6 Upcoming Narrative Games To Get Excited About
Look Out For These Games!
During LudoNarraCon 2020--the online narrative game convention--we were able to go hands-on with some incredible upcoming narrative-focused games. These games impressed us not just with their writing and storytelling, but by each offering something a bit different from what we've come to expect from the medium.
Each of the games we've detailed innovates on the adventure genre in some way, presenting unique aesthetic elements and carrying a clear sense of identity. They're also a reminder that narrative-focused games often push for greater representation than most AAA fare--five of these games have you playing as a woman or girl, after all.
Here are the six stories from LudoNarraCon 2020 we can't wait to continue when the games release. And if you're interested in trying them out yourself, most of the games included in this feature have free playable demos on Steam. Otherwise, be sure to check out our other feature detailing some of the most interesting games you might've missed on Xbox Game Pass for more lesser-known games.
Paradise Killer's demo does not ease you in. Here's an excerpt from the opening crawl: "Island Sequence 13: Lady Love Dies, the Syndicate's lead investigator is deceived by the god Damned Harmony. She endangered Paradise. Her sentence is eternal exile...The island died. The Citizen slaughter ritual took place. Another Paradise Island failed. The cycle always repeats."
You begin the game as Lady Love Dies on the eve of Island 24's destruction, asked to investigate the murder of several members of "The Council." You'll need to explore all of Paradise Island and interview various gods to get answers. Other questions you might have--like "what kind of a name is Lady Love Dies?" and "wait, what's that about a repeating cycle of destruction?"--will hopefully be answered over time, too.
Paradise Killer is like if Suda 51 made a Phoenix Wright game, but it's weirder and more wonderful than even that description suggests. Lady Love Dies is known as an "investigation freak" who solves murders across a regenerating island paradise that was (I think) constructed with the goal of resurrecting alien gods. Paradise Killer is immediately, assuredly weird and extremely specific in its details, the sort of game that will let you dive deep into its lore and is bound to attract detailed fan wikis.
To investigate the demo's murder case, I wandered around the enormous island town searching for evidence, cross-examining witnesses, solving puzzles, and collecting crystals made of blood (they're the game's currency). The hour I spent with the game involved me getting hit with a lot of names and concepts, and while I came away from it with a bit of a headache, I'm looking forward to taking my time and really getting to know this world in the final release, because everything I've seen so far is appealing--the wild character designs, the willfully obtuse dialog, the constant references to world events I, as a player, have no prior knowledge of.
The events that occured to me in the demo add up to a very strange whole picture. I investigated a crime scene, but I also looked, at the behest of a demon, for a way to open a gate that would take me into space. I cross-checked alibis, but I also searched for a piece of jewelry lost by a ghost. At times, as I solved puzzles and collected objects to expand the game's open world, I felt like I was playing a hornier, angrier version of The Witness, populated by sexed-up monster-people that all hate me but begrudgingly answer my questions.
There's a trial portion of your investigation, too, although it wasn't playable in the demo. Interestingly, you can approach the judge to commence the trial whenever you feel like you have enough evidence to make the discussion worth it--although, as the judge tells you, certain truths will only come out when you discuss them in this setting. You'll be able to accuse anyone you encounter, and it's possible to go after the wrong target entirely--you'll really need to be careful and thorough in your investigations.
Paradise Killer is, without a doubt, one of my most anticipated upcoming games. It's singular and weird and has more style in an item description screen than some games have in their entire runtime. Hopefully the full game lives up to the extraordinary promise of this demo.
Developer: Kaizen Game Works | Platforms: PC | Release Date: TBA 2020
Welcome To Elk
Welcome to Elk's demo is so compelling and convincing that I did not notice how little traditional "gameplay" it featured until I thought about it afterwards. There are some very light adventure elements in the 10 minutes of the game the demo consists of, but it's mostly a matter of walking, talking...and singing.
You play as Frigg, a young woman on the island of Elk, an isolated place that seems to have some kind of spiritual significance. In its opening, Frigg finds herself on a raft with her friend Anders and a giant creature (who doesn't look very elk-like, just by the way). She's told that Anders has died, and needs to be sung into the next life. You freestyle sing to help him pass into the afterlife--pressing the four face buttons to create melodies--and enjoy the sound of your own in-game voice. Anders features throughout the rest of the demo, and claims to be dead, despite the fact that he's still walking around--obviously something odd is going on here.
