Over the years a major debate has raged between fans of traditional entertainment mediums such as films and TV, and fans of video games, namely over the artistic value of a game when compared to a movie, book, or TV show. Many critics who don’t eat, sleep, and breathe video games don’t feel that they constitute art, and while that may be true for certain genres of games, a handful of studios have really made a case for video games as art.
This is mainly due to the fact that these studios put the focus on weaving an engaging narrative in the games they make, over blockbuster special effects and Bayhem-like set pieces. In a few cases some studios can even manage to do both. Storytelling in video games will only be enhanced as time marches on, so while we wait for the next great video game narrative, let’s break down five of the best video game studios that have successfully become storytellers.
When the Docs teamed up to form Bioware I don’t think they even knew what their studio would turn into. Bioware made its name in the PC space, but it became a legend when it entered the console arena with its Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic RPG. This game not only opened up the limitless Star Wars universe to gamers, but it also told a fantastic tale with a great twist at the end to provide yet another great story in the Star Wars saga.
From there Bioware produced Jade Empire, which is another rich world full of narrative and focus on character over action. Bioware’s greatest accomplishment as a video game storyteller has to be the Mass Effect trilogy. Dragon Age is fun, and features a rich world of characters, but the less than stellar second entry kind of hampered its momentum. Mass Effect on the other hand managed to engage gamers for three full games. Some players were so heavily invested in the story that they wanted to sue Bioware for Mass Effect 3’s ending, because they didn’t feel it honored their choices throughout the three full games. That just goes to show how much gamers loved the story being told in Mass Effect, so it’s clear to see why Bioware is a studio that specializes in video game storytelling.
Naughty Dog really didn’t break out as a storytelling studio until its Uncharted franchise released on the PS3, but it perfected its video game narrative excellence with The Last of Us. This game is still getting industry awards and boatloads of praise for its excellent tale of survival in a world gone to hell. The characters of Joel and Ellie have forever been immortalized as an unlikely, but memorable video game duo. The epic journey they embark on, and the choices they make throughout, reflect the type of storytelling you’d expect to witness in a book or movie.
Naughty Dog provided clear growth for both of the characters, which was perfectly illustrated in the controversial ending that had gamers questioning the ethics of a man living in a world where he has nothing. One can only hope that Naughty Dog continues this trend in its subsequent titles, because The Last of Us is one of those games that doesn’t come around too often, and gamers definitely want more titles like it.
Ken Levine and his BioShock creation have put Irrational Games on the map for excellence in video game storytelling. The first BioShock offered a mute, but mysterious protagonist making his way through a dystopian world at the bottom of the sea. That concept alone is brilliant, and it definitely yielded some amazing “Uh huh” moments throughout. The “Would you kindly?” revelation smacked everyone in the face, and tying Rapture back into the fold through BioShock Infinite’s ending only proved how brilliant Levine is at crafting an overarching narrative that plays on some pretty deep scientific theory.
The ending of BioShock Infinite exposed gamers to multiverse theory, and did so in a way that made it both interesting and somewhat easy to understand. I personally remember spending hours after witnessing the 20-minute conclusion of Infinite to read up and learn as much multiverse theory as physically possible from the Internet. All sorts of debates sprung up trying to explain what happened, and how Ken’s jumping through alternate worlds narrative could work if there is indeed a multiverse. Anytime a video game can spark educated debate about a deep real world topic it most definitely contained a great story, and Irrational still isn’t done weaving its BioShock tale.
David Cage and his studio has seemed to catch a ton of flak recently for the last two games it put out, because gamers question if QTEs justify actual gameplay. Both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls featured gameplay that feels more like playing a movie than a game, but is that a bad thing? It most definitely is not when you bring up the whole video games as art debate. Each one of these games featured deep narratives with memorable characters and multiple outcomes. The gameplay was simplistic at best, but that allowed you as the gamer to become as immersed as possible in the worlds these games created.
To this day Jodie Holmes is one of the most intriguing video game characters I’ve had the pleasure to control, and that’s due to the focus Cage puts on character over action. It’s hard not to feel for her after seeing how she’s been abused and used by multiple different people throughout her life thanks to her supernatural buddy Aiden. You want her to come out on top, and you want her to be happy. This is a sign that Quantic Dream can tell a story, and the reason they’ve made this editorial.
If you were to poll gamers on which studio they deemed to be the greatest storytelling studio out there, a majority would probably say Telltale Games. The moment Telltale moved into the episodic, point-and-click genre of game development, is the moment that it became the go to studio for telling a video game story. This studio perfected the art of video game narratives in its The Walking Dead Season 1 title, which went on to win a plethora of awards the year it was released. Any gamer who played that title will be able to recall something that emotionally touched them while watching the story of Lee and Clem play out. This game was so popular that it spawned a second season, which is garnering accolades just like the original.
Due to Telltale’s excellence in storytelling many third parties have reached out to them to turn their properties into excellent games. The Wolf Among Us features a game based on the Fables comic, and offers an amazing amount of choice and character. Later this year Telltale will release episodic games based on the Game of Thrones and Borderlands franchises, which just goes to show how popular the studio has become. If you want to take a break from twitchy action, platforming, or FPS gaming, Telltale is the studio to offer you some respite from the action in favor of narrative.
Feel free to rattle off some of the other games, and or developers that offer rich storytelling by using the comment section below.
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