The last few years have been quite affirming for video game narratives. A few decades ago the “story” that a game told comprised of a few paragraphs in a manual and some throwaway lines of dialogue. Then as systems became capable of rendering polygonal graphics, there was a shift towards mimicking film through the use of cutscenes as heightened importance was placed on cinematic presentation. While there certainly were a few good cases of video game storytelling before the last two console generations, in recent years we have started to see the indie and blockbuster spaces placing plot on equal footing with game mechanics. And while 2018 didn’t quite have the same caliber of heavy hitters as 2017, there were quite a few games worth celebrating.
Red Dead Redemption 2
If you had told me that a Rockstar game would have one of the most engaging protagonists in a big budget action game, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Although I enjoyed Red Dead Redemption and the Grand Theft Auto games, the distancing satire and cynical humor of those titles always made it impossible for me to truly empathize with their characters. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a complete course correction in this regard, almost always separating its more ridiculous plot points into optional side quests. The result is a narrative that lets its characters breath, telling the story of what it’s like to be under the sway of a charismatic but destructive leader. The fulcrum for exploring this concept is Arthur Morgan, the leading enforcer of the Dutch Van der Linde Gang.
At the beginning of the game, Arthur is a complete Dutch loyalist. Although the gang has slowly abandoned their Robin Hood origins as their leader’s decision making has become more suspect, Arthur continues down the only course he’s ever known. Dutch is essentially a surrogate father figure, and things are simpler when he pretends to be the meathead bully that his role requires of him. However, as things progress Arthur begins to question his own actions. He eventually faces a pivotal decision in how he will conduct himself, a journey that solidifies him as a multifaceted character. While player agency can potentially undermine aspects of this redemption tale, there are moments of this final arc that tear at the heartstrings.
Beyond just Arthur, the story winds through a microcosm of Americana, depicting familial struggles and cultural divisions. The rest of the gang are mostly rendered as real people thanks to the impromptu camp gatherings and character building story missions. Even the visuals contribute to its themes, as the Romanticist inspired depiction of the outdoors makes as good of a case for environmentalism as anything. RDR 2 is a behemoth of a game, and while it’s significant length will undoubtedly dissuade many from finishing it, it has one of the most satisfying stories for a Triple-A game in recent memory.
Deltarune: Chapter 1
Toby Fox’s debut game Undertale has attracted a passionate (sometimes toxically so) fanbase due to its unique charm and overwhelmingly humanistic worldview. Unlike the vast majority of RPGs, instead of murdering legions of monsters to level up, you are instead given the option to be a pacifist. There are gameplay ramifications of this, such as the combat encounters changing from Paper Mario-esque timing sequences to multi-step puzzles. And of course your actions also directly affect the story, morphing characters’ perception of you and thus branching the story. The “true” ending can only be acquired through absolute pacifism and the absence of a save with the Genocide run.
Understanding the appeal of Undertale is absolutely essential to explaining the appeal of Deltarune Chapter 1, a freeware spiritual sequel to that game which dropped last Halloween. Once again Toby Fox has utilized his charming sense of humor and character writing to illustrate a story of tolerance and empathy. However, here things are a little different. In this telling of a very structurally similarly story, the proceedings aren’t quite as clear cut as they were in the first game. The bad guy doesn’t acquiesce to reason, one of your party members is constantly trying to kill everything (which seems kind of reasonable from their point of view), and it’s very clear that something is a little bit off with the protagonist. From the jarring intro that critiques notions of player choice and the equally unsettling cliffhanger ending, Deltarune feels like a measured response to the refreshingly optimistic Undertale. While I believe both stories manage to balance enough positivity and cynicism to avoid being saccharine or nihilist respectively, they are on slight opposing ends of this spectrum.
However, while Deltarune may not be as chipper as it’s predecessor, it certainly features a likable cast of misfits. There’s the infinitely huggable Rasiel, a paragon of virtue who is wonderfully earnest. There’s the goth outcast Susie who has clear anger issues that must be worked through. And then we have Lancer, a “villain” who inhabits a similar role as Sans in the first game, with his bumbling ineptitude and shallow appeals toward wrongdoing. Their quest is encapsulated by what feels like a soft counterpoint to Undertale’s conclusions. It’s a journey that doesn’t outright refute the hope at the core of its predecessor, but instead outlines a different believable chain of events that are somewhat grimmer. Sometimes the “good guys” win, but not always. My biggest knock against the game is that it is the first chapter in a larger story, which according to Fox is either very far off or will never be completed. While it’s hard to fully understand the themes of this story without the story being complete, what we have right now is self-contained enough to be satisfying.
God of War
In 2018 there wasn’t one, but two Triple-A games that completely blew past my expectations in regard to their narratives. I’ve said this many times but I’ll say it again, I am very surprised that a story with Kratos as the protagonist is any good. As much as I enjoyed the escapism of the original games when I played them, the original God of War trilogy was a thinly written power fantasy. Instead of being a tragic hero in the spirit of Greek mythology, Kratos was a raging monster with no redeeming qualities. However, the team at Santa Monica Studio have rebooted the series entirely, both mechanically and in terms of its storytelling. Perhaps most impressively they managed to take a one-dimensional figure and give him depth. They utilize Kratos’ blood-soaked past to tell a story about guilt, the burdens of power, and the fear of passing down sins from father to son. Instead of a gory orgy of revenge against Zues, our protagonist’s chief concern is delivering his wife’s ashes to her desired resting point, all the while keeping his son safe.
This somber starting point sets the stage for a far more personal story of familial reconciliation, one that is still able to elegantly transition into more bombastic moments due to its setting. This depiction of Norse mythology is fantastical and intriguing, the different realms and regions of Midgard adding flavor to your journey. While most of the people in this world seem to be undead, the few friends you have are welcome company. There’s the talking head Mimir, a witty ally whose quips and strange tales add some much-needed levity to this heavy story. There are the dwarves Brok and Sindri whose petty squabbles tie into the themes concerning family but also inject some humor into the proceedings.
But the central relationship in this story is the one between Kratos and Atreus, a father and son pairing that was clearly kept together through Atreus’ mother Freya. While Kratos has grown to be more contemplative and less outwardly violent, he is still laconic and gruff, the masculine pride of his Spartan upbringing making it almost impossible for him to be a loving father. By contrast, Atreus is bubbly and curious, an empathetic kid that wants his father to help everyone they meet. It’s Atreus warmth and humanity that are able to chip away at his father’s armor. However, somewhat tragically, the cruelty and violence of the world that the two inhabit rubs off on Atreus, corrupting his innocence.
God of War managed to do something that seemed impossible. They plucked a character from a different era of gaming and transformed him to fit in a modern narrative-driven game. I may not love every character-turn and plot-point, but the team at Santa Monica Studio managed to tell a mature tale with likable characters, resonant themes, and a well-considered central relationship.