Indie Games with the Best Stories

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Something that is repeated over and over again is that gaming is perfect for escapism. As soon as you load your game, you can be transported to a whole other dimension.

A certain characteristic that aids with escapism is the story in the game. So many brilliant stories have been created by the smallest of studios.

That’s why today, we are going to be exploring:

Indie Games with the Best Stories

We will explore:

  • What story makes a successful game
  • Which games have the best stories
  • Why they are so engaging

In order to discuss this topic, we will first have to pick apart all the key elements that constructs an engaging story.

What is it that makes us desperate to engross ourselves in the lives of the main characters?

There are four integral points that make us want to play as these characters and learn how the journey unfolds:

 Plot

What is a story without a plot? How would we possibly want to spend time learning and playing as these characters if there is no plot to follow?

This, I feel is the backbone of a story. It describes the main events about to happen before us that will shape the decisions in the future; it is what made us want to buy the game in the first place! Without this, there is no story.

Equally, the plot has to be unique and unpredictable. I know I certainly wouldn’t bother following a character if I could keep guessing what was going to happen to them.

Characters

Characters are free to the imagination of the developers. They can make them as relatable to the player as possible in order to feel more linked to the story that is being portrayed in the game. Equally they can be as distant from you as possible creating the ability to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”. You can live as if you are somebody completely new.

For instance, Battlefield lets you follow the stories of soldiers in World War One while Grand Theft Auto lets you live the life of American Gangsters: something you never saw happening before.

As the character has more personality – maybe some traits you can relate to, you’re more likely to grow attached to their story and what to seem them through till the end.

Goals

If a character’s goal was to finish his Maths homework, I don’t think this target would motivate anyone to follow his story. However, if the goal was to discover the reason for the disappearance of the human race, we are certainly more likely to want to complete that goal.

The targets that the main characters have to reach are what motivate us to play the game in the first place. While we’ll have a bigger sense of achievement for completing a more dramatic goal, we’ll also find ourselves engaging with a more dramatic story.

Setting

Where the game is set is equally as important as it can control the emotions we feel in a certain point in the game. Dark, dreary rooms can easily make us feel more anxious and scared while lighter settings can relax our emotions.

Taking this into consideration, here are examples of games that have mastered all the areas that make or break a story.

The First game that deserves a mention is Abi.

Abi

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This is the sweet mobile game developed by Lilith Games.

“The world was once a place brimming with life, a place full of people. Now, the last of humanity has mysteriously disappeared in pursuit of perfection and immortality, transforming themselves into machines. Then they vanished altogether. The only beings left are the robots who were once servants to humanity.”

The story unfolds as you follow two deserted robots, travelling the world trying to discover what happened to the human race.

Each character has quirky designs and is full of personality – something you wouldn’t expect a robot to pursue. This trait alone adds to the attraction of the story as the players feel empathy for the robots making them want to follow their story.

As for the setting, we see the game unfold on a dust ridden planet that was once our home. The relatability of this – telling the players that this was once our home – definitely adds to emotions it brings as the story unfolds.

The game has us view what are distant memories for the robots making us feel even more sorry for them! All the flashbacks that include the humans of the future make the players ask the question “Is that really what we are going to be like in the future? Are we really going to be that naive?” Seeing more hidden factors about our future reveal in the game makes our curiosity grow more and more.

I had the chance to speak to the developers behind the game and the key to the unpredictable story was “Keep asking ourselves “what if” What if most of the science fiction stories are true, that the robots walk the earth in the end?

Next, we lead to our next question: where happened to the humans? Were they wiped out by evil robots, or did they find the earth was no longer ideal for living so they just took a ship and left? Or something else? 

After some discussions, we realized that this could be the question for the players as well. After we had decided the answer to the question, we started to plant the clues (in both the main and the branch storylines) throughout the whole game.”

The topic of mystery and discovery reminded me of another game:

Unravel

Certainly a story to pull on your heart strings, Unravel was created with exactly that in mind.

You play as “Yarny”, the curious character made solely out of  yarn who unravels the further he travels to reconnect the lost memories of a lonely, old woman. He journeys through the recognisable surroundings of a traditional back garden as well as other settings more challenging for our protagonist.

