We often think of summer as a season for stories. A time to catch up on good books at the beach and to seek out the best offerings at the cineplex.
Traditionally, games don’t enter into our considerations when trying to decide which fiction might be most deserving of soaking up some of our summer hours, and there’s a good reason for that: games don’t always put much emphasis on story. Their narratives are often basically nonexistent (Pac-Man doesn’t need richly developed motivations to gobble up those ghosts) or something of a secondary concern, little more than an excuse for all the driving or shooting or whatever you’re doing in the game. Such stories aren’t typically very good and they don’t really need to be.
But in the past few years, some games have started experimenting with ways in which interactive media can tell meaningful, worthwhile stories. Here are five games that involve you in stories that are worth experiencing, and with just one exception (The Last of Us: Left Behind), they’re games that just about anyone can pick up and play and that don’t require any gaming experience or knowhow. The first two are mobile games you can play while soaking up some sun this summer; the latter three are for when you’ve had enough of being out and about and just want to relax at home for a while.
Inspired by Jules Verne’s classic novel of travel and adventure, Around the World in Eighty Days, the game 80 Days puts you in the role of Passepartout, the French valet of Englishman Phileas Fogg, who wagers that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or fewer. Full of elegant prose that’s very much in keeping with the spirit of Verne’s work, it also brings the people and places you encounter on your travels to life. Don't expect Fogg's penchant for the finer things in life to keep you insulated from real-world concerns, however; your journey is not always a smooth one, as political upheaval and tensions of brewing conflict between nations sometimes complicate your itinerary.
The game’s globe is geographically accurate but not historically so; the game’s 1872 is one in which automatons, airships and other technological marvels are becoming increasingly commonplace, and it’s a joy to share in Passepartout’s sense of wonder as he tells you of the amazing things he and Fogg find in each new city. You can make a real race of it, weighing all of your travel options in each city to determine which might get you around the globe the quickest, or you can savor the trip, taking detours to intriguing spots that are off the beaten path. Fogg has a lot of money riding on the wager, but in 80 Days, the journey is still far more important than the destination.
(80 Days is available for Apple devices, Android, and Kindle Fire.)
You get a message from someone named Taylor. “Hello? Is this thing working? Can anyone read me?” Taylor, whose gender is never specified, was an astronaut aboard a science vessel that has crash-landed on a moon, and you’re their only point of contact. You play Lifeline by making a series of binary choices. Taylor is hoping against hope to find some way off of the moon, and looks to you for guidance. Lifeline has only two things to work with--language and pacing--and it uses them both very well. Taylor paints a sometimes surreal, sometimes nerve-racking picture of the circumstances they find themselves in, and your communications happen in real time. If Taylor is sleeping, for instance, you won’t hear from them again for hours, and as your communications happen over the course of a few days, Taylor’s plight takes root in your mind.
It’s easy to feel as if Taylor is out there, stranded in space, while you go about your life. There’s no consequence for keeping Taylor waiting, but I found myself invested enough in their harrowing struggle for survival that I sometimes felt odd when I was ignoring notifications from my phone that Taylor was waiting for me because I was too busy talking to a friend. Where are my priorities?! Taylor is in danger!
As successful as Lifeline is in making you feel invested in Taylor’s situation, it also feels limited by its format. There were times when the two responses available to me didn’t allow for the deeper expression of concern and compassion I would have liked. But even so, Lifeline remains an effective example of interactive storytelling that might have your stomach twisting in knots worrying about the fate of someone who isn’t real, but who feels real.
(Lifeline is available for iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch.)
Gone Home is a game about place and time, and about what places can tell us about the people who occupy them. You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old college student who returns from a trip abroad to find her family’s Oregon home mysteriously empty. The only immediate clues about what might have gone wrong on this dark and stormy night are tearful, urgent messages on the answering machine (it’s 1995) from a young woman pleading to speak to your sister Sam. This may sound like the setup for a horror story, but Gone Home only introduces such elements to subvert your expectations. What you actually piece together as you explore the house is a tale of love and self discovery.
The game is extraordinary not just for the story it tells but for how it's told. It’s a game about memories, specifically Sam’s, and the memories of other members of the family, too. The Greenbriar household seems to thrum with the energy of those memories, because you come to understand the significance of the objects in each room, and through those objects you form an understanding of the family and their struggles. If you’re old enough to remember the 90s, then you might feel as if it’s about your memories, too; it evokes the period with such cultural precision that you may find your heart aching for twenty years ago.
(Gone Home is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux)
Kentucky Route Zero
Kentucky Route Zero is a transcendent American road journey in five acts, though only the first three have been released thus far, with the remaining two expected within the next year or so. The narrative centers on Conway, a delivery truck driver for an antiques shop who is making his last delivery to an elusive address that requires him to locate and travel along the mysterious highway that gives the game its title. The America of Kentucky Route Zero is recognizable as our own; it’s a place where capitalism has a human cost, where people live with crushing debt, and where changes brought about by new technology are leaving some people and their livelihoods behind.
But the game’s America is also one where the wondrous and magical can happen. Things occur on this journey that don’t make a literal kind of sense but that possess a dreamlogic that can take on shades of meaning in your head and heart that go beyond that which can be easily expressed or understood. This is a game full of people who are lost but still out there looking, and if you’ve ever been driving down a lonely highway late at night with a heaviness in your heart but you felt like there just might be something for you out there somewhere, then you’ll feel right at home on the Zero.
The Last of Us: Left Behind
A few weeks ago, NPR blog contributor Adam Frank extolled The Last of Us, a harrowing and human 2013 blockbuster for PlayStation about an older man named Joel taking a teenager named Ellie across a near-future America in which a massive epidemic has brought about the collapse of society. The Last of Us is a special game, a mainstream action hit that’s as concerned with character as it is with combat. But perhaps the best thing The Last of Us has to offer is a roughly two-hour side story called The Last of Us: Left Behind, which can now be downloaded and played on its own, without requiring you to own or play the original game.
In Left Behind, you play as Ellie, and spend most of the game wandering an abandoned Boston mall with your friend Riley. Most games of this type are heavy on the action and use quiet moments of character interaction to break up the pace, but Left Behind brilliantly inverts the balance, putting the connection between Ellie and Riley front and center. Rather than spending most of your time fighting off scavengers or infected humans in scenes of pulse-pounding danger, you spend most of your time playing with Riley -- telling each other jokes, trying on masks in a Halloween costume shop, and taking silly pictures in an old photobooth. Though we only spend a short time with them, we get a full and complex picture of their relationship: they laugh together and play and argue, and like real people, they want things from each other that they don’t always know how to ask for. Left Behind is a wonderful game in its own right, and also a thrilling example of how mainstream games can tell stories that put an emphasis on human connection, if they really want to.
(The Last of Us: Left Behind can be downloaded for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.)