Should old games be forgot and never brought to mind? No, but hundreds of gaming writers discover, at year’s end, they provide plenty of fodder for looking back and seeing how last year’s games treated us, in terms of what we can learn, what we loved, and what we hated. These are some of the fondest things we can do as the calendars are replaced and the winter term lurches into existence.
If I picked my favourite trend of 2013 gaming, it’d be the maturing nature of storytelling, both in the improvement of the writing quality of the mainstream game, and the embrace of gameplay as the core of storytelling rather than a way to get players from point A to point B.
The indie scene has provided endless tidbits of interactive storytelling–my wallet was greatly drained from the sheer number of small indie games I picked up from the Steam Holiday Sale. Games like <em>Gone Home, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons,</em> and <em>The Novelist</em> provided no end of treats for lovers of interactive fiction, and two indie highlights stood up to me as beacons of video games being amazing conveyers of story and emotion.
<em>Papers, Please</em> shows that a game doesn’t need explosions, zombies, or indeed any graphics outside of your solitary customs booth and the trail of faceless NPCs that pass through. I would actually argue that <em>Bioshock Infinite</em>, one of the standout stories of the last year, may have actually benefited from this same lack of combat or other mainstream gaming tropes.
Trudging through person after person, often having to reject passports of people who didn’t take the five seconds to check the rules, and having a minor heart attack when “the man” docks you five credits from your pay after making a mistake, meaning your mother-in-law will be even more hungry and cold, is a soulless, draining experience. So yeah, it’s a perfect simulator of being the thrall of a Soviet-esque communist dictatorship in a terrible grind of a job, tripping over red tape and political strife. It’s an amazing conveyer of that experience, more than any movie could have portrayed.
<em>The Stanley Parable</em> is an experience, for anyone who has ever had any interest in interactive fiction in any form, should probably check out, if only to completely question the nature of choice-based narrative when put in conflict with the idea of a set narration intended by the creator.
Can a linear story created solely by the creator, independent of the player, properly exist in a scenario where the parable’s answer is as confusing as the labyrinth of potential endings the game possess–No. Well, yes. Maybe both? I think I need to write a whole separate column just on this sticky idea.
I may not be as big of a fan of <em>The Last of Us</em> as others, but I can’t disagree at this solidly built game being an example of game that isn’t concerned with grand world-affecting stakes, leagues of easily killed enemies and cheap instant gratification storylines. This is a game about story; the relatively ineffective firearms, the forced stealth and eerily beautiful dilapidated buildings of America, are in service of the story of a man molded by tragedy and disaster, and how his relationship with a girl whom he must escort is more complicated than simply a daughter surrogate or an object to be rescued.
All this compelling storytelling is actually ingrained in gameplay, rather than some element relegated to cut scenes, or data logs in the worse offenders, and tangentially reminds me of another sign of gaming’s growth.
<em>Grand Theft Auto</em> generally gets criticisms for overt violence and sexuality, with its latest entry featuring a sex scene that arguably was better rendered than the Hot Coffee controversy of the past, and a truly uncomfortable, interactive torture scene, yet we had little to no notable outbursts regarding the inappropriate content in these games. It might just be that we’ve seen bigger examples of violence in later games, but people seems far more accepting of mature themes in games than five or 10 years ago.
Which leads to the main point I’ve taken away from 2013: is gaming finally growing into a widely respected medium for art, not just Hollywood sceptical? With the indie scene plugging away at increasingly mesmerizing experiences, the triple-A developers even delving into storytelling outside hordes and explosions, and mature content being more accepted, I would hope it’s a heading on where the ship called Video Games is headed.