For fans of storytelling and just overall high quality writing in general, 2016 was a pretty great year. With more variety in our games as the years go on, the chances for gamers to immerse themselves in great stories gets even better. Plenty of smaller titles were filled with focused narratives and great characters for us to enjoy, and we had our fill of big AAA titles taking us on exciting journeys.
Here’s the list of nominees (and here’s a list of all nominees for all categories):
- Firewatch (Game Page)
- Stardew Valley (Game Page)
- Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Game Page)
- VA-11 HALL-A (Game Page)
- Zero Time Dilemma (Game Page)
Without further delay, here’s what you, the readers, chose and our list of winners for the Best Writing Award for outstanding storytelling, worldbuilding, and character creation.
Reader’s Choice – VA-11 HALL-A (Our Review)
To say that VA-11 HALL-A is unique is an understatement. It blends themes, characters, setting, and mechanics all together that sound so disparate it could never be any good. However, those of us that have played it know that VA-11 HALL-A is one of the biggest surprises of 2016. The characters are superb as well as the realized world they live in.
Third Place – Stardew Valley (Our Review)
By Don Parsons
Stardew Valley is a game that has its strength in writing come from a different place. While many games rely on an overarching plot to help drive conflict and interactions, Stardew Valley lacks that kind of narrative impetus on it, instead placing all the weight on its characters and themes.
Thankfully, they are up to the task by and large. The characters generally each have a small story that you uncover as you interact further with them, and many of them are shown further in special events and tie into the themes of the game quite well. The characters make you interested in interacting and learning more about them and their town, which is a key part of the gameplay loop that Stardew Valley has.
As for the themes, Stardew Valley masterfully discusses consumerism as its primary theme. It avoids being heavy handed on the topic, but it influences everything in the game’s writing and much of the gameplay. Many of the struggles relate to the issues of a tiny town when the modern super market chain moves in and the changing economics of the modern era. This is reflected in dialogue and in options the player has all over the game.
Notably, as video games are an interactive medium, Stardew Valley also heavily integrates its themes and characters into its gameplay mechanics. Unlike other titles on this list, it truly takes advantage of being a video game rather than a film or book. The ability to choose between repairing the community center or doing the Jojo Mart activities impacts how you would play the game and how it evolves. The character interactions will open up new options for you with recipes and various other goodies that may have been locked up. It does all this and combines it with polished, quality writing that is as charming as it is impactful.
Second Place – Firewatch (Our Review)
By Alex Santa Maria
The only thing I really have to say to justify Firewatch’s writing chops is that a vast majority of the gaming audience didn’t see the game’s ending coming. In a medium flush with pulp stories and predictable characters, no one saw a character piece coming. In addition, Firewatch isn’t a one trick pony that relies on its unique story to succeed. It’s an accurate simulation of walking in the woods, where players can explore a park and learn about landmarks for hours at a time if they so choose. It’s a game that is cut like a movie while still making players feel that they’re in control, giving players all the relevant information without any filler content.
Firewatch’s writing does what writing is supposed to do by engrossing players in the intrigue and making its handful of characters feel like real people who are instantly relatable. Delilah is a character entirely defined by writing, as she is only heard through a radio for the entire game. She doesn’t feel like an omnipresent helper, she doesn’t feel like a companion for your male protagonist, and she doesn’t sound cute or pleasing. Delilah is a jaded cynic who isn’t afraid to call you out on your nonsense, and that’s the type of character that games just haven’t dealt with up until very recently. The fact that your relationship with her isn’t antagonistic even after your squabbles is a testament to the game’s excellent storytelling and narrative pacing.
Winner – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
By Samuel Guglielmo
It’s always hard to say goodbye to your favorite characters. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is indeed the end, the alleged last chapter of Nathan Drake and his globe spanning adventures with what must be my favorite ensemble of characters in video games. Thankfully, it ends it on a wonderful note.
What happens when the adventurer isn’t ready to settle? Drake has married the woman he loves, he’s found countless hidden treasures and supernatural items—he’s basically done everything he could have ever dreamed of. Yet a quiet family life with his wife Elena doesn’t quite suit him, as his constant zoning out during conversations and the time spent in the attic running around with a foam gun and shooting at imaginary targets shows. Thankfully, when his brother Sam shows up in a bind, Nathan has all the excuse he needs to go out on one more adventure.
The story itself is already really interesting. Nathan, Sam, and series regular Sully are attempting to locate a forgotten pirate treasure in an effort to pay off a drug dealer that Sam owes for breaking him out of prison. Along the way they have to deal with various traps and puzzles, plus a rival treasure hunter who is completely okay with killing the competition and has his own private army to do so. As the two continue to pick up clues, they unravel the mystery of a pirate civilization, going through a trail of breadcrumbs and slowly learning what led to its eventual downfall. It’s a great mystery, and the world building is at an all time high as you dig through this pirate safe haven, leading to the most interesting setting in the Uncharted series.
However, the real writing success in A Thief’s End comes from the wonderful characters you spend your time with. Each character is amazingly written and there’s so many little moments on play that it’s a wonder Naughty Dog managed to get it all down. Sam almost feels like Nathan back from the first games, serving as someone whose adventure has never really quite started yet and constantly trying to egg the group into pushing forward even if it’s against their best interests. Even when Nathan himself is ready to call it quits, Sam keeps going and dragging other people in. Naughty Dog did a great job using someone other than Nathan to show how much of a mess Nathan caused for people in their lives.
Even moments with no actual conversations or writing are conveyed in a way that shows the work of professionals. For four games now (if you include the Vita game, which you should) Sully has been the tough love father figure in Nathan’s life. Yet something as simple as a photo book showing Nathan and Elena’s wedding has Sully in the background in tears, conveying more than words ever could.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End gave me the closure I needed for the series. It gave me one last romp with characters I loved, new characters I came to love, in a setting I wanted to see more and more of. This is the game I hope more games take inspiration from when turning to writing.
What did we miss? What did we get wrong? What did we get right?