The main goal is such a deep and meaningful one never truly approached by developers before that it instantly wants I see to help Yarny help the old lady reconnect with her past.

With the majority of us having the older generation close to us in one way or another, this can become quite a personal experience.

And with the character being so fragile and innocent yet so selfless and determined to complete his journey, the players are continuously routing for him to succeed.

While we can imagine, what would seem to him as huge obstacles, it still quite difficult to predict what will happen in the end. Will he unravel just as he finds all the memories?

Will he be destroyed before he gets there? I’m left with so many questions that I have to play the game!

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Creative Director, Martin Sahlin communicated why meaningful stories behind a game are important to him:

“The way I see it, games are really powerful. They reach so many people, and they have the ability to truly captivate the audience in a way that few other art forms can. As a game maker, that makes me feel a certain responsibility.

I don’t want to make games that are just distractions. Time is worth more than that. I want to give players more meaningful experiences instead. Unravel™ was created in that spirit. I wanted to make something more personal, something with more impact.”

The game didn’t have to change the world, or even try, but it had to be genuine, it had to have a deeper meaning. It had to have heart.

While having a sweet back story, Unravel still offers a wonderful problem solving game that will have you playing it for ages.

Firewatch

If any quote promotes the story in a game, it’s this one:

If there can be such a thing as a page-turner in video games, this is one.

– polygon

Similar to Abi, this game is a mystery game where you play as a lone man who wanders the wilderness keeping lookout for fires with specialist tools and a walkie talkie. The person on the other side of the line is your only contact while on the job – they are your only emotional lifeline.

As you continue your job in the Wyoming outdoors, you uncover more about the character you play and the messy life he left behind as well as the area you live in.

This game differs from the ones mentioned above as the character you play as is just an ordinary guy named Henry in 1989; he’s not an Alien or Robot. As he is just a normal human being, hearing his story can really make you feel for him.

As for the setting, while it might not be one we are all used to, it can be somewhat recognisable to a wider range of players than other settings.

This idea of a (quite literally) down to Earth game offers a more real experience rather than offering a story that you know is imaginary.

What’s special about the goals and objectives in this game as this they are more hidden than they seem. While he continues his job in the outdoors, the hidden goal is more between Henry and his colleague on the handheld radio.

Here’s an example of stories with plots and characters we are less likely to be able to relate to:

Never Alone

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Another game that approaches a story from a complete new angle is Never Alone.

To develop this game, Upper One Games had the help of just under 40 native Alaskan people to help with the authenticity of the game. Thanks to this, it makes the plot, goals, setting, and characters more unique and realistic than any other game on the market.

The game was inspired by the Native Art and stories – the foundations of Alaska’s history.

“Play as a young Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox as they set out to find the source of the eternal blizzard which threatens the survival of everything they have ever known.”

You play as two characters: Nuna, the young girl and the fox, each with their own unique personality and skills to complete different tasks.

The setting communicates the harshness of Arctic Winter – something only few of us can genuinely say we’ve experienced. With the character belonging to a complete new culture, we don’t find ourselves relating to her any where near as much as with the characters in other games.

However, as this game allows us to step into somebody’s shoes, someone we never thought about, the games creates a completely unique and educational experience.

And with goal of hushing the vast winds that play havoc in her village, we want to help her, and the fox, complete it seeing how selfless she is being.

What have we learnt?

Certain trends in all of these games and their stories have definitely showed themselves:

  • Relatability – the more we connect with the characters and/ or their story, the more we want to complete their story and help them complete their objectives.
  • Mystery – plots that involve us uncovering more clues in order to complete a mystery have certainly contributed to creating an interesting story.
  • Uniqueness – the more original (and sometimes imaginative) the story is, the more it draws us to the game. Everyone has played a first person shooter or a fantasy role playing game. However, these games with the great stories are the ones that win our hearts.
  • Emotional Empathy – Seeing how vulnerable and yet determined the character is, you want to help them out more and more.

So, if you’re a developer, here is a useful tip to help create the most attractive game: focus on that story!

And if you’re a game enthusiast, try uncover indie games that aren’t as popular as the ones everyone plays. The hidden indie games can include some of the most captivating adventures.



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