2013 was an interesting year for games, particularly in its delivery of solid, compelling narratives. While the landscape has been full of sequels and spiritual successors (not a new trend), there has been no lack of deep storylines to scratch the more intellectual itch of gamers everywhere.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
After terrifying PC gamers the world over with the harrowing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, developer Frictional games handed the reins of responsibility over to Dead Esther creators The Chinese Room, whose profoundly Victorian writing sensibilities lend a very different sort of horror to Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Scrubbing away the dank gothic dungeons of the predecessor for a brassy steampunk vibe and replacing the supernatural with the scientific, the underlying story is a slow burn that manages to work its way under the player’s skin and nest there for the duration. Not to say that the usual Amnesia-style scares aren’t there: the initial encounter with the game’s porcine hybrids is the horror equivalent of lovemaking, building in intensity to a screaming, squealing orgasm. It’s rare that a sequel can surpass the original, but A Machine for Pigs does it by being more of a mechanical follow up than a true sequel.
Another case of a sequel that eschews its predecessor’s plotline (at least on the surface), Bioshock Infinite leaves the ruined utopia of Rapture beneath the waves for the skybound city of Columbia. Both Bioshocks (I’m lumping the Rapture-based 1 and 2 together) feature utopian societies founded by megalomaniacal patriarchs, ability-granting formulae, and hulking beasts that ferociously protect their young charges. Infinite differs wildly from the original, however, with its open expanses and gut-churning leaps of faith between the city’s floating platforms, although it manages to tie itself back to its predecessor in a brilliant twist that’s just as heady and provocative as the game’s underlying themes of racism and xenophobia.
The Last of Us
If anyone could give the fast-putrefying zombie genre new un-life, it would be Naughty Dog. Known for lighthearted fare like Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted, the developer jumped feet-first into the living dead with a tale of fungal takeover that’s equal parts Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Triffids. The gameplay is safe and stable, mixing third-person action and stealth in a fashion that gives players the option to tailor their play style, but the game’s story, with themes of loss and redemption, is what really sets The Last of Us apart as its protagonist Joel is charged with protecting the young Ellie, who holds the key to the salvation of not only humankind, but his own sense of self and duty. All of this is tied together with the most beautiful vision of the apocalypse committed to disc, with massive crumbling cities being overgrown with greenery in the wake of mankind’s collapse, new life springing forth from the ashes of death.
Beyond: Two Souls
A person’s enjoyment of David Cage and Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls is directly correlated to their definition of games themselves. Beyond offers a gorgeous, but minimally interactive experience that relegates interactivity to a handful of hotspots and linear navigation for the sake of the story, which follows the life of Jodie (Ellen Page) as she and her supernatural familiar Aiden learn about themselves and the world around them. Presented in a series of non-linear vignettes, Beyond is more often than not an emotionally draining experience, blending together elements like Stephen King’s Firestarter with espionage and vicious military operations, but then tempers these more action-packed moments with short interludes with Jodie as a foster child or traveling cross-country, David Banner-style, as she learns to use Aiden to affect the lives of those around her. The story is further polished with the use of high-quality motion-captured actors, including the aforementioned Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, which lends extra gravitas to the proceedings.
DmC Devil May Cry
My initial misgivings about DmC, the Ninja Theory-developed reboot of Capcom’s classic franchise, were based on the reworking of Dante from a lovable scoundrel to a narcissistic douchebag. All was forgiven as soon as the gameplay kicked in, which tightened the series’ mechanics to perfection. Tying it all together is a foul-mouthed narrative that comes across like They Live fan fiction written by a middle schooler, peppering the script with f-bombs as readily as Dante peppers his demonic foes with bullets and blades. It’s puerile, ugly, and more than a little stupid, but it succeeds wholly by never trying to be what it isn’t, and embracing its immaturity and irreverence and never letting go.
Honorable mentions go to Injustice: Gods Among Us for giving a beefy story to back up its fighting game mechanics (plus, Superman becomes a fascist dictator), and Dead Space 3 for expanding its mythology to a place that makes the Necromorph menace even more horrifying than it ever was before.