Video games continue to make great strides as a medium for legitimately great storytelling, with each year representing another step forward, and 2020 was no different. With an abundance of excellent stories told in games over the course of these past 12 months, narrowing that pool down to just 10 games was not an easy task, but that’s exactly what we’ve done here. Join us as we list those ten games, before crowning one of them as the best of the best.
GHOST OF TSUSHIMA
Historical fiction is always a storytelling subgenre that holds immense potential, but when it is mixed with a healthy amount of creative liberties, that potential grows manifold. Sure, things can easily go haywire in such cases, but Ghost of Tsushima is an excellent example of how stories that toe the line between history and fantasy can excel at both. Jin Sakai’s tale of revenge as he attempts to rid the island of Tsushima from Mongol invaders, and his internal struggle as he wrestles with the underhanded tactics he must employ for that purpose and how much they go against his honour code as a samurai, is one of the most enthralling narratives we’ve experienced in a game all year. Ghost of Tsushima’s story isn’t a perfect one, and especially with its side content it stumbles every now and then, but by the time the credits roll, you can’t help but be truly impressed with the game’s storytelling chops.
MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES
In spite of being more of an expansion than a full sequel, in spite of using the same exact open world map as its predecessor, in spite of being largely identical to it in terms of gameplay mechanics, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales somehow manages to feel incredibly fresh- and the game’s titular protagonist is hugely responsible for that. Insomniac’s latest once again strikes a perfect balance between being a pulpy superhero story, and telling a personal character-driven tale. Whether it’s with its bombastic set-piece encounters against superpowered villains, or with how it shows Miles coming to terms with what sort of a superhero he wants to be, or the bonds he forms and strengthens with the game’s excellent cast of characters, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales’ story is delightful from beginning to end.
13 SENTINELS: AEGIS RIM
Ambition is often the biggest enemy of execution, but with its storytelling, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim proves that that doesn’t always have to be the case. Kaijus, giant mechs, time travel, high school friendships and rivalries, shady government organizations, aliens- 13 Sentinels’ story is constantly juggling a lot of balls in the air, and it manages to make each of its numerous threads equally interesting. What’s even more admirable, however, is just how it tells its story. Telling such a complicated and multifaceted narrative in completely non-linear fashion sounds like a horrible idea on paper, but 13 Sentinels does just that, and does it in excellent fashion.
FINAL FANTASY 7 REMAKE
Square Enix could easily have remade Final Fantasy 7 in the safest, most conventional way possible, with the remake being a visual overhaul that didn’t deviate from the original game in terms of story and content. In fact, we’re pretty sure that that’s exactly what most fans were hoping for. But Final Fantasy 7 Remake is nothing if not bold (and utterly insane). We’re obviously not going to spoil just how it does it, but it throws some really major twists into the story that not only change things in the present, but also hint at major, exciting changes to come in the future. Beyond that, Final Fantasy 7 Remake also expands on the original game and its characters heavily (it had to, since it stretches a 5 hour-segment of the original into a full-fledged 30 hour-game), and every new flourish it adds to that effect is also invariably solid.
THE LAST OF US PART 2
Naughty Dog have worked long and hard to earn their reputation as master storytellers, and the original The Last of Us was perhaps the game that truly cemented them as such, so the pressure was definitely on them to deliver something truly special with The Last of Us Part 2. And they did that. On top of once again throwing us into their bleak realization of a post-apocalyptic world, Naughty Dog decided to put all their energies into studying the game’s core characters yet again, and even though they did so in a way that differed from the first game significantly, they did it just as well. The Last of Us Part 2 takes no prisoners thanks to its insistence on exploring every corner of the psyches of its main players, and for that kind of drive and ambition, we can’t help but applaud it.
YAKUZA: LIKE A DRAGON
Nailing that tricky reboot-slash-sequel instalment is hard always hard, and there have been countless examples across media over the years of stories that have tried and failed in their attempt to do that. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is one such example. Yakuza told a long, winding narrative over the course of seven mainline games, and in the process developed some of the best, most beloved characters in the medium in recent memory. Leaving that all behind and opting for a completely new story, in a new setting, with new characters, and a new protagonist must have been a daunting task, but Like a Dragon took on the challenge like an absolute champion. Not only does the game stand on its own two legs as an excellent story, it also sets up exciting things for the series’ future.
By the time Half-Life: Alyx came out, it had been thirteen years since Half-Life 2: Episode Two had ended on the mother of all cliffhangers, so even though it was being positioned as a prequel, it still had to meet impossibly high expectations from Half-Life’s legions of fans. In true Valve and Half-Life fashion, it rose to the occasion gloriously. Alyx Vance was an excellent character in previous Half-Life stories, and she turned out to be an excellent protagonist in her own game, and the story that Valve crafted around her and her antics in City 17 was, simply put, completely genius. Pulling in major threads from older games and adding exciting new ideas of its own on top of them, Half-Life: Alyx – and the story it told – was the perfect marriage of nostalgia and looking ahead to the future.
Cyberpunk 2077 is not the world-shattering, genre-defining game that CD Projekt RED led us all to believe it would be, that much has become clear in recent days, but if there’s one area where the game manages to (mostly) live up to expectations, it’s its story. Taking control of V and navigating the seedy underbelly of the grotesque yet captivating Night City with the digital ghost of Johnny Silverhand whispering in your ear is an enthralling experience. In proper CDPR fashion, Cyberpunk 2077 also weaves several multi-part side questlines and main missions together into a single cohesive whole, to tell a tale that feels layered and multifaceted, but never messy. It doesn’t scale the heights of storytelling that CD Projekt RED have previously scaled with their Witcher games, but Cyberpunk 2077 still deserves props- in this area, at least.
There’s been a glut of stories and characters based on Greek mythology in games for many years, especially of late, but Hades is a game that’s all about taking familiar ideas and putting fresh spins on them. Supergiant’s instant classic weaves a captivating story, one that strikes a deft balance between heart and humour, high stakes and character-driven arcs. Thanks to sharp and witty writing, each of the game’s characters leaves a lasting impression (especially the likes of the titular Hades, and, of course, the protagonist Zagreus himself), while the game also ingeniously makes its roguelite structure a crucial storytelling device in a way that feels natural and organic. The story of Hades and the way that it tells it could honestly only have been done in a video game- and that is a truly ringing endorsement.
PERSONA 5 ROYAL
We – and countless others – have talked quite a bit about how Persona 5 Royal improves the vanilla Persona 5 in virtually every way, and that, naturally, includes its story as well. The original game already won numerous plaudits for its excellent narrative and its memorable cast of characters, but the improvements and additions Royal brings to the table help those strengths shine even brighter. From major additions like a healthy chunk of story told across an entire new semester and multiple new characters, to smaller changes that make the story more consistent and the pacing much better, Persona 5 Royal manages to take a diamond and turn it into… well, an even shinier diamond.
THE LAST OF US PART 2
Look, we get it- The Last of Us Part 2 is an incredibly divisive game. It does many things with its narrative that just don’t sit well with a lot of people, and we’re not here to discount any of those criticisms- you feel how you feel. We’re here to tell you how much we appreciate how bold the game was, and how well we think that boldness worked. The Last of Us Part 2 takes risks constantly, and every step of the way, it keeps players on their toes, both in story and in gameplay. And where the former is concerned, one way or another, the game will provoke strong reactions from you- be it anger, or confusion, or elation, or introspection, or maybe even a combination of all of the above. In our book, any game, any piece of media that can do that, that can illicit such strong reactions from its audience through the story that it’s telling deserves all the praise in the world. The Last of Us Part 2 does it constantly, and according to us, masterfully.