Five Underrated Narratives Of 2011 That You Can't Miss

By James Hawkins in Lists!, Unraveling Yarns
Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 1:00 pm
This year will go down in history as one of the biggest ever in video game history. It'll be known for the three month period where a dozen giants all fought one another at the top of a mountain of cash, battling it out for supremacy over the eager masses. It'll be known for sending the surging entertainment medium even further above the rest. 

But, even more than popularity, it deserves to be recognized as a momentous year in video game storytelling. A few notable games have risen to a high level of critical and commercial success that will ensure their legacy sticks around for a while -- stories told through the video game medium that are complex and robust on a level that we don't see often at all. Portal 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Uncharted 3. Those games have brilliance in them, and are rewarded handsomely for their achievements due to robust marketing campaigns, a lot of high-profile coverage, and enthusiastic fan bases.

However, there have been some smaller games that have come out this year that aren't getting the kind of recognition they deserve. Recently, we've been able to rely on independent developers and international creations to push video games forward as a narrative medium. This year is no different, except that it is more laden with diverse stories than in years past, and we're able to experience strange, dark, beautiful tales of all sorts. For your viewing pleasure, I've put together a short list of those games that may have slipped under the radar. Games that will stir you with story.

There are some the label this game "sexist," as it does contain a few images and themes that are culturally regressive when it comes to gender roles. However, playing Catherine was gorgeous, to me. It was a perfect blend of mythology, the fabled ludology, and a straight-up twisty narrative. I was treated with a simple and unique succession of video game puzzles, layered in striking metaphors and symbols, with a straightforward storyline to drive it home. Catherine is, essentially, a story about coping with the reality of adulthood.

And infidelity. Catherine succeeds this year because it doesn't put us in the shoes of great heroes or soldiers; instead, we're placed into the psyche of a regular mind that is set about regular business. Infidelity is a part of lives that we're all affected by, on some level, and that contains within it a certain drama and incredulity. The impact there lies inside how normal the circumstances are, and how vulnerable we become once our flaws are exposed.

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Shadows of the Damned
Of all the games that arrived in 2011, no game lent credence to the art of storytelling like Shadows of the Damned. Set inside a Gothic, punkish Hell, we follow Latin machismo Garcia Hotspur on a quest to find his elusive, hyper-sexualized girlfriend Paula. She's met the incarnation of fate, and is being tortured and held in a far off tower. And along the way, we experience the full gamut of video game narration as we've come to know it.

Throughout the game, we're given a steady drip of narrative from our handy sidekick, Johnson. He acts as one-half of dialogue throughout the twisted tale, showing us exposition on each character we meet and situation we encounter. We are constantly made aware of the world around us, and the characters we meet, and the challenges we face in our immediate future. And that story is punctuated with expositions on those we stand to kill -- they are the realizations of horror in myths throughout history.

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Bastion sits quietly in the "downloadables" section of your video game platform. It is a small indie game -- an isometric RPG-action title whose stature pales when compared to giants like Skyrim and Dragon Age. But its compact world is rich with history and nuance, and its weighty story exalts it above all the million-copy sellers that have populated the gaming landscape this year.

We follow a boy on his trek to restore his homeland following a devastating cataclysm called The Calamity. Along the way, the events and lifes that have been touched by The Calamity are unearthed, and we slowly realize the greater meaning of our presence in this world. And all the while, we experience story told by a persistent narrator named Rucks -- who himself is a brilliant and thoughtful character, one that stands among the greatest video game characters ever created.


Child of Eden
The narrative of Child of Eden is, to say, very loose. It is a rhythmic music sim game at its core, which promotes something called synesthesia. When you play it, you're meant to confuse your senses with one another -- sounds become feeling, visuals are appropriated to movement, and you can't quite get a hold of which sense is supposed to receive which trigger. It can be very beautiful.

The story lands you inside Project Lumi -- a piece of artificial intelligence on the brink of living in a technological world called Eden. You're to prevent a virus that is infecting Project Lumi, which will send a perfect sentient being inside of Eden. It is a brief, strange experience, one that doesn't go too deep intellectually. But the infusion of story and design make it a unique experience, and one whose impact may come as a surprise.

To The Moon
To The Moon is about helping a dying man realize his last wish. Yes, it is very sad and very potent. But we're rarely treated with a real emotional throttling by a video game, so it's important to get close to one that can offer us something beyond what we're used to.

We assume the roles of two doctors trying to manipulate the memories of Johnny, the dying man. Through the lens of an old-school pixel-art RPG, we travel on a journey with him. We go backwards in time, seeing how the later parts of his life are affected by choices he made as a youth, slowly uncovering the chronology of his life's adventure. And as we puzzle through his history, we discover different scenes and important moments in his life. We're given the scope and gravity of a character's life -- something never really touched on in the video game world.
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