I’m a sucker for ambition. Show me one game that reaches for the stars, stumbling every step of the way, and one that knows what it is and executes it to perfection? I’ll pick the former every day of the week. This year, however, in a rare convergence, my top three games and my three favorite narrative innovations lined up perfectly.
3. Final Fantasy VII Remake
Everyone knows what to expect with a remake. You take the old game, you transplant the story into a nicer visual engine, maybe make some gameplay changes (which may or may not be widely panned), and at the end of the day, you’re experiencing the same story in a new way. Fans were worried that Final Fantasy VII Remake decided to carve the original game’s story into pieces, but it turns out that’s not what they were doing at all. They were taking the original story and using it as a way to pay homage, trigger your nostalgia sensors, but ultimately, do something entirely new. To talk too deeply about what makes Final Fantasy VII Remake so unique is to spoil that same thing, so instead, it’s best to focus on the design ethos behind doing something so very unique. Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t just labeling itself as a game remake, but rather defining what it means to take something that exists and make something wholly new out of the parts. It’s daring, and it won’t please everyone, but for my money, it’s a brand new take on the concept of re-releases, and I cannot give much higher praise. I cannot wait to see what comes next, to marry my taste for nostalgia with giddy anticipation for the new.
I’ve always thought I don’t enjoy roguelike games. And that’s fine! Not every type of game has to be for me. So imagine my surprise when this year I discovered that I actually adore the genre, but I’m incredibly picky about it. Hades is primarily responsible for this revelation, taking a narrative-heavy and character-driven experience and serving it to the player dynamically, based around their actions and experiences in-game. I learned to love characters as certain randomly determined boss fights cropped up. Getting farther (or dying early) in a run produced new revelations. The relationship dynamics of all of my favorite characters continued to evolve and change well past when a normal game would have ended. Hades dares to relinquish narrative control to the player, trusting that their dynamic service of lore and character tidbits will provide a satisfying arc for anyone. Supergiant added accessibility options for the less hardcore players and difficulty settings for the thrill-seekers. Hades takes a niche genre and serves it up, perfectly prepared, for every type of player, and it makes the narrative sing no matter who picks up the game. I can and have recommended it to nearly every kind of gamer, and I’m filled with excitement to see what Supergiant cooks up next.
1. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
Vanillaware is never afraid of switching it up. Their games always seem to succeed, even though each new game tackles a new genre and a new focus. 13 Sentinels is, for my money, the most impressive work yet. Focusing on Vanillaware’s strength for narrative, the game almost defies categorization. From the tactical battles to the nonlinear narrative, every element of 13 Sentinels feeds into the unique metanarrative that starts by ruminating on the effect of fiction on our evolution as a species… and it only gets headier from there. Most impressive to me, however, is how the game manages to cultivate unique plot twists. You can play through 13 Sentinels‘ vignettes in almost any order, but through meticulous planning, each of them ends on a cliffhanger. That cliffhanger changes based on which other vignettes you’ve already played through. Maybe you’ll hear a new name and discover that someone you didn’t know is involved. Or perhaps you’ve already heard that name in another vignette, and you’ve just discovered who a mysterious character actually is. Or maybe you know it all already, but the shock is in how they intersect with some other character you’ve come to love. Whether you plow headfirst through a single character’s story or you jump around constantly (as I did), the narrative feels like it was meant to flow however you play it. It’s the kind of story that could only exist in a video game, and one that could only work with deft hands crafting the experience. If you haven’t played 13 Sentinels, you’re missing an entirely unique experience.