Video Games Every Movie Buff Should Play Vol. 1
Little did you know, the future of cinematic storytelling rests…in the palms of your hands. I strongly believe that, in maybe the next 20 years or so, you’ll be seeing your favorite movie directors telling stories not just via movies, but via video games. Games are the future of storytelling, and it’s time to embrace them as a legitimate art form. If you’ve never picked up a controller, or you’re afraid to because you’re “not good at video games” (actually, you’re just a beginner and need to relax and cut yourself some slack), or you consider games a frivolous pastime, I implore you to give games an earnest look; you don’t know what you’re missing.
Video games offer things movies can’t: agency and interactivity; a sense of personal accomplishment; long-form storytelling; environmental storytelling (I’ll explain later); customization; and the list goes on. Games open up countless new ways for filmmakers to tell stories; they just haven’t caught on yet. But they will! As a strong, exciting indication of the emerging trend, Guillermo del Toro is set to co-direct a new horror game, Silent Hills, alongside legendary game director Hideo Kojima.
Listen, video games will never replace or be superior to movies as a medium. They’re different art forms that offer different things. As of right now, storytelling in games is, by and large, not up to par with storytelling in cinema. But that’s changing, and it’s changing fast. As the production value of games–specifically narrative-driven games–continues to increase with each passing year, and the technology and tools available to game developers becomes more advanced, the gap in quality between storytelling in games and storytelling you see at your local multiplex gets smaller and smaller.
As evidence, here’s a scene from The Last of Us, a recent game by Naughty Dog:
Looks pretty great, right? Everything, from the acting, to the cinematography, to the directing, to the writing, to the set design…it’s 100% movie quality. In fact, this scene is better than most of the trash you’ll find at the theater. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what The Last of Us has to offer. And there are games for everybody! If you love sci-fi, you’ll love Mass Effect. If you love Westerns, you’ll love Red Dead Redemption. If you love intimate, indie dramas, you’ll love Gone Home. They hire Hollywood actors to be in games all the time now too. Ellen Page, Kevin Spacey, Idris Elba, Chloe Grace Moretz, Stephen Merchant, and Andy Serkis (just to name a few) have all starred in recent games, while movie badasses Keifer Sutherland and Norman Reedus have lead roles lined up in two huge upcoming projects (Metal Gear Solid V and Silent Hills, respectively).
The point is, video games are gradually becoming a new frontier for artists to tell their stories, and now is a better time than ever to explore what they have to offer. I’ve compiled a list of 11 games (with a little help at the end from Editor-in-Chief Dustin) that I feel are essential narrative-driven experiences. Try out one, two, five, or all eleven, and be sure to ask yourself as you play what your favorite filmmakers could do with these tools.
There are so many games that could have made the list, and this is just a small sample of the best games have to offer. Stay tuned for future installments, where we’ll talk about even more games movie lovers should play!
What are your favorite narrative games? Let us know in the comments!
Let’s start the list with a game that demonstrates something movies can’t offer: environmental storytelling. In Bioshock you explore Rapture, an underwater utopia built by business magnate Andrew Ryan. Once a bustling city for aristocrats who wanted to live outside the government system, the player finds Rapture as a desolate, collapsed shell of its former self, where most of its inhabitants have been driven to madness by a plasmid called ADAM. Piecing together the history of the city via audio recordings found throughout the game is a gripping narrative experience, and the sense of discovery when you pick one of these up and press play is something very special and totally unique to video games. The incredibly detailed, spooky environments (and their freaky inhabitants) will send chills down your spine, and the twist ending is one of the most infamous in gaming history. But to entice you for now, check out the game’s equally amazing opening above.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Now we’ll take a look at a game that is interactive cinema at its purest. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons’ premise is simple and sweet. Two brothers go on an adventure across a fantastical land to find the cure for their dying father. It’s a classic fairy tale yarn, but what’s revelatory here is the way you control the siblings: your left thumb controls big brother, your right thumb little brother. It’s a unique, extraordinary concept because the act of controlling both brothers at once informs the story in a brilliant way. The bond between these brothers is you. You can literally feel their connection in your hands, feel them working together, and feel the heartbreak when they’re separated. There’s no decipherable language in the game (the characters speak in garbled non-words), but the way the relationship between the brothers is communicated is no less moving than any movie relationship.
