This post completes the countdown of the commercial releases I hope are going to do fascinating things with interactive narrative over the coming year or so. I hope you enjoyed the ride, and do let me know what you think.
The story so far:
14. The Old Republic
13. I Am Alive
10. The Last Guardian
6. Fallout: New Vegas
5. Portal 2
4. The Witness
1. LA Noire
Team Bondi Creative Director: Brendan McNamara Release: Q4 2010 Format: 360, PS3
So it is, the No. 1 spot - and congrats to Octaeder for guessing it spot on. I love indie games for their (sometimes naive) ambition, and they've dominated the top half of this list, but when I really thought about what deserved to make the top of the podium, LA Noire turned out to be the game that I feel strikes the best balance between broadening the ways in which we tell interactive stories; providing an engaging, polished experience; and actually having half a chance of delivering on its promises.
So why does this game's success intrigue me more than the ebullient collection of prospects further up the page? If I've excluded GTA V and Mafia II, why should what is essentially GTA: Noir get so much as a mention?
It's all about that balance. Behind the familiar GTA framework lies a game not so much concerned with drive bys (though I'm sure there'll be a touch too much of that for my liking) as with crime investigation and human interaction. Where Red Dead and Bully proved to be straight up relocations of the GTA format, LA Noire's extended (and at least once rebooted) development cycle has brought the game far closer to a genuine pursuit of more than just the film noir aesthetic. On a thematic level it's a game about interrogations, deceit and human flaws, but that's something that carries through into the gameplay.
While crime scenes are by no means procedural - we're still dealing with a more complex iteration of old school point & click mechnics - we're promised the angles will quickly open up. Find the murder weapon and the receipt in the abandoned vehicle, question the shop keeper successfully and harass your suspect into a confession. Or follow him home and give his wife some grief. Or just wait around and see if he comes back for his car.
More important are the interrogations. We've heard every game with pretty pictures for the last ten years claim mastery of the uncanny valley, and while Team Bondi's unlikely to deliver on that one, it's moving facial animation in an absolutely essential direction: towards emotional communication. An interrogation can be affected by anything from the clues you've collected to the style of your approach, but they key element will be your ability to read the characters.
That Team Bondi expects us to be able to tell whether or not we're being deceived at all is a unique and crucial step forward; that we're expected to do so not from what characters say but from how they say it renders this an exciting experiment indeed.
Honourable mentions & closing comments
There's a host of fast approaching sequels that promise to deliver compelling narrative experiences that didn't quite make the list. Games like Mafia II, GTA V and Mass Effect 3 are bound to be great, but they're unlikely to do anything worth writing about. Conversely, more elusive efforts like Beyond Good & Evil 2 and Spy Party are just too obscure right now to really consider seriously. Deus Ex: Human Revolution I just plain forgot about.
Looking through what's coming up, though, I realise that while I've been grudgingly writing yearly previews for various outlets for some time, I really feel this year like things are finally looking more positive. While a great many of the projects listed clearly fall into our industry's traditionally glass-is-half-full position of "I know it's a game about elves and explosions, but there's also some good story in there provided you don't blink", they're doing so in increasingly interesting ways. The indies, on the other hand, are growing year on year in their level of professionalism, scope and - perhaps most importantly for interactive narrative as a whole - commercial prospects.
Of course, I've tried to level reasonable doubts here, rather than produce the usual homogeneous and unrealistically optimistic video game preview, and some of these titles are bound to fail in their delivery if not their ambition. But that's OK. Those that fail will still open up the playing field for later attempts, and the double edged sword of gaming's continuing (though diminishing) ignorance of good story telling is that while a great many gems are overlooked, at least as many - such as Cryostasis, The Sands of Time and Beyond Good & Evil from recent years - will end up coming from absolutely nowhere to entirely redefine what we can expect from our medium.
Who says its such a bad thing to live in interesting times?