The Weird, The Terrifying and The Poignant
Ben Szabadics also contributed to this article.
The eighth console generation gave us a vast selection of new games to sink our teeth into, but none were as memorable as the games that have made this list when it comes to story. This list shines light on some of the best narratives of the eighth generation, using the innovative and fresh medium of video games to create stories that resonate and entertain. You are welcome, dear reader, to disagree with some of our choices but these are the games that stuck with the Doublejump team the most throughout the past generation.
What Remains Of Edith Finch
Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch is the absolute best that any walking simulator could ever hope to achieve. There’ve been similar games in recent memory — Gone Home, Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, and more — and while each of those games are excellent in their own ways, they never quite reach the heights that What Remains of Edith Finch reaches. Coming back from his team’s BAFTA-winning title The Unfinished Swan, creative director Ian Dallas stated that he wanted to create something sublime with What Remains of Edith Finch, “something beautiful, yet overwhelming.” True to form, Dallas and his team achieved that and more.
The game sees you take the reigns of an individual, travelling on a ferry toward Orcas Island and carrying the diary of Edith Finch. The diary recounts various events in Edith’s life and talks of the “curse” that seems to have befallen her family; all but one child of each Finch generation dies, leaving only that one child to continue the family line. The game guides you through Edith’s memories and the family home in which they are contained, interacting with the memorialised rooms of her dead relatives and reliving their deaths through short vignettes. The story is full of colour and encourages continual exploration from the player but the weight of death upon the family never quite seems to lift. More than anything, What Remains of Edith Finch is about learning to accept the beauty of life in the face of overwhelming death.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Depictions of mental health in all media, not just video games, are known to be dubious at best and downright harmful to the stigmatised at worst. So often is mental illness ill-portrayed that one could imagine how unwilling most game developers would be to even touch the subject with a ten-foot pole, lest they risk scrutiny from an increasingly critical viewing audience. In spite of that, Ninja Theory swept in on a cool, calm breeze to show everyone how it’s done: working with acclaimed psychologists, the Wellcome Trust and individuals with lived experience of psychosis, Tameem Antoniades and his team crafted Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from a mountain of solid, extensive research. Initially, Ninja Theory was overwhelmed with just how much it didn’t know on the topic of mental illness and yet, unlike so many developers before them, saw this as an opportunity to portray psychosis in a realistic, true-to-life manner… and boy oh boy, did it succeed.
Senua’s Sacrifice follows Senua, a Picton warrior on a journey to rescue the soul of her lover, Dillion, from the Norse version of Hel. Having witnessed her entire village slaughtered and her lover sacrificed via the blood eagle execution (don’t look it up, it’s definitely not pretty), Senua is plagued by various voices and hallucinations throughout her journey into the underworld. These voices are a constant throughout Hellblade, with the Furies whispering in your ears during battle and exploration, the Narrator following Senua through cutscenes and the Darkness chasing her into the furthest depths of Hel. In fact, the sound design team deserves just as much credit for the harrowing experience this game puts you through as the narrative team: with headphones on, you begin to experience the world as Senua does, with voices moving from one ear to the other as you move through the levels. We could talk on and on about the beauty of this title and how the sheer time and effort toward historical and psychological research shines through at every moment but for now, we can only tell you to pick up the game and experience it for yourself. More than any other game on this list, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an experience to behold.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and its expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine
Though CD Projekt RED has been under fire lately for… well, just about everything, we cannot forget the game that catapulted the studio into glory back in 2015. The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt was a game that just kept on giving, with an expansive open world, smooth and rewarding combat and — most importantly — a detailed story that is worthy of continued recognition. The Witcher III is a juggernaut in gaming history, with over a hundred hours’ worth of content scattered across The Continent in the base game alone. You assume the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher from the School of the Wolf, who has set out to find his lost love Yennefer after years of amnesia-riddled adventures.
