Disclaimer: The following post contains potential spoilers for Bioshock, Alan Wake, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Mass Effect trilogy, FEAR trilogy, The Last Of Us, The Walking Dead, Portal and Portal 2.
When a story raises questions or is especially compelling, it is not easily forgotten. There will always be ones that resound with the audience because of either the individual elements within or the way in which they come together, though there is also a predilection for the stories that are experienced during the formative years of childhood to be the ones that never leave the imagination.
The first instance of the charming rogue archetype that’s experienced will often be the one that stays with us, even though it isn’t the originator of the template. If we’re ever exposed to the source of a tropes that we find compelling, we can appreciate it, though it is not guaranteed to replace the one we’ve adopted.
Our memories are bound to those stories. There is not only the creation of a bond with the characters, but also between us and others that share these experiences. It’s difficult to isolate where these two instances of nostalgia split, but they are undoubtedly distinct. The games that we play also fit alongside the other forms of storytelling, and can hold just as strong a footing as any movie, book or bedtime story. Many aspects of a game can affect which are the ones we either remember for a long time or actively think about, and outside of the first few that we play, it’s the qualities of the game that plant an enduring seed.
The setting of the game, the characters within it, and the overall mood can greatly influence how we react to a game, and if all the right boxes are ticked, we hold on to the memory longer. The city of Rapture has a distinctive atmosphere through its coupling of the music, character and architecture, and the city itself feels broken and claustrophobic, though we can usually see far into the depths that swim around it. When we look out of a window, we can see other buildings in the city that don’t show the same deterioration as the corridors we walk through. We haven’t yet seen Rapture at its heights, but we hear about it. We imagine what it might have been, allowing the excesses of wealth and industry to supplant what we experience, so that we are more able to feel how the presence of Andrew Ryan permeates through this place.
It isn’t just in Ryan that we find an interesting character, but in the entire supporting cast. Atlas, Fontaine, Tenenbaum, Cohen, Langford, Steinman. Even the generic (if anything here could be described as such) mobs such as Splicers, Big Daddies and Little Sisters all have a distinctive feel. They are not a progression of differently coloured enemies bearing slightly better weapons with each new wave, but all have their own characterisation. All also have their own story attached to describe how they came about, which is not something that could be said for the standard soldiers in either Bioshock Infinite, or Dishonored.
With interesting characters and a fantastic world (in the fantasy sense), there is a stage and a cast. There are two main narrative threads in Bioshock, one directed at the player – “A man chooses, a slave obeys” and one surrounding the world itself, where an escalating genetic arms race between Ryan and Fontaine while Rapture self-destructed resulted in Ryan’s illegitimate child being grown rapidly and brainwashed into being a tool for taking Ryan out, among other things. The ending of the game does not endure in the same way as the stories related to Jack, and other than fighting a Fontaine jacked up on ADAM, there’s nothing exceptional there. The story does have endurance through its earlier moments, up to the climax in Ryan’s office, and the revelations of Jack’s origin.
The stories that persist don’t stick to what is cliché. They take risks. The events don’t merely unfold, but cascade into one another. Success for the player does not always equal success for a character, and the level of dramatic tension changes throughout the game in a way that create uncertainty. There are also stories that feel as though they belong to a certain place, and that they couldn’t have been done right in another setting.
Alan Wake is entrenched in the Horror genre, specifically American Horror. The cinematography on the approach to the town, and then later as Wake’s car drives over a bridge evokes a quiet sense of forboding, and the palette generates the same uneasy feelings as The Mist, or any of Stephen King’s other stories set in a small-town in Maine. The river crossing at the beginning also suggests that the town of Bright Falls is removed from our world, and must be crossed into. The characterisation of Alan occurs through his interaction with Alice, and the narration puts voice to his concerns in a manner that works. He voices his confusion, his decision-making process, and his fears. The focus with Alan is tighter because of it, and through adherence to its Horror roots, the story stands alongside other similar styles of horror as one story beside others, rather than a game next to other stories.
Some games stand out for story threads that run through the series itself. The many incarnations of the Pirate LeChuck throughout the Monkey Island games turned the focus away from a wannabe Pirate, to a rivalry between Guybrush and LeChuck that had the balance waver back and forth, as most successes that the player experiences led to Guybrush flubbing his chances, meant that he always felt out of his depth. The humour and the Caribbean setting gave it a specific feel, and any rendition of the theme song can bring out goosebumps.
The breadth of the Mass Effect universe, and the many stories that take place within it mean that even with Shepard’s story over, there are vast possibilities for storytelling within the setting. It may be the way in which the stories persist within Mass Effect that causes them to have such great reach. This is true for the threads that run with the main storyline, but also exists in the small side-quests or discussions with NPCs. The characters in the universe also possess great depth, feeling like real people (or non-human people) through characterisation, backstory and personality. A pair discussing in utero gene therapy in Mass Effect appearing in the subsequent games, with their stories advanced off-screen. The individual stories develop aside from us, reinforcing the idea that this is a living universe. It feels like a real place.
Are there any stories that you have played, which continued to stick with you well after playing? One that you still think of today as a great example of a story. If so, What do you think made that story stand out to you?
