supposed to be emotionally invested in the characters but then Joel condemns humanity to a long drawn out extinction to temporarily save the life of Ellie, a teenage girl he met months earlier. Some people can understand that decision, he has a bond with her and cares for her so of course he doesn’t want her to be killed, but the stakes are important to bear in mind. If this cure isn’t found, everyone dies. Everyone else he has ever met or cared about, every other teenage girl in the world. The violence, hatred and suffering he has had to endure (including the death of his own daughter) was caused by an illness that can be stopped. He doesn’t have to kill Ellie, he just has to do nothing. Instead he murders many innocent people to stop that cure being created. That decision is totally out of the player’s hands so if we don’t agree with it, we’re just left there with zero immersion because the character we’ve been controlling is suddenly doing things we would never do. The lack of choice makes sense in some games like Bioshock, Spec Ops: The Line and The Walking Dead, and we’ll discuss that later but in the Last of Us there is no reason for that choice to be taken away from us.
The rest of the game suffered from many common videogame problems. The characters are unlikable because they kill so much, the monsters are never really terrifying (except in that one dark level where you have to go into the basement) because you see them so clearly and so often, the bad humans are cartoon cutouts of bad people with no depth or occasionally no motivation at all. You spend the game travelling from shooting gallery to shooting gallery with a poorly developed character being killed off along the way whenever there needs to be a little bit of drama. The character and season switch is nice aesthetically but does make you wonder why Ellie has been so terrible the rest of the time at doing anything useful.
So with that rant out of the way, here are what we believe to be (in no particular order)the five best stories in gaming.
1. Spec Ops: The Line
If you haven’t played this before but think you won’t be interested so don’t mind reading spoilers, stop reading this and go buy it. You can get it incredibly cheaply now and it is one of the most thought provoking games of all time. Right, if you’ve carried on reading I’m going to assume you’re ready for the spoilers. Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t think you should play Spec Ops: The Line. You might play through the first half thinking ‘this is all a bit generic racist Call of Duty gun-ho American patriotic violence – and you’d be right, but the game is very aware of this. You find yourself mowing down troops with shakey reasons for doing so, your squad clinically executes commands and replies with the least emotion possible. But then half way through the game your path is blocked by an enemy camp and the only way a three man squad could realistically deal with that is with explosives, and there just happens to be white phosphorous mortars nearby. You use them because that is your mission, there’s no other way through and the game doesn’t give you an option within it, or so you think. You use these horrible burning weapons and find that the camp was home to hundreds of civilians that you just murdered in the most brutal way possible. From there on the game starts to fall apart in the best possible way. Your squadmates start responding in less formal and respectful ways, your motives for doing things are less sound, even the loading screens start to make you question why you play things like this. By the end of the game you realise you are a monster, you were insane through most of it and have been waging war for no reason at all. The final choices of the game involve carrying on shooting because that’s what you know how to do, handing yourself in, or killing yourself – and it’s a genuinely difficult choice. Of course the choice the game wanted you to make all along was to stop playing. Why would you enjoy simulations of shooting all these people with no reason? What do we consider a fair justification for murder? Revenge? Following Orders? Entertainment? The game asks these questions of you and never gives you an answer.
Even the references within the game are incredibly smart. It starts off with clear nods to modern war adventure stories like Three Kings or Battlefield: Bad Company. It then goes full out into Heart of Darkness as you journey through the desert towards your mysterious antagonist, but at the last minute it pulls a full Fight Club and throws everything out of the window. It doesn’t want you to understand it, but it’s not random, it’s meticulously crafted by people who know gaming and gamers inside out. Everyone who has every enjoyed a shooter needs to play this game.
2. Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption was a sequel of sorts to Red Dead Revolver but you need no knowledge of the previous title to enjoy this one. This is Rockstar at their absolute best, managing to create an open world that feels truly alive and cinematic. From rolling deserts to mine-strewn mountains, abandoned ghost towns to bustling new-world cities, Red Dead Redemption puts you in a California (and Mexico) that mimics the best of Westerns (heh, not Best Westerns) rather than reality. Within that world you’re taking the part of John Marston, a man who is condemned from the beginning and clearly being used as a puppet by powers out of his control. All through the (incredibly long) game you know there’s no way out of his predicament but you keep on going like he does because there’s nothing else to do other than to try and keep his family safe. Moments of emerging happiness like herding cows from a storm with a hospitable family and beautiful river crossings (with an amazing soundtrack) are all tinged with the knowledge that your past is going to catch up to you – and it does, spectacularly so. Red Dead Redemption is filled with amazing set pieces but none are more compelling than the final moments of John Marston where you make one final sacrifice in order to give your family a fighting chance. Marston is an outlaw and the things you do in the game aren’t nice, but you see his true colours at the end and what really matters to him.
Also of note in Red Dead Redemption is the huge range of activities you can take part in away from the plot. Things like gambling, hunting and exploring all feel like they fit in with the character much more than they ever have done in the Grand Theft Auto games. Everything about Red Dead Redemption feels cohesive and part of some sprawling Western Epic, everything about it is polished. The only thing to dislike about the game is that it was never ported to PC, which is a crime in itself.
