There’s a reoccurring stereotype about the Xbox ecosystem. The stereotype that Xbox only appeals to people who like hyper-masculine shooters, sports games and racing games. While those games are great I thought I’d shine a light on a different breed of games. Games that focus on their stories. Games that show us their sensitive sides and have something to say.
I’m only considering current-gen Xbox One titles for this list. Anything that’s backwards compatible isn’t eligible. The same rules apply to remasters of older games as well. But with that out of the way, here are the 6 best stories on the Xbox One.
The Banner Saga Trilogy
Yes, yes, I know this entry is three whole games, but it’s one full story, so it counts. Plus, I make the rules here…
Anyway, epic fantasy doesn’t get much more epic than The Banner Saga series. Sure, the Banner Saga trilogy doesn’t have the same technical grandeur of other fantasy titles like Dragon Age or The Witcher, but we’re judging based on narrative here.
The Banner Saga is a story about multiple races scrambling to survive against a world threatening calamity, with you in charge of a massive caravan. There’s a distinct sense of desperation to all three games as you need to make legitimately brutal decisions for the sake of your people. Being a leader has never been so realistic and interesting as it is in Banner Saga. Every choice you make will have some kind of consequence: you might lose supplies or morale; you might find yourself drawn into a battle, or a major character might die in the next two games. The ambition of the Banner Saga’s choice and consequence system hasn’t been seen since Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy.
The world building is incredible as every race and major character has their own believable history and culture. There are relatable characters. Complex, political tensions. A story told through multiple perspectives. Incredible writing. And a world fighting against an unbeatable darkness. What more could you want from a fantasy story?
Red Dead Redemption II
I’ve never been more impressed by an open world narrative. There have definitely been standouts, but because of their scale, they often feel unfocused. That’s why I was so impressed that Red Dead Redemption II managed to be so thematically cohesive, the entire way through, while still being so grand.
Almost every side mission, point of interest, random event or optional conversation ties into the main storyline or central themes beautifully.
The year is 1899, and, naturally, the age of the outlaws is coming to an end. Arthur Morgan and the Van Der Linde gang can feel the end is near and seeing them push against the inevitable, was as interesting as it was gut wrenching.
By the end RDR II is essentially a story about change and people in different states of change. The Wild West is slowly being tamed by industry. The cowboys are being slowly hunted down and squashed. And the position of the Native Americans is also fully, and painfully, explored here. All of the gang members have their own time in the spotlight, since returning to camp will present you with random conversations. Gang members will be arguing, laughing, singing or drinking as you enter. It really felt like they were living whether you were there to see it or not. The most impressive feature was the fact that all of the gang members would react to each other differently in camp based on events in the story.
Sadie Adler’s journey from mourning widow to vengeful cowgirl, was both visceral and empowering. Gang leader, Dutch Van Der Linde’s descent into madness is the most nuanced and interesting change in character ever seen in a video game. But, of course, the highlight of the game is Arthur Morgan, our protagonist. Though he’s definitely not a hero, seeing him struggle between doing what’s right and what needed to be done was absolutely fascinating. With over 60 hours of screen time, Arthur’s journey has to be one of the most complete character arcs in any storytelling medium.
Inside is a masterclass in wordless storytelling. It’s ambiguous, interpretive story has been subject to countless online theories, threads and discussions. Fans, even today, agonise over piecing together Inside’s plot. But I think focusing on what happened so heavily actually does a disservice to the team at Playdead.
For me, Inside is less about what the hell just happened, and more about why it happened. Thinking about what the creative director, Arnt Jenson, was trying to say is infinitely more satisfying and has burned the game into my brain for the last three years.
There are so many different angles to view Inside from. Is it a commentary on the oppressive nature of the real world? The Orwellian state, concept of mind control and the secret ending certainly suggest this. But it could just as easily be a statement about how we, as a society, contort ourselves until we’re unrecognisable. Or maybe it’s actually in the same universe as Limbo. Or maybe it is really a series of ludicrously nightmarish scenarios and there is no deeper meaning… but that’s no fun.
