I’ve always loved a good story. Maybe a bit too much for a gamer. Soap’s story is my favourite thing about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and I’ve always loved the career modes in NBA 2K. I even like average games if the story is interesting, case in point The Order: 1886. It’s why I still like Fallout 3 more than Fallout 4 and what draws me back to Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s also what has me amped for Red Dead Redemption 2. Absurdly amped.
First, a spoiler warning. Don’t read this if you haven’t played Red Dead Redemption, Life is Strange, The Last of Us, and its DLC Left Behind. They are great games and every gamer should have played them by now. If only so you know what is possible in a video game. If you haven’t, know that reading this will give away everything. So play them now. Thank me later.
One of the reason’s I’m looking forward to Red Dead Redemption 2 is the ending of the first game. Despite being sparse, repetitive, and locked into the cliches of the revisionist western, Red Dead Redemption had my favourite ending of any video game. Seemingly, the entire point of the game is getting John Marston back to his family. You do that, do some mundane family stuff, before he is gunned down by corrupt government agents. Cut to a figure standing over a grave on the Marston ranch. Did he survive? Was it all some weird dream? No. It’s Jack, John’s son. An outlaw and gunfighter, just like his father, caught in a world of violence and revenge.
The ending of Red Dead Redemption is sad. But, it’s a video game. A video game that’s sad, and melancholic, and thoughtful, and intelligent. Red Dead Redemption isn’t about John Marston saving his family, it’s about saving himself. Finding redemption in the attempt to save his family. Making up, and paying for, all the evil he has done. In Red Dead Redemption 2 we just might get to see all that evil in John Marston’s past.
Red Dead Redemption might still be my favourite ending. But, three years after it I decided that The Last of Us was the best game I had ever played. The best game and the best story. Last year, Life is Strange was one of my top five games. It had some laughably awkward dialogue, little gameplay - other than a bit of pointing and clicking, and when I downloaded it on the PS4 it glitched so bad that half of chapter four was virtually unplayable. But, it somehow made it into my top five games of the year. I’ve changed my mind since then. It is now my favourite game of 2015.
What stands out in both games is the strength of the stories. The use of genre tropes and conventions, and the courage and imagination to turn those conventions upside down. The devastating set pieces, dramatic character development and the way both games end. They present the same final choice to their leads. Not the easy choice John Marston gets; sacrifice yourself to save your family. A choice that’s far more challenging.
The opening of The Last of Us is now something of legend. Told with economy and subtlety, we find out what kind of man Joel is in the space of one conversation with his daughter. We see his love for her, his dry humour, his strength and determination. Then, through her sleepy eyes we watch as the world begins to crumble.
The sequence ends with with the most surprising and emotionally devastating scene ever presented in a videogame. Carrying all the more weight because leading up to Sarah’s death is a familiar set piece. Uncle Tommy directs you to safety and stays behind so you can escape. You’ve avoided the zombies, figured out where you need to go, and got there in the nick of time. You did everything right, followed all the zombie apocalypse rules, and still Sarah dies.
Although it isn’t the heart-pounding beginning of The Last of Us, the opening of Life is Strange morphs into something just as surprising. You enter the life of Max, through her inner monologue and awesome Jane Doe t-shirt. The first awesome t-shirt of many. You are encouraged to examine the minutiae of the world - people, pictures on the wall, a name scratched into a desk. It’s an opening that you can take your time with. If you like Syd Matters’ To All of You, you can listen to it continuously as you wander the hallways of Blackwell Academy. Even after Chloe is shot, and the game tells you to hurry, you’re not penalised if you don’t. It doesn’t even send you back to a checkpoint. It just reminds you to rewind, and try again.
The Last of Us eventually slows down, after the gut-wrenching opening sequence. It’s twenty years after his daughter’s death, perhaps to the day, and Joel still has nightmares. He’s still consumed by it. He’s hardened, haunted, and weary. On the streets of Boston’s quarantine zone he’s the muscle behind Tess’s smuggling operation. Tess calls the plays and Joel backs them up with bullets and broken bones. A smuggler, a murderer, a survivor.
Ellie too has her baggage. We immediately see her combativeness and mistrust of strangers. But, we also find out in the DLC Left Behind about her life before she meets Joel. She’s a loner, with dead parents, dead friends, ties to the Fireflies, and a life in military school. In three or four years Ellie would be one of the gas-masked soldiers patrolling the perimeter of the quarantine zone, testing people and shooting them if they’re infected.
Continue reading on page 2.