Story-driven titles, be they based around simple text or visual based interactions or on top of fleshed out other genres/mixes of genres, always have to consider the dangers of being story-driven – does the story focus enhance with the gameplay, is something done at the expense of something else, are the stories written and/or told in a good enough way for the game to have a story focus? Let’s look at some good examples among the titles where story is almost all there is: Orwell, Emily is Away Too and The Banner Saga 2.
Orwell is a rather mechanically simple game about seemingly objective system of surveillance and crime prevention. There was a terrorist attack and you, the independent investigator with no bias, need to feed the Orwell system with bits and pieces of information you find on possible suspects and connected people. Digging through public information, going on their social networks and blogs and digging deep, wiretapping calls and reading chats. With the idea being that there a specific data pieces that can objectively help the investigation.
Of course, bits and pieces, torn out of context, are not necessarily simple to use “objectively” and everything can be spun and shaped in very biased directions. Which is shown in, surprisingly, mild and creeping way, for which I can praise the developers. While it doesn’t touch upon more extreme examples of both governmental and public misuse of available data, which, I felt, should’ve been also covered, it gets the point across, not just about more in your face Orwellian government controlled things, but about a lot of things suffering from the same misuse and shaping of out of context materials – sensationalism in media, information wars between and within countries, internet heated discussions gone wrong and just about the faults of human arguments in general. There’s a next “season” of the game announced already so there’s good potential they can cover more important topics in the future, but I just hope they keep the tightly story-driven element at the core as it really is what keeps it interesting.
Emily is Away Too is a very curious story-driven “internet messenger simulator”, so to speak. It’s a paid sequel to an earlier free project Emily is Away, and has the same basic premise – exploring how friendship/relationships evolve and change as time flies. While the original game was a bit finicky and was a bit harder to suspend disbelief or care about characters due to the yearly gaps in conversations, the sequel enhances the basic idea to something truly amazing. First of, you don’t need to pretend-type now with the option to just auto-fill your replies, which makes it feel less tedious and more in pace with the events. Secondly, it makes the gaps in conversations much shorter and each chapter more meaningful by having two main contacts/characters to interact with.
Now, you may, as I have, still have some troubles just due to the nature of the game – as someone who’s friendships and even relationships spent a lot of time in online talking in messengers of various kinds, as someone who never considered internet a separate thing and as someone who’s musical choices go more in line with the avatars in the game rather than choices you can actually set for preferences, there are moments where I just went “ugh”, because the game was forcing me to be a character, rather then a virtualised version of me, which the whole narrative really wanted to achieve. But, despite all that, despite the inability to juggle two person’s issues in the game (something that I managed to do in real life at times -_-), I cared. I really REALLY cared. The story was exaggerated and went along rather strict rails depending on strict choices you can do, sure. But it felt like an expert from life, just something that could’ve happened and something that actually happened in one or another way. And for that, especially given the very low price of the game, I cannot recommend giving Emily is Away Too a go enough – you should give it a few hours of your life. Either to experience something you never had, or to re-experience echos of something that you might’ve. Or even find something that is happening with you right now.
The Banner Saga 2 is, in many ways, a definite improvement over the first game/first act of the story. But at the same time, as it’s strengths are unchanged, so are the weaknesses. It still looks and sounds great, even if it’s strangely locked to unchangeable and dynamically adapting to your desktop resolution setting. The story is expanding and growing in very interesting directions, never feeling like it’s retreading the same steps and evolving the characters and the storyline as it goes. Although, the fact that it’s just a second act of three feels even stronger here, this being the mid-point of the saga – there’re too many hints and not enough answers by now and I’m hoping the developers can really unload all this build-up in the third part with grace.
But the battles are still the same boredom as before, despite new classes and types of enemies. I know, I’m not a fan of such games so it’s clearly not for me, but I’m genuinely surprised that with the story as important as it is in this game, there’s no “story-only” mode that just skips the battles or leaves them to the random element based on how your characters are developed, to skip past what people like me will find boring. As strange is the fact that none of the RPG stats still mean anything outside the battles and aren’t actually used to define anything in the choices you can make in the story. Which ultimately makes me feel that while I can understand the financial reasons behind the 3 separate releases, so far I feel like this disjointed, separated by years, narrative doesn’t really benefit the story at all and I hope there’s some special “The Complete Banner Saga” in planning, which will address the issues and make the story feel complete.