The Emotional Diversity that Defined 2018

Source: Freya’s Dinner, by Adam Rabalais

Before you all go reading this, let’s just throw up a big ‘SPOILER ALERT’ right here. You’ve been warned.

We’ve all had a chance to look back on 2018 by now (many may say a milestone year for gaming), but before the year drifts completely off into the distance there’s one last ‘best of’ worth talking about; the continued evolution of character development and the top class scenes therein.

Over the last few years, the biggest common thread amongst some of the best releases revolves around a more diverse sense of narrative. Heroes and villains are more rounded and flawed now, no longer just black and white, good and evil, etc.

In turn, storytelling in video games has become almost film-like in quality, and 2018 delivered on that promising development arguably more than any previous year, across a broad spectrum of genres.

Said quality is due in no small part to the vast graphical improvements made since the PS3 era, allowing characters to express realistic emotion as if right in the room with you. Case in point, there’s the gut-wrenching finale to one of my favourite games of 2018, Marvel’s Spider-Man (or the second best Spider-Man movie).

Insomniac managed to evolve the long running Marvel hero in new and unexpected ways. Beyond the action sequences and many costume options, it’s the witty dialogue and character interactions that truly helped Marvel’s Spider-Man stand out from a crowded 2018 release schedule, led by veteran performer Yuri Lowenthal’s charismatic but scarred Peter Parker.

Towards the end of the game, having fought a difficult battle against former mentor Otto Octavius, Peter returns with the cure for the Devil’s Breath bioweapon, only to face the most difficult choice of his life; save Aunt May or save the rest of New York City. It’s hard to imagine anyone going through a decision like that, but to a hero we’d always expected to emerge unscathed? Worse still, it’s revealed that May knew Peter was Spider-Man all along.

What follows is an utterly tear-jerking scene, as the perfectly realised motion captured facial animations take in every heart-breaking moment of Aunt May’s tragic death on Peter’s worn face.

Another character who faced a tough journey in 2018, for very different reasons, was Kratos in Santa Monica Studio’s God of War, and what a journey it was.

Here, we’re introduced to an older and somewhat wiser version of the anti-hero, having killed all the Greek Gods and retreated into a different realm to find a new life. It’s a vastly different take on the character, but one that was warmly welcomed by fans and critics alike.

For all the blood-soaked action of the original PS3 games, God of War is a comparatively simple tale where, following the death of his second wife, Kratos and his son Atreus venture into the far reaches of Midgard to lay her ashes to rest. Like many adventures, things don’t quite go to plan, but it’s the quiet, introspective Kratos that resonates more than the blood soaked warrior of the past.

This is especially true in the quest entitled ‘The Sickness’. When Atreus is struck down by a mysterious condition leaving him almost at death’s door, Freya (Witch of the Woods and helpful aid) informs Kratos that a cure may exist in Helheim, the frozen wasteland realm where the dead roam.

It doesn’t take a giant action sequence or a character monologue to impart the importance of this scene to the audience. Instead, it’s the eerie silence and fractured thoughts of the past that haunt Kratos. Sitting forlorn in his small wooden boat as it drifts back downstream, the pain he feels for the past and the future yet to come is obvious.

If there’s one lesson to take out of 2018’s best scenes, it’s that pain is a constant that can be hard to ignore at the best of times. Daniel Diaz’s supernaturally devastating reaction to his father’s fate in Life is Strange 2, Markus’ struggle through the pit of the dead in Detroit: Become Human, and the heroic final moments of Cayde 6 in Destiny 2: Forsaken, serve as perfect examples.

Not all of the best games from 2018 revolved around heroes or the gifted and their struggles against evil, however.

One of the year’s best releases managed to convey emotion and the ups and downs of relationships without the need for dialogue at all. That title was Florence, an Australian made and wonderfully crafted gem of a mobile game by Melbourne studio Mountains. Telling the life journey of Florence Yeoh, Florence cleverly incorporates puzzles to represent different elements of everyday living between two young lovers, from the first date right through to the break up.

Though a short experience compared to the other games mentioned here, Florence pulls us in with its simplicity whilst presenting a story just as compelling and complex as any other.

Another short but just as compelling tale from 2018 was The Gardens Between, by another independent Australian studio; The Voxel Agents.

Childhood friends Arina and Frendt find themselves on a wild adventure through a series of islands, where some clever time travel mechanics lead you back and forth to figure out a series of puzzles. Just like Florence, there’s no dialogue here filling you in on the two kids and their unique bond, instead you’re treated to various cut scenes that play out like mini comic strips.

Amongst the euphoria of completing the game, you realise you’ve been experiencing the last imaginary adventure of the pair. As the sequence plays out, the two say goodbye to each other for the last time within the real world, and it hits home how important the realm of imagination is in trying to deal with difficult times in your life, especially the loss of a friend.

There’s nothing more compelling than watching a character overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and for all the pain many of the characters above face, the resulting aftermath sees them push through and grow from their experiences. For the player charged with helping Madeline in indie darling Celeste, that comes from overcoming a different kind of pain; self-doubt.

The journey up the mountain becomes a reflection of Madeline’s insecurities in a very relatable manner. Constant obstacles stand in the way as the task is made even harder thanks to challenging platform jumping and puzzle solving, and Madeline’s own doubt coalesces into a darker clone of sorts, taunting her at almost every turn.

The final sequence, driven by a combination of everything you’ve learnt across the game, really sells how excellent Celeste is. As the two halves of our hero come together near the peak, Madeline realises that her fears are what drives her to be better, that success means working with and learning from doubts instead of pushing them away into the furthest reaches of her mind. Soon, you’re working together to reach the unreachable, and it’s as uplifting a finale as any story of the past year.

If you’re looking for a sequence of events with a little more humour, it’s hard to go past one very specific scene from last year. Speaking of which, where’s Lenny?

Having survived the early frozen landscapes of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, the open world western finally starts to open up, allowing you to explore in any direction you want. One early mission has an important pay-off amongst the bleak nature of Rockstar’s storytelling, and that’s the unusual bonding moment between Arthur Morgan and fellow Van Der Linde gang member, Lenny Summers.

Whether it’s the fist fight that turns into a dance routine or the weird Lenny heads dressed in all manner of frilly frocks, the entire sequence of the story mission ‘A Quiet Time’ plays out almost like a Mel Brooks movie.

Given how dramatic a lot of the scenes mentioned in this article have been, it was refreshing to have a game carry that sense of development within a key character, but in a way that still humanised him (and to a degree, us), having primarily used our guns instead of words up until that point of the story.

It stands to reason that 2018 set a high standard for video games across the board. What’s gratifying though, is the continued embrace for character development across a broader emotional spectrum. Just like real life, human emotions aren’t just black and white, and within game development that translates to more interesting, relatable heroes (and villains) than ever before.

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