One of the most intriguing elements – at least personally for me – in video games is the rich narratives that they tell. A good narrative can keep a player engaged for hours on end and can even make a mediocre game more than the sum of its other parts. 2019 has had its fair share of excellent storylines and memorable characters that will stick with us, each set in a variety of amazingly refreshed worlds and times. These are my personal best of the best of 2019.
5. The Outer Worlds
The Outer Worlds seems pretty standard from the start: you’re a mysterious stranger awoken from cryosleep to discover yourself away from earth, on a colony in another solar system. However as you explore this landscape it immediately becomes clear that this is not the typical sci-fi setting.
Obsidian added a cynical twist to the classic tales of space exploration. The colony of Halcyon is the image of corporate bureaucracy taken to the massive societal level. Whole towns are owned by subsidiaries and corporations, people say their company’s slogan mid-sentence, nothing can be done without the right form and everything is by the book and according to pre-mandated guidelines. Everyone in the colony is under the boot of “The Board,” a conglomerate of several large corporations.
It’s a seemingly ridiculous conceit, that the way of the future is through industrial policy and structure, but it just works. It expertly straddles the line between being ridiculously funny and expressing serious scathing criticism of modern society. Your character is accompanied by an excellent ensemble of companions, each with their own distinctive arc and connection to the world.
This is a reactive place where your choices really do have weight; many factions and figures have different visions for the future. Some want to rebel against “The Board” while others enjoy the benefits and securities that it provides. Who you end up siding with and the decisions you make culminate in an excellent conclusion shaped by the paths you take.
Control is what it would look like if a government agency was tasked with containing and understanding paranormal and extraterrestrial events.
It’s set in a concrete maze – the “Oldest House” – with rows of desks, high tech labs, maintenance tunnels and board rooms. Imagine if the CIA had to deal with powerful beings in a giant 1950’s office complex and you’re pretty close.
The storyline follows Jesse Faden, a woman who has come to the Oldest House looking for traces of her lost sibling. It starts off with a mystery and only grows more questions as it branches off in many directions. It has a satisfying way of leaving more and more breadcrumbs to find – just when you think you’re close to the answers it gives more questions. Much of these are answered in satisfying fashion by the game’s conclusion.
Much of what is incredible when it comes to Control’s storytelling however is not the main plot but the world building surrounding it. There is a rich and fascinating mythos to explore in this game, memos and letters give a glimpse into the daily operations of this strange organization. Letters that arrived at the facility speak of internet boogeymen and ancient legends coexisting in a hidden world right beneath our noses.
The world of Control (buy it now from the Xbox Store) is deeply fascinating and a joy to explore.
3. Outer Wilds
Looking in on it from the outside with everything in place, the story of Outer Wilds is generally pretty simple and straightforward, however that would demean it without considering a crucial component.
You are forced to put together this narrative almost entirely by yourself. So instead when looking in from the centre, trying to piece it together, everything feels like an exciting revelation.
You are a young astronaut who keeps coming back to life, as the solar system is exploding every 22 minutes. An ancient civilization seems to be the only lead and you need to chase it. To do this you comb through countless conversations of people hundreds of years in the past; some crucial while others are simply the small talk and flirtations of a life being lived. Exploring every planet in your solar system, it begins to become clear that these people were not so different, as well as the greater scheme of things.
You meet up with the other travelers from your home planet, each with stories to tell and a piece of the larger puzzle. The Outer Wilds is a great big jigsaw puzzle of a narrative but when put together it tells a beautiful tale of the spirit of adventure, the impact of generations, and universality of life.
To tell anymore details would ruin the surprise – it’s an enigma best put together in person.
Becoming an adult is hard. It’s difficult to let go of all whimsical things and recklessness of your younger years and grab responsibility by the horns. Afterparty is a game about growing up and realizing what’s important.
Imagine a John Hughes movie, except instead of being in a high school it’s set in the nine circles of hell. You play as both Milo and Lola, two college kids who just graduated, only to find themselves in hell. Neither of them know how they die or why they were sentenced to eternal damnation, however they discover that they can leave if they beat Satan in a drinking match. It’s set in a charming underworld where the demons and humans drink and party together on weekends after they finish their day jobs of torturing or being tortured.
The duo begin by exploring all the bars of hell to help them finally get to Satan’s challenge. As they go they discover things they never knew about each other and their relationship matures and blossoms. Each of them discovers flaws in their personality that they never admitted before, and eventually overcome them. It’s heartwarming and often at times a hilariously raunchy tale; cursing, sex and drugs are here in full force.
It helps that it also has probably the best voice work of any game this year, with Satan in particular a highlight.
1. Blair Witch
Now the last four games will be, I imagine, pretty common on many best narrative lists of 2019, so let me offer my wildcard option for the last slot.
Blair Witch is a rabbit hole, one that begins seemingly innocuously and ends in a horribly terrifying conclusion. It follows Ellis, an American veteran of the middle east and a former police officer. He begins helping the reluctant local police search for a missing boy that gets lost in the Black Hills Forest of Maryland. What follows is a sinto madness as Ellis faces off against his own psyche and strange paranormal occurrences in the woods, while searching for the kidnapper.
The mystery of the boy is intriguing and pushes the plot forward well enough, however the most engaging part is the development of Ellis’s inner psychosis.
This is the first game I’ve seen in a long time to deal with the PTSD of Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans so directly. Some of the visions that Ellis begins to have are truly haunting; American soldiers falling into a massive pile of corpses, the ghosts of dead friends standing to attention around him, invisible bullets whizzing through the trees. As he sinks deeper and deeper into the woods, it becomes desperately unclear whether he will ever make it out again. Flashbacks show a broken marriage and life, as you begin to understand that the chase for the boy is a chase for more than just that.
Blair Witch is a surprisingly emotional look at the impact of trauma – how it can tear an individual and relationships apart.
So this little list contains my own favourite narratives of 2019. But what about you? Hit us up in the comments below and let us know what you think!