Games of 2016: Big stories

I

sn't this the thing that games are supposed to do for us now? They tell stories. They immerse us in grand narratives. They transport us to new places.

The telling of big stories has been the golden ideal for many game developers since the time of Yars' Revenge. In 2016, a sweeping tale defines a successful blockbuster video game. Modern AAA games are often marketed for their eye-popping vistas of human drama. Witness the trail of star names and faces making their way to recording and motion capture studios, via the bank.

Theoretically the correct fusing of technology, creativity and cash allows huge development teams to form vast landscapes and to populate them with fleshed-out characters.

The advertisements do not care to lure us with pitches that these games are about hiding behind rocks and shooting stuff. They urge us to save the city, free the universe, enrapture the love interest, avenge the misdeed and complete the self.

But the advertisements lie. Story is a shadowed backing singer, while action struts on center stage.

Games are more about challenge and progress than they are about emotion and character revelation. Game developers often make for poor storytellers, scrawling flimsy "hero's journey" narratives upon the surface of their creations, like formulae upon a window.

Even so, you can look at some games and see how they seek to draw emotion out of the player through actual interaction, through the interplay of human and avatar. Few creators have succeeded so well in this endeavor as Fumito Ueda, whose ...

The Last Guardian

... many hope, will finally arrive in the next 12 months, following an often fraught eight-year development history. A PlayStation 4 exclusive, this game comes with the very real pedigree of Ueda's much-loved work including Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

It's the story of a boy who is trapped in a castle. He must escape. He makes the acquaintance of a creature called Trico, which seems to be a cross between a cat and a griffin and a hyena or ... anyway, it's a weird, mystical construct.

Reveals so far have shown how the game relies upon creating a bond between the boy and the creature. Unlike many sidekicks, Trico is independent, playful and willful, which makes the promise of its cooperation all the more tantalizing.

There's a lovely moment in the game's E3 demo from 2015 when the boy takes a leap of faith and Trico saves him at the very last second. It's testament to Ueda's skill in creating drama within gameplay and in creating emotion through the connections between on-screen characters and the player.

The Last Guardian is set in a beautiful world of grandiose decline, setting up spacial puzzles in which Trico and the boy work together to traverse horizontal and vertical pathways.

"You have Trico the character beside you or to cling onto as a safety net," Ueda said at E3. "He's there to protect you. It also helps the players to overcome the physiological stress of being on ledges like this."

Plenty of literal cliffhangers are also expected in another big PS4 exclusive this year, though with a very different aura. In ...

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

... macho hero Nathan Drake is once again thrown into a convoluted tale of exploration and combat, as he seeks to uncover a conspiracy surrounding an old pirate's colony. It's directed by Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, whose previous work includes the much-admired post-apocalyptic tale The Last of Us.

The game, due for release on April 26, will once again mix up a cocktail of fist fights, gunplay, climbing, leaping, puzzle-solving and car chases with a bunch of colorful characters and easy-charm dialog.

But there are also relationships to explore in this, supposedly the last in the series. Drake is accompanied by his wife Elena, his mentor Sully and his dodgy long-lost brother Sam. And there'll be dialog options on offer, a first in the series.

And while the Uncharted franchise has sometimes been criticized for its linearity, there'll be more exploration on offer this time around. "Everything you see, you can go to," said Lead Designer Kurt Margenau last year. "We're not going to arbitrarily block you. It's still a directed experience. We have our beats, our big moments that we want to pinch you to, but we want to make the player come to them on their own. We're not shoving them down their throats."

Still, it's a long way from being an open world, for which PS4 owners might be better advised to turn to ...

Horizon Zero Dawn

... a new sci-fi action adventure from Guerrilla Games, best known for the Killzone series. Despite the somewhat generic name, Horizon seems to offer a new take on the well worn post-apocalyptic genre.

Its central figure is a young woman called Aloy, member of a stone-age-style tribe living a millennia following the fall of our civilization.

All is verdant and pretty, even among the abandoned cities, apart from the presence of dinosaur-like robots, which Aloy must fight using a variety of weapons, ranging from a simple bow to sci-fi lazer blasters purloined from the machines themselves.

Trailers and footage suggest that much of the story in this game will be told through the environments, most particularly the places left behind by the "old people" which is us. Few things are so fascinating as seeing dead versions of ourselves through the eyes of others.

The garden world itself and the presence of great dragon-like enemies have led some to make comparisons with Skyrim. There will be RPG elements to the game, though when it comes to open world games, that isn't saying much these days.

