This year was particularly strong in terms of narrative content. Blockbusters and indie games took bold leaps into the fold of previously uncharted territory of creative game storytelling, by handing us dozens of beautiful, well-told stories that can move and change us. We've selected the ten that best represent 2011 as a whole, and the ten best that will go down in history as some of the best the medium has ever offered.
Told through janky scripted gimmicks and some heavy-handedness, LA Noire was as ambitious a title as we saw in 2011. It broke new ground -- both in the graphical and in the gameplay realms -- and we were rewarded with a dark, mysterious psychological thriller, masked as a police prodedural, set in the tumultuous post-war Los Angeles, California. It was, quite simply, a gamble that Rockstar hedged its bets on, and a gamble that puzzled gamers and critics alike. For better or worse.
To say LA Noire managed greatness would be embellishment. But never before has an interactive story been told with such great hopes and ambitions in mind. As Cole Phelps, we actively interrogate potential criminals and pay for our missteps by clouding the narrative, as the game is meant to. And even after all our missteps (legitimate or not), we're still given an engaging, twisty story that puts us as close to the mind of a character as can be. No, it doesn't always work, but when it does, we see a small light of better things to come in the future.
Skyrim's tale, as no more than a series of events, doesn't exactly set itself apart from the pack. There are too many games out there with strong, personal emotional journeys and mind-blurring plot twists to allow Skyrim's fantasy story to stand among the cleverest. But The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim does give gamers something that no other game can provide: a virtually endless array of options, choices, and narrative trajectories.
Quests in the game are generated so that the possibility of choice is always prevalent and available. From menial tasks to rescue missions to searches for lost artifacts, Skyrim gives players the opportunity to take up a virtual life inside the game's walls and experience a living, breathing world. And the stories that come from it are unique to each person who helps create them.
The third entry of the now venerable Uncharted series doesn't quite have the story to match its most recent predecessor. But the story is told through some of the best dialogue, most flamboyant characters, and precariously balanced scenarios of the whole year. Without a doubt, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception was only a few recycled mechanics short of total brilliance.
We find Drake stranded in a desert, in the thick of the drama that drove the series to its climax. Throughout the tale we're given a good look back at the mega-hero Drake's upbringing, as well as some dramatic twists and turns that keep secrets from us as the plot progresses. Events occur off-stage, and though we're in the shoes of Drake, sometimes we're only privy to some of what's on his mind. Figuring out the rest, though, is what makes the story so rewarding.
As we've said before, the story and characterizations of Catherine are problematic. The sympathetic male lead is kind of a bastard - he's portrayed as a helpless male coerced into cheating on his girlfriend. The female lead is a young and submissive beauty that enters the story as the incarnation of raw, aggressive sexuality. On paper, these two characters don't actually deviate from what is considered "normal" in the video game world, but because the story is gripping and metaphorical, and because Catherine is such a fantastic experience, the issues are pronounced and we can't simply write them off.
The narrative of Catherine - and this makes it brilliant - is delivered in two channels. First, we have the literal parts of the story given to us in cutscenes and closed-world lobbies, while the gameplay portion of the game approaches the real world problems that hero Vincent is coping with in a mechanical, puzzle-based game. It is cinema and gameplay, two mediums that convey narrative in two separate and effective methods. The two together, staggered and twisted between one another, make Catherine one of the most challenging and comprehensive video game stories told in recent memory.
Dick and fart jokes abound in Grasshopper Manufacture's third-person horror shooter. As Garcia Hotspur, players chase sexy naked women and shoot demons for eight hours on a gruesome trek through Hell. Shadows of the Damned is, for all intents and purposes, the epitome of immaturity. But it works. It works because it is a light-hearted, self-aware parody of the genre. And, even more, it is never mean-spirited and the characters within the story are given to us with feeling and nuance.
