I have trouble reading while I’m writing, which can be problematic because I am often writing – but I love absorbing as many stories as I can in other formats. A few years ago, I got very into video games, something that started as alternative-story-imbibing while I was working on The Starless Sea and evolved into book research when that book became very much about story in all formats, including games.
Of course, I have not played All The Games – there are many that I haven’t gotten to yet – but the ones below are just some of my personal favourites which have particularly strong story elements.
What Remains of Edith Finch (PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows)
Edith is the last remaining member of the Finch family, revisiting the sprawling family home in Washington State and reflecting on how each of the other family members died. I know, it sounds depressing; it is melancholy and sometimes dark but it’s also hopeful and compelling. As you explore the house the family history plays out like a series of short stories, each with its own unique visual style (one section unfolds as a comic book), and it has one of the best storytelling moments in any game I’ve ever played, when I realised how the game wanted me to engage with one particular story in a deceptively complex way.
Firewatch (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux)
Even if you have never played a video game of any sort, you can still play Firewatch. There’s no shooting things, no combat, just a beautifully rendered story about a guy who’s taken a summer job as a National Park fire lookout in Wyoming in the 1980s. You walk around, you make choices, you investigate odd things in the park, you might find a turtle. Your only company is the voice on the other end of your walkie-talkie, and what you choose to say (or not say) can change your relationship with that voice. The whole game is only a few hours long, and it feels like a visual novel with particularly stunning visuals.
Horizon Zero Dawn (Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows)
Horizon Zero Dawn is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story. Oh, and there are giant robot dinosaurs. You play as Aloy, cast out from her tribe at birth for mysterious reasons and now trying to figure out her unique place in a world filled with dangerous machines and treacherous people. It’s probably my favourite post-apocalypse story in any medium, with a fascinating history that you discover by exploring the gorgeous landscapes that comprised Colorado and the surrounding areas, once upon a time. Plus, it cleverly incorporates the game controls into the narrative in a really organic way. I replayed the entire game this past spring and the ending still made me cry, again, even though I knew it was coming. The sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, is coming out next year and I am giddily excited about it.
Dragon Age (Origins, II and Inquisition) (Playstation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, OS X)
If I had to pick my very favourite game, it would be Dragon Age. In its big, sprawling epic fantasy role playing games, the choices you make change the story so that the experience becomes very personal; my version of Dragon Age will be different than yours, and that’s one of the things I love about it. The first of the series, Origins, has six different beginnings depending on which type of character you choose to play. You build relationships and romances, and so much of how the story plays out depends on what you decide to do in any given situation, sometimes with unforeseen consequences. These are the sort of games you live in for a good long while, overflowing with history and lore and difficult decisions – and, of course, dragons. (If your preferences run more sci-fi than fantasy, you might want to check out BioWare’s other brilliant RPG franchise, Mass Effect.)
BioShock (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux)
BioShock is a first-person shooter, which I am normally not very good at but I love its aesthetic so much I figured out how to get by (usually by throwing bees at everything). The underwater art deco horror is teeming with environmental storytelling, creepy and tense and gorgeous in a decrepit sort of way. I love a game space in which something has clearly happened before, where the story is strewn through the architecture. You’re thrown into the game after the underwater city of Rapture has fallen, but the story of the place is there in audio diaries and graffiti and discarded masks. Someday I’m going to build a BioShock-themed art deco bar in my basement. Someday.
Honourable mention: Ghost of Tsushima (Playstation 4), a recently released action-adventure set during the first Mongol invasion of Japan. I am about halfway through and I’m in love with it and its character-centric side quest system. (Also, you can pet the foxes in the game!)