Jimmy: Bioshock. It broke down what the act of gaming was. I also really love I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and all the Lucas Arts adventures mostly because they were the first games that WERE story based, mature, funny and could be worked out. they put effort into everything back then. Monkey Island still makes me laugh, and I watch Grim Fandango on youtube every couple of months.
Tim Schafer (@TimOfLegend) is really good at building an extraordinary world, which means a great, but simple story, comes through much easier. never forget how important worldbuilding is.
Chani: Many stories stick with me. Bioshock and Bioshock 2 I think about a lot. I love the time that the game is set in and the ideas behind it. In some strange way it’s something that may have happened and no one would know. Whilst playing as well you are able to pick up voice recordings/diaries of people who lived in Rapture. By listening to these you get a small glimpse into their world. Just these random people, from school teachers to children to worried parents to leaders of revolutions. It draws you in because it’s not just about you and the main characters anymore.
FEAR Series. There was just so much going on. I kept playing because I wanted to know what the deal with Alma Wade was. I had to find out. I wanted to know about her family, what happened to her, why it happened to her. I loved playing F3AR because you got to play as either Point Man or the dead Paxton Fettel, the sons of Alma Wade. She was seriously messed up, and it was so much fun finding it all out.
Portal and Portal 2. The characters are what got me. The first game I completed in one sitting. I couldn’t stop. The smart ass Glad0s made the game. I wanted to beat her and her games, also to figure out what was the point of all the testing. Portal 2 explored Aperture’s background even further and it was brilliant. More information to answer questions that I already had and to make me question more. Plus it was always a kick when I figured out a difficult room by myself without have to look for a hint only. Every room was a mini achievement and I am such an achievement whore. Lol.
Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy IX got to me I think, because it was the first FF game I had played. It had such a great story, a love story, and when I was playing it, I was going through some pretty nasty stuff in my personal life. Playing this game gave me a break from all of that. It put me in a beautiful environment with these characters that stood by each other and loved each other. It gave me hope and made me happy. Reminded me that things weren’t that bad.
Alan Wake was brilliant too. It was this creepy, dark game full of suspense. Within it you can find these scraps of paper that give more to the story and the characters are relatable. They have their faults, they are normal people whom this crazy, bizarre stuff happens to. I hate it when something horrible/bad happens to a character in a game and they just blow it off. Real people don’t act like that. They are affected. Plus Alan Wake and the sequel have a kick ass soundtrack.
Hong: The story of Final Fantasy 8 really stuck with me, but it was mainly for personal and nostalgic reasons (being my first RPG and my first exposure to console gaming). I think the story stuck out to me so much because of what I was going through in life at the time, and I could see different aspects of myself reflected in a lot of the characters. It sounds cheesy, but seeing them deal with the adversity they faced inspired me to do the same in my own life and that’s something that’s always stuck with me.
Tash: There are several which stick in my mind, but I will focus on two. The Mass Effect Trilogy will forever be in my mind, because of the depth of characters, the expansiveness of the world, and the weight of the decisions that you as a player were able to make. Characters lived and died by your decisions, colonies and worlds were touched by your efforts and there was a huge sense of scale to everything that you did. The Mass Effect story was always designed to be told across three games, and yet within each game there are moments that stick in my mind as examples of great storytelling:
Shepard’s initiation into the Spectres; his (and I apologise as I know people play as a female as well, but my Shepard is male) first speech to his crew when setting off for their first mission; the choice at Virmire; the decision regarding the Council; all the loyalty missions during Mass Effect 2 (I’m sorry I can’t single one particular one out, they were all fantastic); Mordin, Thane and Anderson’s last scenes during Mass Effect 3; Jack’s transformation from a woman with nothing to live for to a respected teacher and mentor; Wrex’s utter joy that his people finally had a future. These are all examples of moments of storytelling which stuck in my mind and which for the most part were able to be influenced by the player. Mass Effect was a grand story which offered a freedom of choice that was unparalleled in terms of its scope. In Mass Effect, you were Shepard, your decisions were Shepard’s decisions, and you played a very real, very active role in shaping the world. It was a magical experience.
Contrast that to something like The Last of Us – which has no choice when it comes to storytelling. You, as the player, have no ability to alter the events in game, and regardless of what you do, you will always receive the same ending. The narrative is fixed, yet despite this, the story told is so detailed and so involved that the player is completely immersed, taken on a journey with these characters. I have never felt the strength of emotion I have felt for fictional characters as I did when playing The Last of Us. It’s an example of perfectly realised and perfectly paced storytelling that, despite its fixed nature, nevertheless manages to immerse the player into its world.
Darren: Telltale’s The Walking Dead – its characters, and the situations it threw them in, made me really think about my actions in the moment, and lingered afterwards when considering whether or not I made the right decision. Granted, some of the writing used kids as guilt bait a little too heavily – who’s going to act like a bastard to a little kid scared out of her mind in a zombie apocalypse? – but the narrative of Kenny, a man who throughout the course of the series loses his family and meets an unknown fate, was brilliant.
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