The Last of Us
Sigh…this may be one of my favorite games of all time. It was an eye-opener for me, and a big part of the reason I made this list in the first place. For years, I always thought video games were an inferior storytelling medium. The acting sucked, the writing sucked…it just didn’t feel real. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us feels really, really real, and it’s the first game, in my opinion, that made conversations between people in games look and feel as convincing as in the movies. Set across various locales in a United States that’s been decimated by a deadly fungus that turns its hosts into cannibalistic psychopaths (mushroom zombies, kinda), you play as Joel (Troy Baker), a forlorn survivor who’s been tasked with escorting a teenage girl who’s immune to the fungi, Ellie (Ashley Johnson), across the country to a mysterious group called The Fireflies. It’s a familiar story in its broad strokes, but what’s special are the little exchanges between Joel and Ellie as they trek through the small towns and cities that have been reclaimed by nature in the wake of the outbreak. Lots of games have told great stories on a grand scale, but The Last of Us is the first to get the small things–knowing glances, uncomfortable silences, genuine laughter–absolutely right.
Before The Last of Us, developer Naughty Dog closed the gap between games and cinema with Uncharted, an action-adventure homage to films like Indiana Jones and Die Hard. You control Nathan Drake (Nolan North), a wise-ass, charming treasure hunter as he travels to exotic locales with his closest friends, beating up baddies and tracing the steps of historical figures like Sir Francis Drake and Lawrence of Arabia. Drake, unlike the tight-lipped video game heroes before him, can’t stop yapping, yelling things like, “OH CRAAAP!” as he leaps across impossible chasms, making the gameplay experience more immersive and engaging than ever before. Prior to Uncharted, no characters had ever been so expressive and lifelike in their movement and mannerisms, and the game signified a giant leap from video game hokeyness to something that approached Pixar’s level of CG mastery. You should play the whole series, but the best installment is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
While The Last of Us and Uncharted are direct descendants of genre cinema, Journey, by the talented people at Thatgamecompany, is an experience that doesn’t have a clear link to cinema, telling its story in a way that’s wholly unique. You assume control of a cloaked traveler drifting through a desolate desert with one goal: reach the shimmering mountaintop on the horizon. As you run, glide, and slide across the glistening sands on the way to your destination, you uncover bits of information about the backstory through visual cues and hieroglyphs that suggest you’re traversing the crumbled remains of something grander. While simplistic on many levels, the emotions Journey evokes are rich, deep, complex, and extremely moving. You’re gonna cry, and you might not know why. It’s a story not about thinking, but feeling, which is a virtue no matter the medium.
In Gone Home you play as a girl who, on a dark and stormy night, returns to the house she grew up in after traveling abroad, only to find her family missing. The entire game takes place in the house, with you searching through drawers and scanning shelves for clues as to where your family could be. It’s a frightening, paranoia-inducing experience that will rattle your soul and, with nothing more than a note on a table or a photo on the wall, trigger a waterfall of emotions. Each room is meticulously designed, and there’s a melancholy and tension to the game like I’ve never felt before. You’ll encounter no violence of any sort–no enemies to kill, no deadly traps to disarm–only riveting, interactive, environmental storytelling that can’t be replicated in any other medium and will haunt your dreams for many nights to come.
The Stanley Parable
One of the most imaginative satires you’ll ever encounter, The Stanley Parable is a question within a question within a question, a glitch in the system that provokes thought, creeps you the hell out, and makes you laugh hysterically. It’s a more light-hearted affair than Gone Home, though it innovates and pushes the boundaries of narrative fiction in a similar way. You play as Stanley, a worker bee leading an existence of monotony, sitting at a computer all day where he’s told which buttons to hit and when to hit them. The game starts in earnest when you leave you computer and arrive at two open doors. The game’s narrator (Kevan Brighting, who narrates your every move) says, “he entered the door on his left”. Should you choose to contradict his statement and head through the door on your right…well, let’s just say surprising, delightful things begin to happen. With several endings and a branching format where your every decision changes the course of the story, The Stanley Parable is a revelation in design, and one of the most clever games ever written.
