Tag Archives: gaming

Which video games have the best lore?

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

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.

Honourable mentions:

  • 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).

Electronic shops I used to hang out in as a kid, ranked by their selection of computer games at the time

As a child, I spent a lot of my time here –

It’s the Queensgate Centre in central Harlow. A little off-road retail park near the station, with everything a family could need for a solid day of retail therapy. There was a Pizza Hut, a Burger King, a garden centre, clothes shops, and even a cinema.

Just look at that. Look how grey and depressing it is. Look at the angular 90s cars. Look at how all the stores were basically just warehouses with signs. But then look at the logo peeking in at the right there, a shining light of hope and attraction. A world of hope and dreams. A PC World.

There was something about an electronics superstore that really appealed to me. This was the 90s, and technology was still new and exciting. We had a Windows 95 PC at home, and I’d spent hours just messing around on Paint, playing Chip’s Challenge, or messing around with screensavers. So for a child like me, a whole ‘world’ of this stuff was just heaven.

It was a place where the promises of tomorrow were always on sale. The newest processors boasted about their incredible speeds. Rows of Soundblaster soundcards enticed you with the latest in crystal clear audio. And then there were the games.

I loved games. I still love games. Computer games are probably my favourite thing in life. Most of the games I played were borrowed from Bishop’s Stortford library, where I’d rent and re-rent LucasArts adventure game classics like Monkey Island and Full Throttle. As a child without a steady income, hanging out in the aisles of game shops was a transcendent experience – seeing everything I could ever want, but not being able to have any of it.

But it wasn’t just PC World. Here’s a full ranking of all those wonderful secret grottos that I spent weekends wandering through.

5. Tempo

Whatever happened to Tempo? They had the BEST jingle at the time – “Don’t sign on the dotted line until you talk to Tempo!”. I guess they couldn’t handle the competition from the other stores as they don’t exist anymore, and they didn’t offer an overwhelmingly impressive array of games. I’ve go have a look while my parents went to check out a fridge or something, but I’d often quickly run out. They did a lot of rubbish software too, 3D garden planners or budget trackers, that kind of useless stuff. I also recall the computer stuff being in some weird upstairs area too.

4. Comet

Is Comet still around? In my head it was always very similar to Currys – maybe they merged or something. In any case, they had a decent offering of games to check out, though I remember the aisles being quite narrow and dark. I bought a boxed copy of The Curse of Monkey Island here, and it’s one of my favourite games ever.

3. Currys

Completing the Holy Trinity of homogenous electronic stores, I can’t remember much about our Currys. Of the above three, this is the only one that still remains in the Harlow Queensgate Centre, so they must be doing something right. Average games-wise but pretty solid on the electronics front. I think they were one of the few ones that generally had a playable console available, which is a must for any decent games store.

2. Toys R Us

Not necessarily an electronics store, but it still did games very well. A large section of the shop was dedicated to games, and it was so beautifully presented. The games were all kept in brightly-lit white display cases, which you’d walk along and inspect. Instead of picking up any physical product, you’d simply retrieve a little slip for the game you wanted – a shopping experience almost gamified in itself. After checkout you’d proceed to a little separate desk, give the slip to the person, who’d disappear and return with a wonderful little gift that was all yours. I got so many games this way, and the slow, complex experience is deeply-rooted in my subconscious. Chucking £40 down on a game on Steam can’t replicate any of this. Give me a little yellow slip any day.

1. PC World

The undisputed master. Everything in-store was geared towards selling electronics and games. The gaming section was enormous and flowed across multiple aisles. And these were the latest and greatest in gaming. Games that you’d need a new computer to play. Games that would only play on Windows 98. Games that had more than 256 colours. 3D games.

You could probably buy every single game I saw then today for in total less than £20, but at the time it was some unattainable zenith of aspiration. I remember finally getting a double-pack of The Sims and its first expansion Livin’ It Up and it just making my whole year.

Honourable mentions:

  • WH Smith. Yes, WH Smith the stationers. For some reason, the one in Harlow town centre had loads of games (I think they still do in most places). And since there was always a reason to go into WH Smith I’d always manage to fit in a quick look-see. It was good mostly just to check out what new was out, rather than buying stuff. But still fun.
  • Office World. Now overtaken by the more popular Staples, but Office World carried a decent selection of games too. I remember us getting our Windows 98 PC from there,

I know this is a really specific form of nostalgia, and it’s pretty self-indulgent for me to write about it. But this genuinely was a staple of my childhood and it’s something I’ve lost as an adult. I can just get whatever I want now that I have money. My enormous Steam backlog is a realisation of that bright-eyed kid’s dream of owning every game ever. But I’ll miss those times when this was all out of reach. The best games always live in our imagination.

Funny Games

There was some great news this week. GoG.com released the first batch of LucasArts games they’d managed to secure the rights to.

What’s that mean in English? Well, GoG.com is a website that specialises in “good old games.” They get the rights to games that you can’t buy anywhere any more, make them work on modern machines, and sell them for a bargain.

If you’ve heard of things like Dungeon Keeper 2, Planescape: Torment, or Baldur’s Gate – those are the kind of things GoG specialise in. Basically, they’re just great.

