At a time when it feels like live service and multiplayer titles dominate the video game industry, it’s easy to forget that we live in a fascinating age for the art of video game storytelling.
Modern video game stories often benefit from new avenues of development and distribution that allow a greater variety of voices to tell unique stories that would have once struggled to find a home in this medium. Maybe some Triple-A studios have pivoted away from narrative-based games, but a host of smaller studios and independent developers have more than picked up the slack.
For those who believe that gaming offers one of the most complex and satisfying storytelling mediums in all of the entertainment, please be sure to find the time to experience the absolute best video game stories of 2021.
Some of the best video games in recent years have reminded us that truly incredible experiences can come in many forms, but I never would have guessed that a game about unpacking boxes would feature one of the best video game stories of 2021.
Unpacking tells its story through the items you unbox and place in various rooms. Pay close enough attention to the various items, and you’ll learn quite a bit about the person that owns them, their partners, their big life moments, and how the “stuff” we acquire during the course of our lives often says so much about who we are, where we were, and where we hope to go.
9. Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Kena tells the story of a young spirit guide who must help wayward souls leave the physical world and enter the spirit realm. It’s an almost Pixar-like premise complemented by some slightly more traditional fantasy concepts.
Much like a great Pixar movie, Kena tells a sometimes overwhelmingly emotional narrative that uses “cutesy” design elements to force you to let your guard down just so it can absolutely destroy you with its most devastating plot points. There is just so much heart and humanity in this wonderful fantasy tale.
8. Tales of Arise
The Tales series has long benefited from some generally fantastic storytelling, but Tales of Arise is arguably the franchise’s biggest story yet. In fact, there are times when the story is arguably a little too big and a little too lore-heavy.
At its heart, though, this is a story about two people from different worlds trying to stay united long enough to fulfill a common purpose. No matter how deep this game’s story dives into its lore, the personal elements of that narrative manage to form a compelling foundation that makes it that much easier to embrace the weird (and dark) places this game goes.
7. Life is Strange: True Colors
The Life is Strange series’ consistently excellent storytelling strangely makes it that much easier to overlook just how good True Colors’ story is. It’s just so easy to take the quality of these games for granted.
Yet, there is nothing easy about the way that True Colors manages to tell such a deeply personal tale while building a mind-bending mystery that accounts for a variety of player choices. Ultimately, though, it’s the way that this game emphasizes the complex emotions of its various characters that makes it truly special.
In a year that saw the release of several noteworthy time loop games (more on that in a bit…), few games explored the interactive storytelling potential of that concept better than Deathloop.
Deathloop’s front-facing narrative is strong, but it’s the way that this game encourages you to use the fact that you’re stuck in this specific scenario as an excuse to really study and learn this game’s incredible world that makes it wonderful. As someone who usually doesn’t bother with collectible storytelling devices like audio logs, Deathloop naturally made me feel compelled to discover new items and details that would shed a little more light on this game’s time loop, world, and incredible characters.
5. It Takes Two
Director Josef Fares has quickly made a name for himself as one of the greatest co-op gaming storytellers this industry has ever seen, but It Takes Two (a story about a couple on the brink of divorce undergoing a magical adventure that may save their relationship) might just his most ambitious and complicated narrative yet.
While I would argue that It Takes Two’s story sometimes struggles to sell its biggest ideas through its sometimes intentionally frustrating leading character, I cannot deny the sheer brilliance of what this game is going for or the way that it uses gameplay to really sell the heart of its heartbreaking (and sometimes heartwarming) story.
4. The Forgotten City
The Forgotten City (which is based on a popular Skyrim mod of the same name), tells a complex story about a time traveler stuck in a chronological loop in an ancient society where a single act of violence or a crime will doom everyone.
Essentially a throwback to the golden age of mystery games, The Forgotten City uses its premise as a way to break your habit of relying on combat and violence as solutions to every problem. While you are ultimately looking for “solutions” in this game, the joy of The Forgotten City’s storytelling can be found in the way it slowly reveals some compelling new element of its grand narrative every time that you’re bold enough to ask more questions and think outside of the box.
3. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
There’s a lot to love about Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but this game’s wonderful story is absolutely the reason it is the biggest surprise of 2021.
Guardians of the Galaxy pulls off the considerable challenge of making you fall in love with these characters all over again but in slightly new ways. It’s very much its own thing compared to the excellent Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the ways that it borrows from those films and the comics while incorporating a host of new ideas and twists means that it remarkably manages to feel both comforting and subversive.
As you can see from this list, it was a surprisingly good year for time loop stories in video games (and we didn’t even talk about Twelve Minutes or Loop Hero). However, there is no doubt in my mind that Returnal is the year’s best time loop narrative and one of the best time loop stories we’ve seen in any medium.
Returnal treats its time loop as both the foundation for the biggest nightmare scenario you could possibly imagine (which it often is) as well as a kind of metaphor for the loop we all often find ourselves in when we choose to dwell on certain moments of our lives and let them dictate nearly everything that comes after. It’s a complex (and often quite scary) tale that will leave you questioning absolutely everything this game puts in front of you.
1. Psychonauts 2
I honestly doubted that Tim Schafer and the Psychonauts team could craft a worthy follow-up to the original game. As great as that game was, a big part of the reason why it was so special was the fact that it was so weird and different. How could a sequel possibly recreate that magic?
The answer to that question lies in the way that Psychonauts 2 improves upon the original’s few narrative weak spots and really takes the time to explore what the boundaries of this concept are. This is the kind of game that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief that the next moment is somehow even wilder and more impressive than the previous one.
Psychonauts 2 somehow manages to balance telling a spy story, a story about family, and multiple stories about the complex workings of various characters’ mental states all while presenting a narrative that feels like a completely satisfying follow-up to its beloved predecessor. It’s truly a miracle that it works as well as it does.