"Horizon Zero Dawn is a significant departure for our studio," says Game Director Mathijs de Jonge. "It's a third-person action RPG set in a lush open world of vast depth and scale. It's a story about mankind losing its seat atop the food chain to highly advanced machines. It has a strong, intelligent young tribal huntress through whom players will unravel the mystery and origin of this world. Still, Horizon Zero Dawn is also deeply rooted in our tradition of creating games with tactical combat and satisfying action amidst rich, immersive environments."

Big mysteries are also driving some of the big Xbox One exclusives in 2016, perhaps most notably with ...

Quantum Break

... from Remedy, the team behind Xbox 360 ultra-narrative mystery game Alan Wake. While Alan Wake weaved the conceit of a novelist's work coming to reality, Quantum Break turns to that old video game favorite, time manipulation.

In this world, an experiment gone wrong created a world in which time stutters and shudders, unleashing all manner of chaos. The game's central characters Jack and Paul are able to manipulate time and go about figuring out the central mystery by looking into the future or stopping time entirely.

What this means is a lot of puzzle-solving and shooting, in which the main characters are badly outgunned, but hold an ace advantage. It's always helpful, in a fix, to be able to stop time and run around for a bit.

But it also heralds a lot of contemplation on the pitiless nature of time. As the latest trailer points out, time is "the number one killer ... it will get us all."

Anyone who recalls Alan Wake will be aware that this is going to be a game with a lot of story, meaning cutscenes of anguished people talking to one another. There are also four episodes of a live-action TV-style series woven into the game, and they change according to how players play the game.

"There are certain trigger points in the [game] levels," said Creative Director Sam Lake last year. "It's the beginning of a butterfly effect. There's a chain of events ... and you'll see something happening in the show. And with that, you are getting a certain collectible.

"Then again, the other side around, [there] are certain props that contain information that you see in the show, which you miss if you don't watch the show. And by finding those specific props in the following act in the game, we are unlocking further content for you."

Quantum Break, due to be released on April 5, has been with us since it was first teased in 2013, when it was due to be released in 2014. Delays are nothing new in video games, and there will certainly be plenty of titles on this list that find themselves kicked down the lane into 2017 and beyond as time goes on.

By contrast ...

ReCore

... was only announced to the world at E3 six months ago, but is still slotted for a 2016 release.

Little is known about the game thus far, so its central point of interest is that it's being made by Keiji Inafune's Comcept studio, with help from Texas-based Armature, part of which worked on Metroid Prime. Inafune is well known for overseeing the Mega Man franchise as well as his work on games like Dead Rising.

ReCore's E3 trailer showed a human central character accompanied by a robot dog with a glowing core. In the course of a fight with enemy robot spiders, the dog self destructs, leaving behind its core, which is then used to reanimate a humanoid robot. You begin to see how this game will play out: a series of puzzles and battles in which a variety of robot sidekicks are dragooned by way of glowing cores.

"This trailer contains everything that I want to convey in this new IP," said Inafune at E3. "Every one of us has different levels of imagination that we can pull and attract out of our brains, but I think that at the sort of minimum level [you can see] the backstory, the setting, the world, the narrative and the gameplay elements that you can imagine what you'll be able to do and experience in this world. They're all in there."

The mastery of technology is a much-used device in video game storytelling. It's the magic wand that gets players through locked doors and beyond impenetrable enemies. Games being the province of computer programmers, it's also a favored theme for stories, with ...

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

... an obvious example. In the Deus Ex universe, first introduced by Warren Spector and Harvey Smith back in 2000, nanotechnology, advanced AI and human augmentation is used to suppress the masses, and as a tool of rebellion. Weapons include synthetic viruses and their vaccines. This is a world of cyberpunk heroics and villainy that was reinvigorated by Square Enix for the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011.

Set two years after Human Revolution, Mankind Divided sees brooding hero Adam Jensen make his first appearance on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game is due to arrive on Aug. 23. Jensen is an operative for an anti-terrorist organization, though he also works against his masters, who he distrusts. In Mankind Divided, conspiracy theories abound.

Gameplay-wise, it's an action RPG adding plenty of interaction with non-player characters that furnish the player with decisions about who to trust and who not to trust. Mankind Divided wants to give the player multiple paths to progress, even though they are essentially taking part in a scripted series of events.

"Deus Ex has always been about letting players choose how to experience the game while giving them the opportunity to think on more serious matters," says Executive Game Director Jean François Dugas. "It’s all about exploring who we are as a species, how we behave, how we feel, how we communicate, what drives us. In the end, I think that is what makes the franchise so interesting. And hopefully, Mankind Divided will continue to do that."