CD Projekt RED’s narrative team took the time to make sure the dialogue was witty and engaging, with unique twists to common side-quests making the mini-narratives within the wider world seem cohesive and genuine. Furthermore, the main questline doesn’t really seem to pale in comparison to the side quests, which is often the case in such games. Each character seems unequivocally alive and many of the moral choices you’re forced to make reflect the realistic, “grey” nature with which morality is dealt with. Furthermore, the expansion packs, Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine, only serve to heighten CDPR’s talent in narrative design. If you have the time to set aside (and are willing to put aside the myriad screw-ups that accompanied CDPR’s latest release), The Witcher III will certainly not disappoint.
The concept of the cinematic, QTE-heavy, narrative video game is nothing new — we’ve seen multiple attempts through the years, mostly from Quantic Dream’s David Cage — but what made Until Dawn so special, and so worthy of the numerous spiritual sequels developer Supermassive Games has planned (including the just-released Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope), was the content in which it arrived.
Until Dawn sees you act almost like the director of a horror film: you’ll tackle a constant parade of binary choices, making decisions for each of the poor, scared teenagers being preyed upon by a serial killer. Even without interactivity, it would make a solid genre film, but having nearly every plot point be in your hands amps up the tension and the immersion. Who lives, who dies, who saves the day… it’s all in your hands. Or, if you want to make it even more fun, it’s all in your friends’ hands, or those of a group of strangers. In 2015, Twitch had started to really take off, and the way Until Dawn presented its choices made for a brilliant collaborative storytelling experience, the kind Detroit: Become Human could only dream of being. Due to how well Until Dawn’s storytelling was received, those new entries in the Dark Pictures Anthology have got dedicated multiplayer functionality inspired by how engaging this original title was. Break this out at a movie night — you won’t regret it.
I’m certain you’ve social-media-stalked someone before. Whether it’s an ex-partner, an old friend or even a family member, we’ve all dove into defunct and/or incomplete accounts and pieced together the little snippets of their life to find out what their you-free life holds. Her Story is essentially that: tiny, out-of-order pieces of a story where the game is to put it together. It’s a full motion video game, not graphical. The acting is fantastic. Small segments of interviews with only a couple of characters are discoverable through searching on an old database with limited functionality. There’s no set order that you’ll uncover these pieces, and there’s no ‘end’ per se — the game is over once you understand the events being shown.
The ability for a game with no clear end, and no internal structure to how you experience it, to deliver the emotional sucker punch that it absolutely delivers is amazing. It’s easy to assume that a narrative needs a written beginning, middle and end to work, but Her Story proves that by letting you write your own structure around existing material, it can still be a powerful experience. It also shows how far the idea of a video game narrative has come; the video game elements here aren’t escapism, they ground you in a real world situation. You’re digging through a computer to learn the truth. We’ve all been there.
The most traditional narrative I’ve featured on this list, Celeste is absolutely magical. I don’t enjoy masocore, generally: repeated deaths and frustration don’t grab me much. This is something different though. Every single one of those deaths at the hands of Celeste Mountain is a learning experience: something new, something important. As you climb, you learn more and more about the game, but also about yourself, echoing the journey of protagonist Madeline. The fight against depression, the expectations of others, self-sabotage, self-acceptance. Your journey of learning when to plan and when to react, when to take risks, how you respond to pressure. It’s poignant, it’s touching and it’s surprisingly personal.
Externally, since the game’s release, lead developer Maddy Thorson came out as trans, making their studio name (which they’ve since changed) wildly uncomfortable but making Madeline’s journey of self discovery just that little bit more important. The emotions in Celeste’s narrative are universal, but now, with this extra slant of context, they’re even more potent. You’re not just experiencing a great story — you’re experiencing the purest artistic expression of a real person’s feelings. It’s even more personal now. Also it’s an incredibly designed platformer and if you haven’t already please go and play it.
This article was originally published on Doublejump. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, you can support the site further by following us on social media, becoming a Patron, and/or purchasing some merchandise!