Shadow of the Colossus
If there’s a godfather to artsy, minimalistic indie games like Journey and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, it’s Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus, one of the most beloved, influential games of all time. It’s a heartbreaking story of a young man who, to resurrect the love of his life, must slay sixteen colossi with the help of his trusty sword and steed. The game’s most stirring revelation comes when you realize, as you plunge your blade into your first colossus and watch the majestic, towering creature fall, that your heart is filled not with a sense of victory, but with deadening remorse and sorrow. These are innocent creatures; how much would you sacrifice to rejoin the one you love? The game’s painterly art style and fantastical setting are some of the most immaculate and timeless you’ll find in the medium, and as of yet, few games have approached Shadow of the Colossus‘ greatness. (One game that has is Colossus‘ spiritual predecessor, Ico, also by Team Ico, obviously.)
Mass Effect (series)
Indie games seem to be where developers have the most freedom to experiment with new ideas, but one of the most groundbreaking, riskiest games to ever be released was a king-sized sci-fi epic with dazzling visuals and endless possibilities. Bioware’s Mass Effect series is a trilogy of sprawling space adventures where decisions you make in the first game can effect the story all the way down to the final moments of the third game. You control what Shepard says in conversations with the various people and creatures you encounter, with each answer having a lasting impact on the story. The more choices you make, the more invested you are in the story. As commander Shepard, you and your eccentric squad of space explorers (which changes constantly from game to game) hunt down evil aliens, decide the fate of whole species, mine planets for resources, and even engage in a little romance, if you so choose. It feels like a blend of multiple classic sci-fi franchises, from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica, and features a phenomenal cast including Martin Sheen, Seth Green, and Battlestar‘s Tricia Helfer and Michael Hogan. Mass Effect‘s scope is unprecedented, and the richness of its universe is something movies, with their short runtimes, can’t come close to achieving. Play all three games, but the best installment is Mass Effect 2.
The Walking Dead
If you love watching The Walking Dead on TV, and you love reading Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic book series, but you haven’t played Telltale’s video game version of the long-form zombie phenomenon, you’re missing out BIG-TIME. Taking place in the same universe as the comic books, the game sees you play as Lee Everett, a middle-aged man who travels with and protects a young girl named Clementine. The duo meet other survivors as they scavenge the zombie wasteland, and as the player you choose what Lee says in conversations, with the characters and plot evolving accordingly (the same core mechanic used in Mass Effect). Mimicking the same art style employed in the comic books (except with color), the game is incredibly well written, and the voice actors are similarly superb. Released in episodes and seasons like the TV series, The Walking Dead plays like an interactive hybrid of the comic book and the show, and the shocking finale is one of the most devastating moments in The Walking Dead history, across all three mediums.
Like other forms of cinematic experiences, video games have the ability to make us feel happy, sad, scared, confused, excited, exhausted, upset, enlightened, and even depressed, though it rarely happens in the same sitting. These wide range of emotions make The Novelist a delightful experience, not to mention a leap forward for indie narrative-driven gaming. Similar to Gone Home, the objective in The Novelist involves searching for clues in the confined space of a home. Our job is to help Dan, a writer struggling to finish his novel, make difficult life choices between achieving career goals, working to fix his declining marriage, or spending time with his lonely son. The catch? Each chapter entails collecting clues about the family and reading their thoughts then ends with you choosing only one character to help. The best you can do is make a decision that results in a compromise between two of the characters, but one will always be left disappointed. Such is life though, am I right?! Finding the right balance between accomplishing your own goals without pushing away loved ones is a universal conundrum everyone can relate to. Every decision that you make changes how the story unfolds, giving the game great replay value. Even though you’re making decisions for a fictitious family, the disappointments are heartbreaking and the unselfish compromises feel rewarding, driving a surprising amount of introspection about who you really are as a person. I never thought a game could make me a better person, but I’m pretty sure The Novelist has. [Dustin]