I could write an entire book about Inside. I could analyse its symbolism, its sound design, its use of camera, all the background details for hours and hours and I’d still uncover something new. Inside’s ingenious use of interactivity to tell a story is why it’s on this list. It’s not trying to be a ‘cinematic’, playable movie. It’s trying to be a game. And in that regard, Inside excels.
Tales From the Borderlands
Games often struggle at comedy. There are definitely exceptions such as the Portal, Fable and South Park games. But, for the most part, humour usually falls flat.
However, TellTale’s Tales From the Borderlands never misses a beat. Full of smart, well orchestrated gags, running jokes and hilarious montages, Tales is the king of video game comedy. It inherits a lot of this humour from the Borderlands series (obviously), but this time around there aren’t psychos distracting you from the great writing. Along with the franchise name, Tales also gets a lot of the main series’ brand of violent, dysfunctional, not-funny-funny attitude.
Apart from being off-the-wall funny, Tales also has some serious dramatic chops. TellTale bring their A-game here. Complex characters, tough choices and incredible world building are all here in full force. But unlike many TellTale games, Tales From the Borderlands has serious consequences for the rest of the Borderlands universe. Major events take place in this licensed game and it’s all completely canon. If you’re looking to get caught up before Borderlands 3, don’t miss Tales…
If you’re in the mood for a heartfelt and high-stakes comedy, look no further than Tales from the Borderlands.
Nier: Automata surprised me. What I thought would be an over the top, sci-fi, JRPG tale, evolved into something much deeper.
In a post-apocalyptic world an army of androids are tasked with clearing the mechanised threat on earth, so the remaining humans on the moon can return. It all sounds very high concept and cheesy, but it’s all part of Nier’s appeal. Automata plays with themes of humanity and existentialism while retaining its unique, dark quirkiness.
Nier: Automata can be simultaneously weird and philosophical and only, director, Yoko Taro could have pulled off such an unconventional delivery.
With multiple endings, Nier: Automata may sound like it drags on too long, but that’s far from the truth. All of Nier’s endings are secretly a new beginning; showing you the story in a whole different light or just continuing the main narrative. It never loses momentum and the story is always revealing something new even when the player has visited these scenarios before.
First-person adventure games have the advantage of totally immersing you into a setting and Gone Home is masterful in that regard. After a year abroad, Katie Greenbrier arrives at her family’s new home. After expecting a warm welcome from her parents and younger sister, Katie is only met with an ominous letter from her sister, 17 year old Sam. It warns her to not go looking for her; she doesn’t want anyone to know where she is…
It’s set up very much like a horror title. From the chilling opening letter, to the flickering lights in the dark, heavy thunder and rain outside and general messiness of the house.
But Gone Home reveals itself to be a lot more sentimental then that. Exploring the Greenbrier’s newly inherited house is more like an exercise in empathy. X-Files tapes and Street Fighter II references will make you nostalgic for the 90s (even if you weren’t born). Childhood drawings will reveal more about the Greenbrier children’s upbringing. But it’s really the environmental storytelling that shines.
Exploring the house slowly reveals a narrative about each member of the family. The mum has been struggling with keeping her marriage together and even contemplated cheating. And the dad is a struggling writer trying to bounce back after a few commercial flops. There’s even a few, darker hints about his relationship to his uncle that I won’t get into here. This is all discovered from interpreting things in the home and that has to be the most organic way to discover stories.
The main narrative though, is the definition of bittersweet. Sam’s coming out story is so poignant, yet powerful. There’s something simultaneously heart-warming and heart-wrenching about finding her audio tapes. Her love is being shipped off to join the army and it’s incredibly melancholic, seeing a girl fall in love, even though she knows it’s doomed to fall apart. Intimate, nostalgic and domestic, video game stories don’t get much more human then Gone Home.
There we have it – 6 of the very best narratives you can indulge yourself with on Xbox One. What do you think of the stories behind these games? Would they make your list of best story-tellers, or have we missed something out? As always, the comments section is down below and we’d love to hear of the games which would make your list.