LAN Party (Let’s-Analyze-Now Party) is a monthly feature where we ask With a Terrible Fate’s analysts to answer a prompt about their personal experiences with gaming. Answer the prompt for yourself, and join the discussion!
Welcome to the fifth edition of LAN Party!
With the unbelievable year that was 2020 now coming to a close, many had the special privilege of experiencing, discovering, or rediscovering the beauty of video games as a sophisticated mode of storytelling that can offer us everything from an escape from reality to a means of cultivating the skills needed to face the world and better understand our own identities.
In that spirit, we invited With a Terrible Fate’s analysts to rank the five best stories they’ve experienced in video games this year. Check out their picks below, and let us know what the best games you read this year were!
Laila Carter (Video Game Analyst)
5. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
This canonical Zelda game is on my list because I finally get to see my girl Urbosa be an absolute legend. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity gives many Breath of the Wild fans what they wanted: just more story about the Champions of Hyrule and how it was 100 years ago. You meet old characters interacting with one another, new characters who help out, and character development that was not fully there before. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is a What If type of story, and you want to keep going to see if you really can change the past and defeat Calamity Ganon. Also, the gameplay is really satisfying and almost addicting.
Yeah, this one came out some time ago, but I finally got around to it in 2020, of all years. Abzu features silent storytelling, where visuals tell the narrative and you as the player have to see the clues and put the pieces together yourself. I really like the hieroglyphs that appear on the ancient walls of the ocean setting, as you literally have to decipher what happened and what you must do going forward. Also, it’s the most relaxing game in the world.
3. Paper Mario: Origami King
This summer surprise is a really fun and refreshing game. The past two Paper Mario games have been mediocre at best, but this one delighted everyone by how charming it is. Needing to save the princess from malevolent origami (instead of Bowser, thank god), Mario makes heads out on a colorful and creative journey. He makes companion friends along the way who help you in battle, and he encounters intriguing and inventive settings. The side character Olivia has a life of her own, complementing Mario’s silent non-personality really well. If anything, though, you should play for the music. It’s fire.
2. Final Fantasy VII Remake
FFVIIR was my first Final Fantasy VII experience, yes, but I already knew the story 100 times over. I wanted to see what they would do to please fans after 20 years of waiting. They did not disappoint, as the game is just such a ride. The story does the characters justice—especially Cloud, Aerith, and Barret (I love him so much)—giving us engaging personalities and good character moments. The game is also really hard to put down. There was one point in the story where I played 5 chapters in a row because the tension and the stakes were so high that I couldn’t stop. And this is even when I knew what was going to happen. That’s good game storytelling.
This. Game. Is. GODLY. There is a reason it was nominated for Best Game of 2020. I love rogue-like dungeon games because the more you try, the more you succeed at beating the game. The main mechanic is getting better at the game through repetition, muscle-memory, and “leveling up”/acquiring more items that help you in the future. Hades took this a step further: Not only do you learn how to beat enemies or gain new abilities, but the story also progresses. The more you die, the more you learn about the characters, backstory, and the protagonist’s (Zagreus’) story. The gameplay makes you want to die so that you can continue the story. Amazing. I gotta write an article about this.
Dan Hughes (Video Game Analyst, Seriesrunner of Now Loading… The Video Game Canon!)
5. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
I suppose it’s fair to say that I’m surprised and heartened that I still get as excited as I do for a new Zelda title even now at my ripe old age of “Older Than I’d Like to Be.” Age of Calamity had me hooked from the start with its take on a wartorn Hyrule from one hundred years before Breath of the Wild, and managed to not only be one of the more fun games I’ve sunk sixty hours into this year, but also an unexpected exploration of falling victim to cycles of violence, having a second chance to say something meaningful to a loved one, and, ultimately, what it means to change history in a game series like The Legend of Zelda. As a lifelong fan of this series, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity impressed and engaged me in a way I haven’t felt since Ocarina of Time.
4. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
2020 was the year of engrossing JRPG stories for me, and this was an easy fourth pick for me. As much as I love more modern RPGs that deconstruct tropes and try to reconstruct them in an entirely new way, there is something so refreshing about the absolute optimism of a game like Dragon Quest XI. Not only did this game have me genuinely surprised at every twist and turn of its story, but it also kept my attention by refusing to adopt a cynical take or sideways glance at the story it was telling. I kept expecting the betrayal from a friend or the moment where the characters succumb to despair and have a good long think about what it means to be a JRPG anyway, but it never came. It was simply an earnest tale of good versus evil with characters I’ll remember for years to come, and was a constant reminder of what drew me to JRPGs in the first place: Heart.