The game shows respect for narration, and the narrative is a cumulative amalgamation of different story telling mediums that coalesce into one. There's a constant flow of story and exposition from Hotspur's sidekick Johnson, and each level is marked with a few storybook pieces about demons and how they were sent to Hell. Between those, cinematic cutscenes deliver drama, but never so much as to take large leaps in storyline. Shadows of the Damned is one of those rare spoofs that works sometimes better than its source material by being smarter, deeper, and more heartfelt than what it mimics.
Cyberpunk returned in 2011 with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Taking pages from the original Deus Ex ethos, we were treated to a game filled with large-scale themes like morality of science, as well as smaller, more personal threads like vengeance, loss, and the search for truth. The game, as a whole, blended deft storytelling, open-endedness, and fascinating characterizations into one.
Praise for the game's story has to be directed at how Square Enix built "choice" into the equation. Players are allowed to manage any situation they encounter in a multitude of unique ways, with social interaction acting as important, if not more, than violence and stealth. DX:HR is a game of relatively free choice, and in that free choice and exploration, we can tackle Adam Jensen's quest through a broken, distraught Detroit just as we please.
Death is something we commonly encounter in video games. Often, we doll it out to virtual opposition. Less often, we pilot characters into its jaws. Less often than that, we witness a virtual character close to us become it. And it is in that third portion that we encounter the gravity of To The Moon.
Death is dealt with in a somber, uncharacteristically beautiful manner in To The Moon. Instead of watching an enemy crumple around a bullet wound, we see a pivotal character reach his life's end and reflect on the stories of his past. We explore what he became through memories, and the weight of his whole life is built up in those moments.
It is almost impossible for smaller fantasy role-playing games to push past industry juggarnauts, like The Elder Scrolls series. But The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings blew away all other fantasy titles this year with its fascinating, brilliantly conceived story and marvelous characters. Throughout the whole game, we are met with choices, and have to make of them what we can, because they will take us in all directions as we try to prove our innocence as an accused "Assassin of Kings"
Decisions made early in the game greatly change the outcome. The sorts of situations and choices that players are put into have grave consequences. It is an adult game in every sense of the word -- we can screw it up, and our mistakes have tangible effects in the game's course of events. The narrative is gruff and The Witcher's world is a hellish place.
Truly innovating storytelling models are rare in video games. We are often forced to follow the formula of "cutscene-gameplay-cutscene-gameplay" for hours on end to be given something that resembles a plot, with characters that lack feeling and settings that stand as nothing more than the structure we operate inside. Sometimes, games with pockets of exposition come along and allow us into the story's past, like BioShock or Dead Space, but even that device is becoming dated and frequent.
But Bastion, a quiet independent title from Supergiant Games, demolished the convention when it incorporated "persistent narration" into its fabric. We follow The Kid on his journey to restore the world of Caelondia, a beautiful land stricken with a great cataclysm. Along the way, the narrator, Rucks, provides us a step-by-step commentary on the characters, places, and situations we come across, offering an unparalleled look into the small world of Bastion as we explore. There's a renaissance happening in video game storytelling, and some of the best of it comes from the indie movement. Bastion proves this, and carries on a tradition set by Braid, Shadow Complex, and Limbo.
As much as we love to complain about it, Valve's slow-burn process of building games is completely worth all of the waiting. In the hands of any other developer (read: all others are lesser), Portal 2 might've only managed to bend our minds around with recycled gameplay elements and straightforward story. It is likely it never would've choked us up with emotion and delighted us throughout its lengthy, sprawling narrative.
And it was all so well delivered because of Valve's ability to draw up thoughtful characters and make them feel human. Between GLaDOS, Wheatley, Cave Johnson, and to a smaller extent Caroline, the Portal 2 narrative runs the gamut of emotions -- sorrow, loss, hope, regret, jubilance, and shame. We are introduced to each character, and then grow to learn their backstories in a way that makes them complete, sympathetic entities that rival the greatest video game characters even made. Portal 2 was smart enough, funny enough, and whimsical enough to earn the crown of our game narrative honors, and its legacy is strong enough to stand alongside games like BioShock, Shadow of the Colossus, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Honorable Mentions: Batman: Arkham City, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Dead Space 2, Gears of War 3, Child of Eden