Video game writing is at a place where both the straightforward and the experimental can be fantastic. The big-budget action games feature amazing character arcs and tackle interesting themes. The indie scene has games that successfully mess with your mind and emotions, forcing you, sometimes without knowing, to dig deeper into yourself. There's no better time than now to fall in love with stories and characters in video games than right now, which is exactly what millions of people did this year as games with fantastic stories topped sales charts worldwide.
Here's the list of nominees (and here's the list of nominees for all categories):
- God of War (Our Review)
- Marvel’s Spider-Man (Our Review)
- Octopath Traveler (Our Review)
- Red Dead Redemption 2 (Our Review)
- Return of the Obra Dinn (Our Review)
Here’s what you, the readers, chose as the winner of the Best Writing Award for outstanding storytelling, worldbuilding, and character creation. Our top three follows after.
Readers' Choice - God of War
Who would have known a series known for its rage-induced, vengeful protagonist would produce one of gaming's most interesting stories on introspection, fatherhood, and loss. Kratos is back with an entirely different tale from what the previous games dealt with. Kratos and the boy, Atreus, offer a great paternal storyline, and of course, there are plenty of giant beasts and gods/demigods for Kratos and Atreus to go toe to toe with.
Third Place - Return of the Obra Dinn
By Richard Costa
In Return of the Obra Dinn, the player investigates the mysterious disappearance and eventual return of a cargo ship in the 19th century as an insurance investigator. Using a mystical clock, you are able to witness "frozen scenes," thereby finding a way to unravel the mystery. Each of these scenes is preceded by a short dialogue, providing the player with bits of scattered clues that are seamlessly disguised into the narrative and will be used to deduce crucial information about the missing crew and passengers. Some of these dialogues are even presented in foreign languages, which lends the overall atmosphere a great air of authenticity.
The writing is subtle, understated, and the clues are actually subordinate to the narrative. There's also the fact that the writing doesn't explain itself, leaving it up to the player to interpret its finale, theorizing on what exactly happened. It's a level of writing that is sorely lacking in most games, especially those with a cinematic slant.
Second Place - God of War
By Robert Scarpinito
The father-son dynamic is rarely dissected in major video games. Surprisingly, God of War analyzes that relationship perfectly in a well-built universe based in Nordic lore. After dominating the Greek Pantheon of gods, we take a fresh look at an older, full-bearded Kratos as he raises his son, Atreus. They journey to the tallest summit to scatter the ashes of Kratos’ deceased wife, Faye. Along the way, they kill hundreds of demons and travel across many realms—you know, typical father-son bonding activities.
But in all seriousness, God of War dives deep into the hardships of raising a son. While it may be hard to relate directly to the situations Kratos and Atreus face, the fundamentals of parenthood shine through the storytelling. Kratos has to teach his son how to hunt and survive in the wild, and how to come to terms with taking a life. There are times when Atreus fails, as we all do when we’re young and learning. Similarly, Kratos occasionally fails as a father, not understanding how to encourage and relate to his own son.
The writing is at its best in the little moments. For example, while Kratos and Atreus use boats to travel, they’ll tell each other stories and have small conversations. None of these moments have an impact on the grand scheme, but they do something crucial: They make us believe in the characters’ humanity. Kratos is a demigod living in a world none of us have been to, but we can empathize with an estranged father who struggles with his son. This powerful narrative that underlies the supernatural journey is where God of War and the Sony Santa Monica team earn the praise they deserve.
Winner - Red Dead Redemption 2
By Dan Hodges
There are a lot of things that impressed me about Red Dead Redemption 2. A lot of things I enjoyed and admired. Things that made the experience stand out as one of 2018’s best. The quality of the writing is what really stuck with me, however. Rockstar’s writing has always been pretty sharp, presenting a cynical and highly satirical take on the world that’s entertaining, but it’s never been this good. It’s never been this sincere and it’s never felt this meaningful.
There’s a layer of hopefulness permeating Red Dead Redemption 2 that’s uncharacteristic for a Rockstar game. It tells the story of a group of flawed misfits searching for a place to belong in a rapidly changing world. The Van der Linde gang are a distinctly 19th-century band of people being unwillingly thrust into the 20th century, with its industrial cities and disregard for nature. They want a simple life where they can live off the land and ignore the future, but it just can’t happen for them. Under the leadership of troubled egomaniac Dutch Van der Linde, the gang finds themselves in increasingly dire situations as they desperately search for that “last big score” that’ll let them leave the country and never return. The group’s desire to be free and their naive hope that their next big crime will be the one to save them from this life is sincerely tragic.
The main cast of characters are some of the most grounded and well-realized Rockstar has ever written. The Van der Linde gang are just simple folk trying to survive. They’re a varied group whose diversity feels earned and real. For example, Sadie Adler, who could have just been a dull and 1-dimensional character in a previous Rockstar game, stands out as one of the most interesting characters of the year.
It’s Arthur Morgan, however, that elevates the cast to something truly special. His character arc—which sees him become increasingly tired of the outlaw life and of Dutch’s blind idealism—is one of the strongest and most emotionally charged I’ve experienced in a video game. From Roger Clark’s fantastic performance to the hand-written diary he interprets everything he sees in, Morgan is a delightfully rich and conflicted character that stands head and shoulders above any of Rockstar’s previous protagonists.
With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar moved away from the over-the-top caricatures they’ve been known for over the past 17 years and finally wrote some real people. Even when the game does deal in silly caricatures, like the mad scientist figure that ends up being killed by his own robotic creation, it feels toned down and more believable. Unlike some of Rockstar’s previous period pieces, like the over-the-top cocaine-fueled, neon-lit 80s of Vice City, Red Dead Redemption 2 actually feels respectful and accurate to its inspirations. It presents a gorgeous, detailed, and incredibly well-realized take on late-19th century America that’s truly unforgettable.
What would your pick be for our Best Writing Award? What do you think we got right? What did we get wrong? Let us know in the comments below!