With videogame budgets continuing to swell and these heightened expenses seemingly limiting the risks AAA releases can take, it can be tempting to feel skeptical about this medium’s future. Thankfully, plenty of titles outside the big-budget space are actively pushing the bounds of what games can be. This year was defined by smaller-scale endeavors with outstanding storytelling, labors of love that seemingly came from lived experience or extensive research. Some communicated the emotional realities of their characters with brutal clarity, while others challenged the status quo by envisioning a path toward a better world. All of them are worthwhile because they incorporate influences beyond the insular confines of gaming, connecting themselves to a broader lineage of art and human experience. If you’re a fan of narrative in games, you should check out these five titles.
Building on Sam Barlow’s last few interactive film experiences, Immortality is a metatextual trip through decades of fictional movie history that grapples with how art is made and the ways it shapes us. Framed as a piece of software meant to document the filmography of the would-be starlet Marissa Marcel, an actor who headlined three unreleased flicks and then seemingly vanished without a trace, the game tasks the player with sifting through reams of videos to answer the question “What happened to Marissa Marcel?” Some of the clips are borderline finished sequences from these movies, while others are behind-the-scenes footage never meant to be viewed by others, but regardless they reveal truths about the people that made them. Clicking on objects in a scene performs a match cut to a similar item in another part of the database, sometimes jumping between different films and decades entirely.
While events aren’t portrayed in a linear order, it still maintains the hallmarks of any successful suspense-driven yarn, rewarding with a steady supply of unexpected twists. This organic process of discovery makes each turn particularly gratifying, and when I first uncovered something genuinely unsettling, it had much more of an impact because this investigation was in my control. There is a richness to sifting through this forgotten footage, as there are always multiple layers of narrative: what’s happening in the films themselves, the daily lives of the cast and crew, and a more sinister truth that undergirds fact and fiction. Like any story about storytelling, there is a great deal of commentary on the nature of creating art, what purpose it serves, and the considerations of those who make it, but there are more than a few swerves which take this tale in unpredictable, thought-provoking directions.
Also, these movies are entertaining in their own right, each working as a homage and parody of various filmmaking eras. One is a bawdy religious-themed period-drama, another a French New Wave-styled thriller, while the third is brimming with late ‘90s identity-swap cheesiness. The performances are excellent as well, sometimes channeling intentional camp while others convey dread, and Manon Gage’s portrayal of Marissa is particularly magnetizing. As we come to understand who is creating these flicks and why, it opens questions about male gaze, the power of stories, and the pains of living forever, all these considerations wrapped in a compelling central mystery that adds new dimensions to these ideas. While Immortality is ostensibly about filmmaking, it takes advantage of the interactive nature of videogames to fully immerse us in its meta digressions.
Moreso than just about anything I’ve played in recent memory, the survival-horror title Signalis stuck with me. For weeks after, I mulled over the contours of its world and characters, the hellish walkways of S-23 Sierpinski imprinted on my mind as I repeatedly worked through its web of symbols. It follows Elster, an android living in a dystopian sci-fi backdrop, as she looks for someone lost in a “re-education” camp beset by infection. As she battles undulating monsters, she grapples with her sense of self, memories, and perceptions of reality. Working in a similar space to psychological horror like Jacob’s Ladder or Silent Hill, events are hazy and potentially non-literal. Constant art-style changes, perspective switches, time jumps, and cutaways create a jarring tone, while a general dream logic dictates its shifting locales. It all makes for an utterly striking aesthetic, its anime pixel art and low-poly PSX graphics combining with allusions to 19th century paintings and literature to hint at deeper connotations.
Over time, its barrage of imagery begins to click, and while it never outright states the “truth” of what’s happening, certain sequences provide enough context to draw satisfying conclusions. From its heavy allusions to psychopomps and the afterlife, themes of grappling with grief and accepting loss come into focus as we traverse a terrifying place trapped in limbo. Its fragmented presentation and the specifics of its science-fiction world reveal a preoccupation with identity and memory. And most important of all, it is all imbued with aching longing as our heroine searches for the person she holds most dear. When you finally piece together enough to understand what’s going on, the full significance of each symbol and vague allusion suddenly coalesces, beautifully portraying its central characters’ doubts, fears, and wants. While the cryptic delivery of Signalis’ story won’t be for everyone, its enigmatic secrets, visual flair, and use of metaphor combine to create something unforgettable. (And if you’ve already played it and are having a hard time with what to make of things, you should check out our analysis of the game’s endings.)