3. Grim Fandango
Just try to remember a quote from a game. I’ll wait. It’s tough isn’t it? There’s very few that stick in my mind, “I’ll see you LATER” from The Lost and the Damned, “It’s-a-me, Mario!” from Mario 64 and “Wake up” from Ocarina of Time are some of the clearest and they’re not exactly inspiring are they. But from Grim Fandango, a few lines will always stick with me. Manny Calavera, travel agent for the dead hoping to move on to the next place, is interviewing a new customer, Meche, a charming lady skeleton who is lost and confused in this terrifying but strangely familiar world of Mexican skeletons and death.
“Did you cheat on your husband?”
” Mr Calavera, there is no ring on my finger”
“There is no skin on it either”
“I guess you’ll just have to trust me then.”
That simple exchange is more memorable than anything else I have heard in 23 years of playing videogames. It gives us information, there’s a witty response, it’s sophisticated, there’s no exposition, it’s just well-measured and perfect. Grim Fandango is twelve or so hours of writing with that kind of quality throughout. It takes in inspiration from Jewel of the Nile, Casablanca and countless other films of the last century, but it never falls down to parody, instead it is heartfelt, emotional, stylish and interesting. There’s intelligent discussions on the nature of death, permanence and fear, there’s spectacular music, incredible pacing and (for once in a Lucasarts adventure) puzzles that make sense.
It’s so easy to get swept up in the world of Grim Fandango and it never really leaves you. Thankfully It’s making a re-emergence with an upscaled version on its way to PS4.
4. Heavy Rain
Heavy Rain definitely has its flaws. Some people hate the quick-time event controls, some people dislike the ending, I hate the section where you end up shooting loads of people in the most out-of-place scene imaginable. (or not if you’ve played Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy) but despite all of this, Heavy Rain showed that adventure games could deal with topics maturely and still sell well. There’s some horrific stuff in the game with child death, divorce, depression, self-mutilation, murder, occultism and betrayal, but the game deals with all of that without being patronising. There’s an amazing moment around half way through where you are investigating a suspect who appears on edge, jittery and defensive. You have a gun trained on him and then he reaches into his pocket as if to pull a pistol. You can choose to shoot him dead if you want, at which point you find out all he had was a crucifix, which makes sense as it was already established that he was deeply religious. That’s how killing should be done in games, it is a horrific act and genuinely shocking, which makes the later rampage through a mansion all the more disappointing.
As with all choice in games like this, of course the game ends up basically the same, but within each scene it really does feel like what you’re doing matters and Heavy Rain even allowed for some of the protagonists to die half way in and the rest of the game would carry on without them. It’s greatest triumph might have been the twists at the very end, when you find out one of the characters you’ve played as is actually the murderer, this then suddenly reveals all of the ways you’ve helped to cover your own tracks and thwarted the efforts of the other player characters. It’s very clever and I didn’t see it coming at all and it really encourages a second playthrough to see what really happened. Heavy Rain is more like an interactive movie than a real video game but it’s surprising that the formula hasn’t been copied more. Until the technology is there for 1:1 simulation of all possible interactions, restricting the player like this might be the better option when trying to tell a strong focused story.
5. The Walking Dead (Seasons 1 and 2)
Season Two hasn’t quite wrapped up yet so don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling the last chapter, but I will be talking about everything up to that.
The Walking Dead series by Telltale had reinvigorated the adventure genre for a new generation and it’s due to a combination between the illusion of choice, great writing and voice acting, a strong art style, reverence to source material and the episodic nature. With each episode coming out a few months apart, you get a small narrative arc in each episode with its own problems, solutions and consequences. In the first season you play as Lee, an escaped convict who ends up looking after a little girl Clementine, and joining up with a group as they attempt to find some kind of safety in post-apocalyptic zombie-strewn America. Along the way you encounter characters from the comics (the plot doesn’t follow the comics but simply takes place in the same world with a similar tone and references to the same events), have to make numerous moral decisions, deal with the inevitability of death and try to keep your group together.
In terms of gameplay it is essentially a point and click with frequent QTEs but the most interesting feature is the dialogue. Like in real life you only get a short time to choose your response and often you’ll end up making mistakes that you need to live with. If you don’t pick anything sometimes you’ll say nothing at all, which is a completely valid response in many situations. While your actions might not have a huge influence on the plot, the way you explain yourself changes your character quite dramatically and by the end you really feel like Lee is your character.
The strongest notes in the first series all revolve around your care of Clementine. Occasionally the game will come up with a notice ‘Clementine will remember that’ and you’ll always feel pangs of guilt. Do you want her to see you enact violence? Do you want to set a good example to make her a good person? Or do you want to be realistic to make her strong? The bond you form with Clementine is strong and is never betrayed the way it is in ‘The Last of Us’. By the end of the first season you know what needs to be done and you simply run out of options, both in the game and in the story. There’s only one way out and it’s not for both of you.
In the second season you play as Clementine as she struggles to find a group to survive with and slowly becomes more and more confident in her abilities and less confident in humanity in general. The lack of real agency in this season is used well as when it comes down to it you are just a little girl. People don’t take you seriously and they rarely do what you say, but at least you know what you decided and how you justified it. My Clem has cut off people’s limbs, watched a man be beaten to death and made a decision that might have cost a new mother her life, but at least it was mu Clem that did that and I understand her motivations because I chose them and I can choose how to express them.
The Walking Dead games aren’t just for fans of the comics or TV show, they’re genuinely amazing adventure games and a refreshing way to tell interesting stories. They’re also some of the most emotional games out there so be prepared for all of the feels. All of them.