But I’m particularly excited about the LucasArts games that are coming onto GoG. Yes, LucasArts as in Star Wars George Lucas. Actually a subgroup of LucasFilm, LucasArts are/were a video games development studio famous for their adventure games in the 1990s, as well as endless Star Wars games since.

The adventure games were things like Monkey Island and the Indiana Jones series. And they’re pretty much all amazing. It’s a great scoop for GoG, and something a lot of people have been waiting on for ages. And mostly I’m excited because LucasArts made games that were funny.

Video games today have a tendency towards gritty realism. Everything is a grimdark shooter supposed to make you think about depressing stuff. Things like Spec Ops: The Line are great for making you think about the horrors of war and so on (it’s a third-person shooter adaptation of Heart of Darkness, by the way), but it’s pretty light on laughs. Games take themselves far too seriously now, so thank god the LucasArts back catalogue is arriving to remind us all what fun they can be.

So without further ado, I’d like to talk about some of my favourite “funny games.”
Games that just want to have fun.

Sam and Max Hit the Road [wiki]

I start with Sam and Max because it’s the one of the first that GoG have uploaded. And it’s a great example of the LucasArts style.

Recently, remade/rebooted/recarried-on by Telltale Games, Sam & Max is about a dog and a “rabbity thing” who solve crimes. Wow. What a concept. The dog, Max, is a hard-boiled detective with a dry wit, and Sam is just an outright insane psychopath. So lots of the humour comes from the interplay between these two characters.

The story itself is a bonkers tale about a missing bigfoot, with misadventures aplenty along the way. It’s basically just an excuse to visit lots of zany locations (“hit the road”) and comedic set-pieces. But it’s entirely fantastic and the writing is consistently hilarious.

Honourable mentionsI’d like to include pretty much every LucasArts game, for similar reasons to Sam&Max, but most particularly: the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle, Time Gentlemen, Please! and Grim Fandango.

Borderlands 2 [wiki]

Yes, it’s a modern shooter, but the Borderlands series sets itself apart from the crowd with its humour. In a sea of Call of Duty clones, Borderlands games are a breath of fresh air – bringing colour, excitement and humour.

I’ve picked Borderlands 2 especially because the original Borderlands didn’t quite meet the same levels as 2, and was still finding its feet in terms of voice. I also haven’t actually finished the latest game Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (so-called because it is set between 1 and 2). But even that title is great, an admission of the awkward spot the game holds in the series.

Borderland’s humour is based around excess. The gameplay revolves around a random generator of weapons – there are literally millions of possible combinations. So it’s all explosions everywhere, and this carries through into the dialogue. There’s one character (“Mr Torque”) who shouts in all caps all the time, and it’s all amazing. And there’s Claptrap too, the yellow robotic fan-favourite character who sees the world with unbridled optimism and is prone to random outbursts of dubstep. Funtabulous.

Honourable mentionsBulletstorm, Jazzpunk

Team Fortress 2 [wiki]

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TF2 is a game I’ve somehow ploughed 476 hours into. Yes, almost 20 straight days of my life have been spent playing this game. To sum it up, it’s a team-based shooter with a cartoon aesthetic. Oh, and hundreds and hundreds of hats (in the above screenshot, my Heavy is rocking the ‘Hound Dog’ head cosmetic item).

The reason I’ve ploughed so much of my precious lifetime into the game is partly that it’s really fun and addictive, but also because it’s just damn funny. Just the way it looks is great – a timeless wackiness that just screams FUN. And all the playable characters are perfectly designed as full rounded characters; the Heavy is a hard Russian gun-nut, the Engineer a mad texan tinkerer, the Scout an arrogant Boston teen, and so on.

There’s also a whole surrounding universe to the game – most famously, the ‘Meet the..’ shorts that helped promote the game in the old days. Check out Meet the Scout for a great example. They’ve even made a 15 minute short film just about these characters, with almost nothing to do with the game itself.

They even have a comic which is absolutely hilarious. All in all, it’s great.

Honourable mention: Portal 2

Grand Theft Auto V

Everyone’s heard of GTA. It’s famously controversial for being that game where you steals cars and run over old women. But it’s easy to forget that it’s a keen vehicle for social commentary too (some people don’t even know that it even has any humour in it at all, I’ve found).

I’ve picked GTA V as my entry for this list, though the same can be said of any of the games from GTA Vice City onwards (the very originals were most cheeky/irreverent than outright humorous, and GTA 3 was just kind of bleak and depressing. Even the little touches like the in-game radio stations are great, with adverts satirising things going on in popular culture.

Of course, GTA can be a little heavy handed in its approach. Literally EVERY shop is some kind of pun or double entendre. And a lot of it is extremely crass, but it’s the sheer weight of comedy is great. Ricky Gervais even does a standup routine in GTA IV.

Honourable mentionSaints Row

And that’s just the ones I can think of. I’m told that The Stanley Parable is also fantastically hilarious, but I’ve yet to play it.

Humour is an important part of any medium. And it just makes video games so much more memorable as experiences.

So let’s have more of this:

And less of this:

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For the lols.

Did I miss a game? Let me know in the comments or maybe even in real life!