Players are given latitude to decide whether to focus on combat, stealth or a combination of the two. You can finish the entire game without killing anyone.

Much of the same can be said for ...

Dishonored 2

... which is being created by the aforementioned Harvey Smith, now at Arkane Studios. Like the 2012 predecessor, it's "a game about an assassin where you don't have to kill anyone," according to Smith. Judging by the E3 trailer, it's also a fantastically beautiful game, set in a quasi-Victorian world of splendor and squalor.

Two playable characters are on offer this time: Emily Kaldwin and the original game's protagonist Corvo Attano. For certain, you can expect gruesomely visaged enemies to be patrolling intricately designed levels with multiple paths to resolution.

Speaking of multiple paths, there's also a certain science fiction series that's making a comeback this year. None other than ...

Mass Effect Andromeda

... will allegedly be ready for the holiday season. Since its introduction in 2007, BioWare's Mass Effect series has been at the forefront of developing the idea of branching narratives and of creating the illusion of build-your-own adventure stories. This was somewhat compromised by Mass Effect 3's notoriously simplistic ending, which exposed the artifice of "choice" in video games.

Still, this may be more an indictment on the limitations of the form and the bombastic claims of marketing execs, than on BioWare.

So far, we've heard very little of the new game, as EA treats us to yet another carefully choreographed campaign of teases. We are told to expect new alien races and the return of all-terrain space buggy Mako, even though the game is set long after the events of the initial trilogy.

Andromeda's E3 2015 trailer focused heavily on the notion of galactic discovery, as a space-person scrolled through multiple sci-fi locations, before setting the spaceship towards a certain plant. Combat scenes followed.

On Nov. 7, a new trailer was released which was voiced by the initial series' main character Shepard, though she/he is not expected to feature in the new game. Shepard spoke about mankind's desire to explore over space age footage and in-game whirling galaxy shots, before "signing off."

According to BioWare, Andromeda is more of what you liked about the original series, except bigger and better. "We knew we wanted to start with a foundation composed of the best parts of any Mass Effect game," wrote the team in a blog post. "Exciting new worlds to discover, great characters, and intense action. At the same time, we clearly wanted to expand the definition of what you should expect from a Mass Effect game."

While Mass Effect gives us a future rendition of the entire Andromeda galaxy ...

Kingdom Come: Deliverance

... is restricted to Bohemia in the 15th Century, though this is a no-less alien place. Set during a bloody uprising, it's the tale of a young man trying to make his way in a dangerous world. This is a traditional role-playing game, except it adheres to historical truth. The Czech Republic-developed title even has its own resident historian.

The villages, dales, forests and farmsteads are not unlike Dragon Age's or Skyrim's. But those worlds are merely inspired by the rustic fantasy of the medieval age, while Kingdom Come: Deliverance is interested in its complexity, in its detail.

"I like history," said Daniel Vávra, co-founder of developer Warhorse Studios, last year. "I wanted to reconstruct it to see for myself how it might be to live back then. There were enough interesting things happening at the time that it gives us a lot of space for stories and quests."

Also inspired by the past, though more firmly rooted in the realm of fantasy, is ...

The Banner Saga 2

... the second part of the 2014 original, which told a deep and involving story based on Viking myths while working in tactical turn-based battles and overarching strategic choices.

"When the three of us started out on this journey four years ago, quit our jobs and designed The Banner Saga, we had in mind a sweeping epic saga," says John Watson from developer Stoic. "Since it would have been impossible for our small team to pull off such a large project, and since the saga neatly divided into three parts, we decided to tackle the first part. After our Kickstarter backers allowed us to push the quality bar upwards, we achieved [such] sufficient success that we have been able to continue the story with Banner Saga 2. We can't wait for you to play it, and to start work on the third and final part of the saga."

A lovely art style, beautiful music and tough conversational options with relatable characters drew positive reviews to the original game.

Conversations, characters and iconic imagery are also likely to feature heavily in ...

Batman

... from Telltale. The unnamed game was only announced in December, with an extremely vague teaser trailer set in the grimy streets of Gotham City. It doesn't seem right to talk about video games and stories without including a mention of Telltale, though, which has delighted audiences with dialog-and-puzzle games ranging in topic from Game of Thrones to Borderlands.

“This iteration of Batman will give fans a first-hand opportunity to dive deeper into the complex life and mind of Bruce Wayne," said Telltale CEO Kevin Bruner last year. "The duality of his own identity, and the struggle of responsibility in saving a city overcome with corruption and villainy."

Next up: Competitive games including Overwatch, Paragon, Doom and Drawn to Death