3. Final Fantasy VII Remake
Before you grab your torches and pitchforks, please be aware that it was a near three-way tie for these last games on the list, so feel free to supplant the #1 game with this if you’d like. I am such a Final Fantasy VII fan that it should be criminal, and this game didn’t just satisfy everything I was wanting in a remake: it also opened my eyes to incredibly new and innovative ways of storytelling in video games. I think we’ve only just scratched the surface here with how brilliant this game truly is, and I can’t wait to see the discourse progress as the games do.
2. Nioh 2
Every few years, I play a game that feels like it was tailor-made especially for me. In 2017, it was the first Nioh, and its sequel has carried on the tradition spectacularly. Like its predecessor, Nioh 2 is a wonderful, magical-realist look at the history of Japan, and it continues in the tradition of playing with your expectations of what simulation and art can be. This game takes it a step further, weaving a beautiful tapestry of role-playing, artistic interpretation, the cyclical nature of existence, and so much more. So much more, in fact, that I might just have to write an article or two about it. Stay tuned!
1. Persona 5 Royal
One thing you must know about me is that I am always late to the party when someone tells me that party is amazing and I need to go to it. Such was my introduction to Persona 5, and so I avoided it until the latter part of 2019. I picked it up because I was looking for a new JRPG, and as soon as I got to the first palace, I was reminded of how stupid I am for refusing to go to these wonderful parties.
Persona 5 Royal was, therefore, an instant purchase for me, and I sank nearly 200 hours into it, all told. I was engrossed in the world it created, I still listen to the soundtrack everyday, and I use its characters as placeholders when I’m trying to describe an archetype. (“Oh, he’s a real Ryuji.”)
But most importantly, this game and its conclusion had a profound effect on how I view storytelling in video games: it made me rethink my role not only as a player, but also as a human being interacting with a story filled with lifelike characters. I’ll be thinking about this party for years to come, and I am so glad to have finally opened my invite.
Caymus Ducharme (Video Game Analyst)
5. Final Fantasy VII
An absolute classic, the original Final Fantasy VII exists as a landmark in the history of video-game storytelling, its influence remaining to this very day. When I played it earlier this year, I found myself particularly fascinated in the game’s courage to tackle very prevalent issues that persist in the world today. The way it manages to juggle topics such as environmentalism, mental health, and identity all at once without coming off as preachy and bloated deserves immense recognition. Final Fantasy VII was one of the first video games to offer a nuanced examination of serious subject matter, and for that reason, I believe it remains a very valuable game to analyze despite how outdated it has become.
4. Final Fantasy VII Remake
I dove into Final Fantasy VII Remake immediately following my foray in the original, focused on comparing the two games. While I take issue with many of the more convoluted directions the remake takes the plot, I find myself impressed with many of the changes made to the narrative. I love how the remake takes the already nuanced discussions in the original and expands them further to prompt more thought-provoking conversations. In particular, my favorite addition to the game is the track “Hollow Skies,” which plays in the Sector 5 slums. Creating a somber, reflective atmosphere, “Hollow Skies” projects the conflicted emotions of the characters onto the player and urges them to contemplate the actions taken by Avalanche throughout the story. By changing and expanding upon its source material, Final Fantasy VII Remake offers an interesting challenge to the traditional view of what a remake can or should be.
3. Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Azure Moon/Blue Lions Route)
The fact that my time with Fire Emblem: Three Houses this year was my second playthrough holds significant value; I played the Crimson Flower/Black Eagles Route the year prior and chose to tackle the Azure Moon/Blue Lions Route this year. This choice proved to be a great one since these two routes not only link together perfectly but also highlight the core of the narrative.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a game about perspective. The game centers its story on a conflict between three factions and divides it into multiple branching paths depending on which faction the player aligns with. Each route offers a unique perspective on the conflict, and only by playing through all of them will the player fully comprehend the grand picture. By deliberately withholding information from the player in this way, Fire Emblem: Three Houses demonstrates how each side of a conflict views it in their own way. In one route, a character may be a savior that eliminates oppression, but in another, they may be a tyrant that gets their way by warmongering. I particularly loved the contrast between Edelgard and Dmitiri present in the two aforementioned routes as it reflects this theme very effectively.
With two more routes left, my time with Fire Emblem: Three Houses is far from over, but based on the two I have played, the way it uses a route structure to present its central thematic discussion absolutely deserves praise.
2. Persona 5: The Royal
It is fitting that a game that derives its title from Jungian psychology would revolve around the question of identity, and Persona 5: The Royal absolutely delivers. Specifically, its use of a blank-slate protagonist works brilliantly with the narrative. Throughout the story, the player encounters a plethora of characters, many of which struggle with the question of identity. Some do not know who they want to be, and others grapple with the false identities attributed to them by those around them. As the player progresses through the story, they assist these various characters with their individual struggles and help them craft an identity of their own.
