Video games are vessels for storytelling. Their unique nature comes from the way storytellers decide to get their message across. Whether it’s through gameplay, visual rhetoric, music or a combination of the lot; video games deliver stories in ways that traditional mediums just can’t. As an interactive medium, video games occupy a space that is both related to and separate from other art forms.
The most direct approach to storytelling in video games are through visual novels. While the term is often attributed to Japanese dating simulators, I’d argue any game whose main purpose is to tell a coherent story through a simple user interface can qualify as a visual novel. There are some writers however that utilize the properties afforded to them as game developers. They create interesting interfaces for players to interact with. Players are encouraged to explore a video game’s story through clever systems that enhance the experience. These games are titles that not only focus on telling a story, but unravel their narratives through interesting interfaces. Their gameplay and stories are tied together in ways that films, music, and even other games, just aren’t.
Digital: A Love Story
Set in 1988, the player opens up a virtual console that emulates the UI of an 80s messaging board. Sort of like interacting with a BBS board from the dial-up days of the internet, Digital: A Love Story is part romance, part mystery novel. The console the player interacts with is incredibly charming, the game even requires the player to “reboot” the console to apply an upgrade.
As players venture further into the game, they’re required to use their console to “hack” into some BBS boards to uncover the mystery behind the sudden disappearances occurring to your friends across the web. Developer Christine Love followed up with a similar, though more advanced, interface with the spiritual sequel Analogue: A Hate Story, but curious players would do well to check out Digital first.
In a fictional (though eerily Soviet) country of Arstotzka, you play as an immigration agent working the border of your country, and several neighboring polities. As tensions between the countries rise, the directives sent to you from your boss become more and more strict. Soon, immigrants must be screened through tougher and tougher criteria, with the player interrogating foreigners if there are any discrepancies with their papers.
In Papers, Please, players role-play as a Cold War bureaucrat. But as the customs department becomes stricter in the face of heightening political tensions, they must make decisions when confronted by an increasingly desperate populace. The moral consequences in the game echo real life political situations both during the Cold War, and as global societies are reeling in the face of a major refugee crisis.
Cibele is the name of both the semi-autobiographical game from developer Nina Freeman, and the online RPG players can play within the game. Like Digital: A Love Story, Cibele lets players interact with a simulated desktop, complete with file folders, a web browser, and anything else you might have on your own computer desktop.
Players play as Nina herself as she navigates an online relationship with a fellow player in the fictional game of Cibele, while interacting with her friends via email and social media.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is part bartending simulator, part visual novel. Taking place in a dystopian future, the game feels like Blade Runner, if Blade Runner was an anime. Taking aesthetic cues from the Japanese visual novels in the 90s, VA-11 HALL-A stars the bartender Jill as she navigates her shifts at the eponymous bar.
Players interact with a virtual recipe book and drink ingredients to create drinks for Jill’s customers as they share their stories and progress through the narrative. Outside of the bar, players can play as Jill as she relaxes at home, interacting further with a virtual smartphone that includes a news app, and social media features.
The game is heavy on anime tropes, but will find a lot of influences from contemporary and classical sci-fi, along with analogies to our current media landscape. VA-11 HALL-A is definitely worth a playthrough for fans of any of these genres.
Like VA-11 HALL-A, Bar Oasis is a visual novel with bartending simulations. The difference is, instead of a mouse-and-button interface of VA-11 HALL-A, Bar Oasis is a mobile game where players are tasked with using their smartphones as a bar. Players tilt their phones to “pour” liquor into a mixer, and then use their phones as a shaker to simulate mixology.
Taking place in a British bar, players interact with a cast of colorful characters. Primarily a romance story, players must choose between several characters to pursue as romantic interests, and all the drama that entails. The cast is rounded out by comedic foils to help bring levity to the story.
Developed by Sam Barlow, who previously broke through the fourth wall with the motion controlled Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Her Story is a detective story played through interactive video recordings with Hannah Smith. Smith is the wife of a missing man, and players need to interact with the fictional, live-action police interviews to piece together the mystery of what happened to him.
Like several games on this list, Her Story is controlled through a virtual desktop, though this one is themed after a police console which is used to play back video recordings, and to record data. As players dig through the videos, they can piece together lines of dialogue and other clues to try and solve what really happened to Smith’s husband.
There’s something about interactive novels that lend themselves well to the mystery genre. Perhaps it’s the ability to let players collect clues and construct theories about the mystery themselves. Either way, Capcom’s Ace Attorney series is possibly the most famous entry on this list.
Spanning several sequels and spinoffs, Ace Attorney combines a visual novel, with both an investigation phase and a courtroom mechanic. The investigation is where the main character, Phoenix Wright, collects the evidence and testimony from witnesses necessary to acquit his client. Whereas, the courtroom is where Wright presents said evidence and testimony in front of a judge and prosecutor. Included in the courtroom are witnesses who Wright must cross-examine in order to find flaws in their testimony.
While the basic gameplay doesn’t change over the course of five games, the first Ace Attorney appealed to gamers who might not have been invested in the title had it been a more straightforward visual novel. Proof that a story is improved with the addition of a compelling interface.