Warning. This article contains spoilers for Death Stranding and Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Video games have the power to completely deconstruct me, tear me down to my base instincts until I’m little more than raw human emotion, and make me cry. I’ll never forget the moment Xenoblade Chronicles 2 tugged so tightly on my heartstrings as Pyra sacrificed herself and Poppi held Rex back from saving her. I’ll always remember when Death Stranding wrenched my heart from my torso as it forced me to trudge up the mountain and burn BB. This power comes from the fact that these are narrative video games or video games centred around a narrative. Ultimately, their stories’ strength leads them to be memorable, impactful, and intriguing works of art.
A Monkey, Marmite, and Mario
Narratives and video games are often at odds with one another. Some would argue a story is the quintessential aspect of a video game, and without it, the game would fall to pieces, much like one of our articles where we questioned whether Doom would be better with a story. Others would argue the opposite, that narratives merely get in the way of the gameplay. The former probably play JRPGS, and the latter most likely FIFA.
Stereotypes aside, I understand that often stories in video games aren’t necessarily people’s first thought when it comes to their selling point. Sure, Cyberpunk 2077 is about Keanu Reeves and something to do with stealing something or other, but have you gazed upon the beauty of the insanely glitchy cyberpunk world? Yeah, yeah, Watch Dogs Legion is about Brexit or whatever, but did you see you can play as literally anyone?
The First Narrative Video Game
I’m oversimplifying an incredibly complex issue, but it was once the case that video games and narratives were not compatible, or at least were less frequently combined. The first video game was reportedly made in 1958, but the first narrative video game, Donkey Kong, wasn’t made until 1981. Even then, it wasn’t exactly the most complex narrative and was also coming out alongside films like The Shining and novels like Red Dragon. Since then, narratives and video games have stopped being comparable to marmite and cheese and have come together like Nutella and peanut butter. But in that time there have been countless stories not told, thousands of characters and their intricate lives yet to be combined with the interactability of a video game.
When Ghibli Was There
I’ve spent my life absorbed in one narrative or another, trying to live vicariously through the lives of fictional characters and their exciting adventures. It distracts me from the depressing blandness of the everyday. It reminds me that, at the very least, in our imaginations, an endless world of possibilities exists. I’m always looking for a way of engaging with these narratives beyond reading words on paper. Narrative video games seem like the perfect way of doing that. Unfortunately, more often than not, the niche stories I’m hoping to live out, don’t exist in a video game format.
Searching For The Niche
I’m reminded of the countless late nights I sat up searching for a narrative video game set in the Japanese countryside where you could play a child experiencing the summer holidays. That may sound weird, but I’ve spent my years busying myself with Ghibli movies, fondly imagining what my life would have been like had I been born elsewhere. I’m always looking for narrative video games that fulfil a niche desire of mine, usually to live a life I could and will never live, vicariously through the medium of video games. Rarely do I find something.
Sure, I could watch My Neighbour Totoro, When Marnie Was There or Only Yesterday. Or I could read a novel by Hiromi Kawakami or Haruki Murakami. There are hundreds if not thousands of books and movies that are about my niche interests. But video games that are about them, well they’re scarce.
A Tale as Old as Time
The first feature film ever made was apparently created in 1906, titled The Story of the Kelly Gang. According to BBC Culture, the first-ever novel was The Tale of Genji and was written over 1’000 years ago. These mediums have had more than one-hundred years (at least) to tell all the stories in the world. But video games, well their first story was about a guy hunting down his pet monkey who’d kidnapped his girlfriend. And that was a little under 40 years ago.
While video games have been invested in developing the technology used to create them, while they’ve been tackling formats, gaming online, a ton of different genres, many of which don’t accommodate narratives at all, we’ve had the following films and much much more: Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Indiana Jones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Schindler’s List, The Terminator… you get the point.
Video game narratives have nothing on movies, let alone novels, poetry, and plays that have existed for far longer. Well… almost.
Yeo and The Saviours of The Narrative
This is where indie developers come in. While larger developers have been dealing with all the aforementioned developments in video game history, indie developers have come in with fewer resources, fewer tools, and less staff, but with a far greater imagination to fill the narrative video game void that larger developers leave unfulfilled.
The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa
When The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa by Yeo was first announced, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d been brought up on Yakuza movies, immersed in Japanese culture, and fascinated with the Japanese delinquent all thanks to my older brother. So, when a video game that promised to bring all of that together came wandering in, I jumped at the opportunity to play it.
The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa feels like it was made for me. You live the life of a Japanese high schooler; go to school, eat at cafes, visit the library, gamble; explore a suburban Japanese neighbourhood and live out the Japanese delinquent lifestyle with dedicated smoking and intimidating walk buttons. On top of all that, it touches on all the philosophical and emotional tribulations that teenagers often experience, and many of them made me genuinely feel something. All of these things, and more, are exactly what I wanted from a video game.
Yeo isn’t the only one who’s making niche games that fit my weird interests. Inasa Fujio is developing a project, currently titled Inaka Project, which sees you play the role of a postman in the Japanese countryside. You rattle around on your bike as you explore a beautiful Ghibli-esque world delivering mail. He’s also made a game titled Rainy Season which puts you in the role of a young boy who finds the fantastical in all things as he waits out the rain at home.
Upcoming Indie Games
How about the upcoming game Sonzai by 2 Odd Diodes, a mix between Persona and Devil May Cry? Or Witchbrook by Chucklefish Games which is a school sim set in a magical world? Now, I might just be listing indie games I’m excited about, but there’s a reason I’m so buzzed for all of these.
These games combine the worlds and narratives that I’ve always dreamed of, with the interactability of video games. These developers are creating the worlds and stories I want to experience, that I have always wanted to live through. They are doing a service that, at the very least, I am extremely grateful for.
The Wonderful World of the Narrative
For every Cyberpunk, Watch Dog, and Assassin’s Creed, there’s a beautiful niche narrative gem waiting to be explored. I’m not in any way trying to say that these AAA games have bad narratives, or even that they tell them poorly. Heck, I started this article by saying Death Stranding, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 both have heart-wrenching narratives! It’s just that, in my experience, I’ve always found these narratives drowned out amongst the myriad of side quests, ridiculously burdensome open worlds that overwhelm from the moment you enter them, and gameplay mechanics that often confuse more than they excite.
I started this article by describing the immense power that video game narratives can hold. They can reduce me to tears, make me smile and laugh in ways nothing ever has, or even make me think. They can change my world view, consume my every waking moment with their incredible, breath-taking moments.
Narratives are, for me, the most crucial aspect of a game. Because, when all is said and done, it’s not the way it felt to drive a motorbike or the way it felt combining my blade’s abilities, that I remember. It’s the way it felt to put BB into the furnace, or the way it felt when Poppi finally fulfilled her promise to Pyra and stopped Rex from saving her. It’s the way I felt when Vandham died to protect Rex and his friends, or the way I felt when Fragile risked her own body and life to prevent Higgs from blowing up a town.
This is why I’m so pleased when developers like Yeo, Inasa Fujio, 2 Odd Diodes, Chucklefish, and hundreds of others like them, create games that contain stories and worlds that AAA developers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. It’s why when people like Hideo Kojima get the freedom to do whatever they feel like, they produce masterpieces. There are so many great, niche stories left to be told, and I can’t wait to play them. In some small way, I hope my celebration of narrative video games, and these developers and all they do for people like me will convince others to go and explore their games and hopefully help them produce more amazing works of art.