The 2017 Video Game Narrative of the Year
Best Narrative is a hard category to tackle, because it seems like almost every modern video game has an emphasis on story these days. AAA blockbusters like Resident Evil 7 and Uncharted: Lost Legacy continued narratives that had been spun over the span of decades, while experimental games such as Pyre and Nier: Automata told their stories through powerful application of ludonarrative. There were also quite a few “cinematic games” in which the story was the only attraction, games like Telltale’s Batman: The Enemy Within and Life Is Strange: Before the Storm.
But the best narratives of the year went a step further. These games aren’t just well written, they’re compelling narratives that tackle important topics in remarkable ways. These games are works of art and social commentary, games that have a lot to say by any medium’s standard. These are games that allow us to experience mental illness, put us face to face with the specter of death, and force us to look in the mirror to see a grim reflection of our current day political climate. The best narratives of 2017 don’t just tell their stories, they tell our stories.
Runner-up: Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki Literature Club is a fun little dating sim where you get to play a high-school student navigating his way through the world of teenage love. You join a literature club at the request of your childhood friend Sayori, only to find that it’s filled with attractive young girls. Will you return Sayori’s affections? Will you spend time with Yuri, the quiet bookish one? Will you indulge the childish outbursts of Natsuki, the spitfire? Or will you date the club president, the mature and even-headed Monika?
Doki Doki Literature Club was one of the most terrifying experiences of 2017. Its take on psychological horror reaches outside the bounds of the game window and into your computer. You’ll find yourself terrified to open Windows Explorer when the game plays tricks on you by deleting files and leaving clues in your install directory. You’ll scream at every graphical glitch. You’ll despair when your save files go missing.
It’s a unique take on the bloated visual novel genre. The way the writing goes from adorable to unsettling to downright horrifying is a truly unique achievement that will stick with you long after you finish it.
And if you really want to dive deep into a game’s lore, then Doki Doki Literature Club features a massive ARG that points toward another game by Team Salvato with even darker themes. Look forward to more amazing narratives from this developer in the future.
Runner-up: Night in the Woods
Behind Night in the Woods’ adorable furry characters lies a story about the fears and anxieties of growing up and becoming an adult. Most coming-of-age stories center around one significant event that changes a young person’s life, but Night in the Woods captures the feeling of having your life stall.
Main character Mae Borowski finds herself stuck in a small town in rural America with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Her friends have grown distant. Her town has changed. Every day is a struggle against boredom and depression as she slowly limps toward a future that never comes.
The wonder of Night in the Woods’ narrative is how every action pulls you closer to Mae’s Situation. You find yourself empathizing with her and her friends as they try to figure out where their lives are going and how to survive the next 24 hours.
And, just for good measure, the game throws in a dash of Lovecraftian Horror.
Finishing Night in the Woods leaves you feeling empty because it feels like you are saying goodbye to a friend, and that’s what the game is truly about: saying goodbye, reconnecting when you return, and understanding that we are never the people we used to be, but can always be someone better.
Runner-up: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a beautifully painful game. Senua’s journey to Helheim to rescue the soul of her dead lover may seem like a boiler-plate narrative for modern action games, but Ninja Theory used it as a parallel for Senua’s own struggle with psychosis. Senua is haunted by her own memories and intrusive thoughts, voices making it hard to think and harder to make decisions. The pain she feels is the pain of her disease, the pain of not knowing what is real, and the pain of not being able to control her own thoughts.
To accurately represent mental illness, Ninja Theory worked closely with neuroscientists, mental health specialists, and people afflicted with psychosis that were willing to share their personal tales. Never before has a game done such an amazing job in portraying the agony that is a brain that will not cooperate with itself.
It’s both moving and disturbing, and the excellent motion capture and performances further immersed the player in the unfolding events.
Runner-up: What Remains of Edith Finch
“Memento Mori.” Remember you will die.
This classical reflection on humanity’s own mortality is a theme that has been repeated in media since the age of Socrates, and it is the very essence of What Remains of Edith Finch.
The game pilots you through the deaths of the many members of the Finch family, but you aren’t an observer. You are the dying character. You, the player, get to experience the terror, melancholy, and sometimes bizarre wonder of experiencing a death first-hand.
Some deaths have an almost supernatural element to them; some involve monsters hiding under the bed and strange disappearances with no explanation. Others are from more realistic causes of death ranging from misfortune, negligence, and disease, to suicide as a result of mental illness. Each short vignette lets you experience what these characters were thinking on their death beds through a combination of expert narration and gameplay crafted to draw the player in. Never before has a game so accurately portrayed what it’s like to swing on a swing as a child, or to have a monotonous job as an adult.
It’s a sad tale, and a tale that will make you profoundly uncomfortable. It’s not for everyone, especially those who have suffered trauma from the loss of a loved one, but it’s a game that deserves to be played, dissected, talked about, and played again.
Winner: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
“Poking a hornet’s nest full of Nazis.”
That’s how Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was described by Bethesda’s Public Relations VP Pete Hines in an interview with Vice, and I can’t think of any better way to describe it.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus would be a great game in any time period. Its memorable cast of characters is paired with outstanding voice acting and motion capture graphics. Its sci-fi version of an alternate 1961 is alternately dark and disturbing and hilarious and campy. Its cartoony ultra-violence creates a powerful disconnect with a story filled with real systemic violence, a disconnect that makes the player feel uncomfortable in cut-scenes, and adrenaline filled battle segments.
The gameplay itself might not be revolutionary in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, but the cut scenes are some of the best in the medium. The concept of “killin’ a bunch of Nazis” might sound painfully simple, but the execution was anything but. Between the cut-scene direction and top notch voice acting, this game deftly tackled complex concepts like motherhood, masculinity, religion, political resistance, and race. This is a game that’s just as much fun to watch as it is to play.
In any other time period, in any other year, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus may not have won this category. However, Bethesda’s bravery in tackling political issues that became surprisingly contemporary in the modern world is what skyrocketed it to our winner slot. In a world where there is pushback from all corners of the internet whenever a video-game even glances at a political issue, Bethesda decided to dive right in.
It’s the subtle environmental details that really make Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus unsettling. Many of the Nazis or Nazi sympathizer NPCs aren’t portrayed as evil or maniacal, but as people. People who just don’t want to be politically involved. People who are just going with the flow. People who don’t necessarily agree with the Nazis but figure they are the best option they have. It’s this humanization of Nazis that makes them feel more real, and helps make the game so powerfully unsettling.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was unafraid to take a chance, and the excellent writing and direction justified that choice.
Congratulations to Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, winner of GameCrate’s 2017 Narrative of the Year!
Check out our full 2017 award list for more.