What I find especially unique about Persona 5: The Royal is that it uses the protagonist to emulate this process in the player. Because the protagonist is a blank slate, the player can shape him however they please. By playing through the game and interacting with its characters, they begin to construct a unique identity for their protagonist. This relationship stands out because it takes role-playing and assigns it special value in the context of the narrative, and I believe it gives Persona 5: The Royal a distinct presence in the video game storytelling sphere.
1. Outer Wilds
You need to play Outer Wilds right now. There are few games I can say truly deserve the title of masterpiece — a work so expertly crafted you cannot help but be awed by its seemingly incomprehensible majesty. Outer Wilds is one of those games. It stands as a triumph of game design and excels due to its synergy. Its gameplay loop is inextricably linked to its narrative, which it tells naturally through its stellar world.
However, the soundtrack remains by far the most exemplary component. By tying the soundtrack to its gameplay loop, narrative, and world, Outer Wilds manages to create some of the most impactful moments I have ever experienced in my history of gaming. I regard the moment when the track “Final Voyage” begins playing as one of the best sequences of gaming ever made. If it sounds like I am being overly hyperbolic and vague, it is because I am. I highly suggest going into Outer Wilds as blind as possible because it is a game that is not meant to be played a second time by virtue of its distinct game design and the thematic takeaway it provides.
There is so much I can say about Outer Wilds, but I will save that for the future analyses I plan to write about it. Please, do yourself a favor, and play Outer Wilds!
Aaron Suduiko (Founder, Chief Video Game Analyst)
5. The Last of Us Part II
I’m honestly surprised at how controversial this game has been since its release. What’s stuck with me about this story since its release isn’t its cinematic value but rather the way in which it quietly uses game mechanics to reinforce its core themes: just as the original The Last of Us leans on its gameplay, plot, and pacing to paint a moving representation of survival, the sequel offers chillingly cohesive portrait of revenge with a plot that’s uncomfortably pursued by the avatar—taking the player along for the ride—beyond the the logical “happy ending” conclusion and into an abyss from which they cannot return.
4. Hollow Knight
I finally buckled down and played through this—including the absolutely frustrating path to its “secret ending”—in preparation for the presentation With a Terrible Fate offered at PAX East 2020 on games that were inspired by and comment on the work of Hidetaka Miyazaki. At that presentation, Matt McGill gave a moving analysis of how Hollow Knight reconceives of difficulty in a more positive and empowering light than the Dark Souls series (I touch on his discussion of Hollow Knights trophies in my article on trophy-based storytelling); for my part, every time I pick up this game, I fall in love with its ability to tell such a robust, challenging, allegorical story with even less text than something like the famously opaque and inscrutable Dark Souls saga.
3. Amnesia: Rebirth
I love SOMA creator Frictional Games’ Amnesia series because with each subsequent entry in it, they demonstrate the power of an “anthology series”: not focusing on a singular, neverending plotline, but rather taking a very different cast of characters and inserting them into a thematically constant scenario—in this case, one governed by a dark, tortured past that’s been buried by amnesia, forcing the avatar and player together into an uncomfortable relationship of mutual uncertainty about what their goals are and whether they’re good or bad people. The series’ fourth entry, Rebirth, was a home-run in this regard, introducing the uncommon avatar profile of a pregnant woman to put an entirely new, hauntingly maternal spin on the series’ dark themes of technology, survivalism, and the value of fear.
2. Demon’s Souls (PS5)
I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never played Demon’s Souls until its remaster for the PlayStation 5 this year. While I’m excited to dig into it further in future full-length analyses, I loved it upon first impression for its simplicity, especially in comparison to Miyazaki’s later masterpieces like the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne: it offers something between a prototype and a cipher for the themes and messages he elaborates upon in the rest of his oeuvre.
1. Final Fantasy VII Remake
It should go without saying that the game that inspired me to start a whole analytical series devoted to its landmark impact on the storytelling of video games takes the top spot on the list of games I played in 2020. By taking one of the most renowned video-game stories of all time and reimagining it in a way that seems more unbelievably sophisticated and compelling every time one looks at it, the creator of Final Fantasy VII Remake gave birth to a storytelling phenomenon that analysts and storytellers alike will be studying for years to come.
Which video-game stories made your year? Which are you champing at the bit to play in 2021? Let us know in the comments—and, as always, thank you for joining With a Terrible Fate on the journey to better appreciate and understand what makes the storytelling of video games just so exceptional.