With the rise of independent development, we’ve seen a number of changes ripple through our industry. If not exactly tearing down the old idols, indie games have broadened our options and pushed the boundaries of what games are capable of, and what we expect from them.
One of the most interesting ways the envelope has been pushed is in the realm of storytelling — a bit of a forgotten art in games that’s enjoying a renaissance as indie games step out onto the main stage.
As a longtime devotee of narrative, and as someone who celebrates any time this medium is advanced, I want to celebrate some of best of the best, the most moving, interesting, and personal stories indie games have told us thus far.
Fair warning: While I’ll try to avoid specifics whenever I can, it’s impossible to celebrate these games’ stories without talking about them in general terms. Take heed if you’re especially sensitive to spoilers.
Point in case, #GoneHome is a game that you should really play in full before you read about it. If you have any interest at all in #TheFullbrightCompany’s 2013 opus, pause right now, go pick it up, and come back when you’ve finished. It’ll only take you a handful of hours, and I promise you it’ll be worth it.
Done? Pretty amazing, right? One of the things Gone Home does so well is something that’s rarely attempted in games (and almost never executed with any success): the grand narrative red herring. It starts with overtures of a typical first-person horror game; a lone protagonist explores gloomy, slightly spooky empty house that’s surely haunted.
And yes, the old manse is haunted in a sense, by all the memories and tragedies and whirlwind dramas, tiny and huge, subtle or overt, that dog any modern suburban American family.
Gone Home tells powerful stories about thwarted love, infidelity, and nostalgia (for a past that may never have existed) in a novel way, by letting the player discover it in the notes and objects that litter the house, making them feel powerfully immersed in it. It’s one of the best stories and coolest storytelling devices not just in indie games, but in the whole of gaming.
#NinaFreeman’s highly personal story of young love and internet romance makes this list for a number of reasons, but most of all because it’s so relatable to anyone who grew up in the era of nascent MMOs (or even AOL chat rooms and Instant Messenger). It’s the age-old story of boy meets girl, filtered through the lens of private chats and selfies, and it’s as fraught and melodramatic and beautiful as so many of our first loves were.
It shares with Gone Home the virtue of telling a story in an interesting way (it's no surprise then that Freeman is currently working with Fullbright on Tacoma). It conveys its narrative through snippets of online conversation and the random detritus accumulated on the main character’s desktop. Another refreshing trend we owe largely to indie games: the ability to tell complicated, interesting stories without reducing gameplay to clicking through a visual novel.
#DepressionQuest is a marvel, a game that has the capacity and audacity to not just tell us a story, but to make us empathize with the suffering of others and contemplate a mental disorder that troubles hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
Through the strength of its writing, its simple interface, and its protagonist’s onerous struggle against ennui, it’s that rarest of games that lets us peek through the keyhole into another life and genuinely feel what it’s like for other people to contest with their personal demons.
Like Cibele, Depression Quest does something that few would’ve had the courage to even consider, much less attempt, as recently as a decade ago in this industry. It exposes its creators in a deeply personal way, and leans all the way into its story, relying on this often dark, revelatory pseudo-biography to carry the game. It doesn’t present a traditional win state, but provides an opportunity for actual growth and even a little sliver of genuine enlightenment.
What are some of the best narratives you've encountered in indie games? Make some recommendations to the community in the comments, or write your own post!