Narrative games push the boundaries of the medium by treating player interaction with a subtler hand, exploring smaller mechanics in-depth in the never-ending quest to find all the different ways to merge gameplay and narrative. In 2016, we see the result of that focus in a new crop of games that explore the subtlety of talking to each other.
Conversation was a big theme for narrative games this year – namely, the conversations between the character that you're controlling and someone else one-on-one. Even as narrative games are spreading their wings and often broadening their scope to varying degrees, they're also veering towards more intimate interactions, interpersonal webs of interconnected threads of thoughts and feeling between two people. The results are beautiful.
Probably the biggest, most ambitious narrative game in 2016, Firewatch tasks you with keeping watch over a patch of land for fires and other mischief. You barely encounter anyone in person, instead taking orders and having conversations with your supervisor Delilah. You're given free rein to explore the wild as you're slowly given access to the different areas as the narrative progresses. It's probably the most “gamelike” game of this kind here in that you have a map and can find different supply boxes to fill it in more, making it almost like a small open world game. There's a lot of ground to cover and things to explore and find.
But for all its square miles and hiking trails, the soul of Firewatch is actually in the conversations between you and Delilah via walkie-talkie. You're basically stuck in the middle of nowhere by yourself for your new job, and basically everything you find, every observation you make is bounced off of her. As you do your job and explore the countryside left in your care, you start to get to know each other. You start to notice the playfully sarcastic responses get more and more elaborate. Maybe you'll even start to trust her enough to tell her about your sick wife while you do things like confiscating illegal fireworks. For all the vastness of the world of Firewatch, what it actually does is let you focus in on this relationship, making it one of the most subversively intimate games of 2016.
At the other extreme, Virginia is a hyper-linear narrative game that's so indebted to Twin Peaks it hurts. You play as Anne Tarver, an FBI agent who partners with Maria Halperin to find a missing teen even as she's ordered to secretly investigate Maria the whole time. Between the days of investigation, she has vivid, surreal dreams that gives a stage to both her investigative insight and her subconsciousness. Add to that the fact that you'll experience sudden time skips both in and out of dreams and you have a truly trippy experience.
Thing is, for all the truly weird stuff in Virginia, there's no dialogue at all. You'll sometimes see characters mouthing something, but every scrap of storytelling in Virginia is visual. Because of this, you're reliant on reading how a given scene is set. Small gestures end up speaking volumes. A moment shared on top of a water tower as you both drink beer goes a long way towards advancing the narrative of the relationship between Anne and Maria. You'll spend a lot of time like this to the point where you can tell what they're saying to each other without them saying a word. Virginia ends up falling apart at the end in a miasma of incoherence, but the wordless conversations between Anne and Maria are an amazing, affecting thing to behold.
We also got the next installment of Kentucky Route Zero in Act IV, which struck a quieter tone that its previous installments. This slice of Americana and magical realism is perhaps one of the most innovative, vibrant works of the past decade, and it's finally gearing up for its long-awaited finale. The structure to Act IV is slightly different than other Acts, as you aren't in control of your vehicle, here a boat as it travels down the underground river the Echo. Instead, you'll be given a choice between two different scenarios during each chapter, encouraging multiple playthroughs.
But really, it's what Kentucky Route Zero has always done by letting you explore the contours of conversation as a vital lifeline of human connection. It's a game about talking to each other about your lives and how they converge and diverge. It's a game about examining your place in life and the joy and melancholy of the discovery. Kentucky Route Zero is a game about conversations, and often features diverging conversation threads that you can go back and explore after your initial playthrough is over. Act IV isn't the strongest of the Acts released, but it nonetheless remains essential playing.
The narrative game that I keep going back to, though, is Wheels of Aurelia, a game that came out of nowhere on my radar and hasn't left yet. You play as Lella, a woman on a road trip across Italy in the 70s who's just picked up another woman, Olga, at a disco. The entire game is you driving your car down the road while you have branching conversations with your passengers, which can include hitchhikers. You can even dismiss Olga at one point in favor of going it alone with whoever else you encounter. The driving is also branching, with different exits leading to a different set of encounters. There's 16 endings in all, and you're going to want to discover them.
What makes Aurelia's conversations so striking is the presence of conflict within them. Lella, an atheist lesbian, might find herself trying to convince a priest to go visit his dying mother that he hates while having a discussion about the meaning of the holy trinity. Olga will express some reservations at a future abortion because she's worried about her unborn baby going to hell. The (now timely) tension between fascism and communism casts a dull shadow over everything in the game, further amping up the conversations. It's not as if you're fighting with anyone (though you do track down a fascist terrorist at one point), but rather trying to understand each other. Through this, you'll eventually learn that the different characters contain multitudes, and none more than Lella herself. It's these connections and self-reflections in the midst of conflict in the face of our differences that give Wheels of Aurelia narrative heft, making it one of the best games of the year. Don't let it go overlooked.