Some people play games for the gameplay. Some play them for the multiplayer experience. Some play them because they’re addicted to them, even though the game is a pretty transparent money trap disguised as a mobile phone app. And some people play them for the story.
And these days, video game stories can be very, very good.
It’s always boggled my mind that video games are written off as a waste of time, when we live in the age of the TV box set and Netflix binge. If a video game can have a story at least as good as a television series, isn’t it necessarily a better form of entertainment given that you can also interact with it?
And recently there’s been a renaissance in so-called ‘narrative games’. These are games that are literally all story! From the neo-text-based-adventures of Inkle Studios to the choose-your-own-adventure games from Telltale there’s a lot to get stuck into. With Telltale especially, the parallel to TV is super obvious; they’ve made games about Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic Park, Game of Thrones, and (most notably) The Walking Dead.
But today I’m not thinking about the difference between TV and video games. I’m interested in video game lore, which I’m defining as the story and mythology a game offers. The ‘lore’ of the Batman comic book series, for instance, is the tale of Bruce Wayne and his efforts to protect the citizens of Gotham City. Batman’s lore covers all of his villains, their origins, places and locations, big events in the storyline, and so on. It’s an extensive lore, worked on by lots of writers over the years, and can be studied in depth.
Likewise, lots of video games have very deep and interesting lore. The Warcraft series for instance, has a whole Tolkien-esque world to explore. Beyond the video games, there are whole books, board games, comics, and even a movie to get stuck into. It’s a rich lore that rewards deep exploration.
Some games, of course, aren’t fussed with lore. The Super Mario Bros series, for example, has never been too bothered with it. There’s established characters, sure, but no real over-arching storyline. The setting seems to change from game to game, and the events of previous games don’t seem to tie into the others. We don’t even know who Waluigi is, he just seems to have turned up to play tennis once, and stuck around since. They’re still great games, but it’s hard to be fanatic about Mario lore.
I’ll now talk about a few of my other favourite examples of games with great lore.
Bloodborne is just a fantastic game anyway, but it really hooked me in with its lore. In BB, you play as a ‘hunter’ in the town of Yarnham, which is seemingly overrun by werewolf-like beasts. As the game goes on, you learn more about the town and its inhabitants, but without any direct exposition. The story is told through whispers (literally through doors), by scraps of paper you find, and in item descriptions. The picture bigger of what’s going on turns out to be weirder and more fantastic than you expected at the start, with some super amazing Lovecraftian stuff going on I don’t want to spoil.
The fact you have to piece the story together yourself is part of the fun. It’s why you can watch hour-long videos on Youtube trying to piece it together. And you should check out this great Kotaku article where someone is trying to argue for their interpretation.
The Metal Gear Solid Series
Metal Gear? Yes, Metal Gear. A series of ‘tactical espionage action’ games that are so much more than sneaking and shooting.
Metal Gear tells the story of, um, well… it’s more like a bunch of different stuff going on at once. The games take place over a span of about 50 years, and cover themes such as genetics, war, peace, technology, politics, conspiracies, and a man made out of bees who shoots a gun made of bees that shoots bees at you. It’s a super rich lore, and open to lots of interpretation. There are even scenes in later games where other characters attempt to offer their own version of events which are later contradicted by others.
Like, just read the MGS Wiki entry for Ocelot and see if you can give me a straight answer as to who he was working for all along. It’s just not possible. And I love that.
Final Fantasy X
The Final Fantasy games almost always have a great story. And the best thing about them is that they are pretty much entirely self-contained. You don’t need to have played FF1-FF9 to understand FFX. Which is great for me, because X is where I started. And it’s my absolute favourite.
Final Fantasy X tells the story of a Blitzball (a fantasy version of football) player who is transported across time and space to another world and tries to find his way home. There’s a whole bunch of wonderful twists and turns on the way, and the world itself (‘Spira’) is very fleshed out and interesting. FFX is one of the few Final Fantasy games to have a direct sequel, the polarising FFX-2, and I think that’s just because people couldn’t get enough of the world.
The story of Spira, and the cycle of death and destruction it’s stuck in, caused by the eternal return of a massive monster, is really interesting. Every time I play through it, I notice something new or make another connection. Like, did you know that the aeon Anima is meant to be Seymour’s mother? I didn’t!
The Half Life Series
Half Life is strange. There’s only been four ‘main’ games: Half Life 1&2, and then Half Life 2: Episodes One and Two. There’s been spin-offs like Opposing Force, Blue Shift, and Decay, but they’re not crucial to the main narrative. And yet, with just a couple of games under its belt, Half Life is regarded as one the best examples of storytelling in games.
That’s because the story is great. It’s about a scientist, Gordon Freeman, who unwittingly takes part in a science experiment that opens a rift to another universe, bringing through alien creatures and, eventually, an entire army that take over the planet. The series is the story of his battle against those aliens and the occupying army, but it has mysterious elements, such as the enigmatic G-Man who gives Gordon orders from time-to-time.
To this day, fans debate the meaning of things that happen in the Half Life games, which makes it all the more painful that it’s looking increasingly likely that the much anticipated finale – Half Life 3 – will never be released.
- The Fallout Series is a great series, set in a post-apocalyptic America where people have survived nuclear war by living in deep underground ‘Vaults’. Each game focuses on a new location and the problems that crop up after people start coming out of the vaults to occupy the nuclear wasteland. Fallout: New Vegas is my personal favourite.
- The Mass Effect Series is a good bunch of games, telling a pretty epic story about a space commander’s efforts to save the galaxy. The story is a bit deeper than just ‘bald space man fights aliens’, and lots of people love the story.
- The Elder Scrolls Series also has great lore, although a lot of it is written down in huge epic in-game books. It’s never been my absolute favourite though, as I find it a bit dry in places. Still, it’s worth mentioning for at least making the effort.
And that’s all I’ve got for today. Which other games have great lore? Let me know in the comments! (Sorry for comment-baiting).