Despite its futuristic setting, Norco is clearly a product of personal experience, conveying the intricacies of the greater New Orleans area with the kind of intimate detail that only someone who lived there could. The oranges and blues of its pixel art capture a place crushed by corporate interests, caught between ecological disaster and economic ruin, as brass and synths deliver a funeral dirge. You play as Kay, a woman returning home to Norco, Louisiana following her mother’s death. Upon discovering that her brother has gone missing, she embarks on a winding quest through the bayou, uncovering corporate conspiracies, unknowable beings, and an ascendant cult.
While it’s set in the future, this journey is full of incisive commentary on the present, portraying failing economic systems, irresponsible tech companies, and the deep scars of environmental disaster, among other things. These concepts are linked together via melancholic prose that channels Southern Gothic literature, its dark poetics enveloping you in the concerns of those living here. And although it’s bleak, it can also be hilarious. One highlight is LeBlanc, a little freak of a private detective who is good at his job but also wants nothing more than to show you his clown makeup. When you come across a newly established religious order where everyone is named Garrett, that sense of silliness turns sinister, revealing the types of violent acts made possible by those radicalized through online groups. Norco is grim, empathetic, and sometimes hilarious, the type of game that begs to be picked apart in excruciating detail for years to come.
Pentiment is a history lover’s dream. Unlike most depictions of the past that flatten lived experiences into stereotypes and generalizations, this one fully grapples with the nuances of its time period and the people that lived in it, bringing this world to life through a gorgeous art style that mimics middle ages manuscripts and early modern woodcuts. Set in 16th century Bavaria, we follow Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist working in a Benedictine abbey’s scriptorium until a murder rocks this religious community. With a dear friend as the prime suspect, Maler steps in to get to the bottom of the killing. While things are framed as a murder mystery, and there are some fun genre twists, this premise is used to explore how tales of the past shape who we think we are, the illusiveness of historical truths, and the power of stories to reify ideas.
Through its obsession with chronicling the details of the early modern period, it breaks with common pop-culture trends that oversimplify what came before, instead detailing the many contradictions, points of view, and sociological currents of the time. For instance, its setting is a town built on Roman ruins, highlighting how those who lived hundreds of years ago also grappled with ancient history, as this village’s “pagan” traditions are negotiated with newfound Christian teachings. And although this overview may make the game sound unforgivably dense for those who don’t have an advanced degree in early modern Europe, it also portrays its characters with care as their passions, struggles with loss, kindness, and cruelty come to the forefront. Here, the past isn’t a distant thing but something you’re forced to negotiate and influence first-hand. On many levels, I wish more videogames were like it.
Despite its futuristic setting overrun by economic exploitation, Citizen Sleeper is defined by a quiet optimism. It’s guided by the belief that no matter how bad things get, even if technology and space travel exacerbate existing divisions, there will always be people who come together, take care of each other, and fight to make a difference. In its opening moments, that brighter future feels distant as the synthetic Sleeper is hounded by an all-encompassing company that wants to drag them back to servitude performing deep-space labor. They take refuge on Erlin’s Eye, a space station that has broken away from corporate control but finds itself in the middle of a battle between old company town influences and other factions. At first, things are rough, and bounty hunters stalk the Sleeper as their mechanical body breaks down due to the deprivation of proprietary company supplements. However, it doesn’t take long until you find those willing to help.
One of the game’s most impressive qualities is how it distances itself from the cynical belief that “cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity, it’s about saving yourself,” while still criticizing the monstrous systems enabled by futuristic technologies. It foregrounds stories of those confronting uncaring corpos and working to systematically undermine these forces through unionization and mutual aid. These battles never feel trivial, and gains always come with a significant cost, but this is a tale that genuinely believes something better is possible. Some of these characters look to atone or right past injustices, while others make horrible decisions they can never return from, but beautiful prose portrays them all with nuance and care. Without coming across as naïve or disingenuous, Citizen Sleeper lets us see what it’s like to build toward a better world.
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.