Later in the demo, after some very light adventuring and mini-games (including making identi-kit faces and pouring beer), a woman tells you the story of her husband's death, and the last song she and her daughter sang for him. The singing mechanic has no pass or fail states in the demo, but it makes for an effective emotional hook as you tap out tunes and hear the characters sing.
After watching the woman and her daughter sing, the game reveals video footage of a real-life interview, and a man describes meeting this same woman and hearing her story--but the real-life version is less whimsical, more graphic, and quite horrifying. The sweet song I sang made for a far more graceful death than this man was actually allowed, I realise, and as the demo abruptly ends I realise that I'm already hooked on this game's weird, funny, sad island, and how reality and fiction are being blurred here.
Is the island limbo? What's the connection between the real-world stories and the ones told in game? The Welcome to Elk demo was all of 10 minutes long, but I am already surprisingly invested in exploring this island.
Developer: Triple Topping | Platforms: PC | Release Date: TBA 2020
In Backbone, you play as raccoon Howard Lotor, P.I. That's right, Backbone is set in a world where raccoons have worked their way out of your neighbor's trash can and are now operating detective agencies. In fact, the entire world of Backbone is populated by animals, all rendered in incredible 2D pixel-art. The Prologue demo--which is available on Steam--is about an hour long, and does a great job of introducing Howard's strange little world--by the end of it, I was desperate for more.
Backbone is an adventure game, but it's not a point-and-click--you control Howard directly, moving left and right through 2D levels and pressing E to interact with environmental elements as you pass them. There's no pixel hunting, nor inventory management. While the controls initially seem too simplistic for an adventure game, it eventually emerges why you have direct-but-limited control of Howard--the game has stealth elements, too, which require crouching and sneaking. You'll occasionally have to hide, or find ways to distract enemies to get past them. It's fairly rudimentary, but it gives certain scenes a sense of palpable danger, and makes for at least one interesting puzzle in the short slice of game I played.
Visually, Backbone is stunning. The pixel art style perfectly renders the splashes of neon light onto the game's rain-slicked streets, and the locations you explore feel alive with animal activity. The world is fun to explore, and it seems that puzzles will have multiple solutions. As Howard investigates the game's first case (a seemingly simple investigation of a promiscuous husband that immediately spirals into something much more sinister), I was presented with multiple paths into a bar I needed to infiltrate. Do I trick the person operating the intercom, or sneak onto the roof? I went with the roof, but there were, again, major choices involved in how I got up there. It all depended on which clues I uncovered, who I talked to, and which decisions I made.
Backbone looks to be a smart twist on the adventure game genre, with a compelling central character and fun, inventive puzzles and storytelling. We'll have to wait until 2021 to dig further, though.
Developer: Eggnut | Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch | Release Date: TBA 2021
We've previously covered Wayward Strand at PAX Australia, but this was always a game that was going to sit better at home, played on a quiet afternoon in a sunny room, a cup of tea on hand--especially since the demo benefits from being played through multiple times.You play as Casey, an aspiring journalist who can't be any older than 12, as she spends three days aboard an airship hospice talking to its workers and elderly residents. Over time, you get used to the schedules of the staff and residents, and learn how to move through the home gathering information and learning as much as you can about the ship and its passengers. It's like The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, but I suspect that instead of the world ending on day three, you might instead see Ida finish knitting the scarf she's working on.
The Wayward Strand demo, which I've now played through five times, covers the first half of the first day. You choose where Casey goes at any given point, and then control her conversation options; interesting facts go into her notebook, which opens up further choices when she talks to other folks aboard the ship. In one morning, you can learn all about the quiet woman on the top floor who used to work on films, or find out more about the family that pilots the airship. You can talk to Margot, who will clearly take time and effort to befriend, or start to get to know Heinrich, who enjoys the view of the sun off the ship's prow but will retire to his room later that morning.
It's easy to get invested in these residents once you start to get to know them, and the voice acting feels extremely authentic--older actors are voicing the elderly characters. Tracking their full schedules makes each character feel more like a real person, and it doesn't take long for empathy and care to develop. Wayward Strand is a low-stakes, chill experience, but one that I can see myself playing repeatedly to try and uncover every story and secret.
Developer: Ghost Pattern | Platforms: PC, Mobile | Release Date: TBA 2020
Chinatown Detective Agency
Chinatown Detective Agency was recently funded on Kickstarter, and it's an adventure game that asks you to be meticulous and careful. You play as Amira Darma, a private investigator in 2032 Singapore who must deal with strange, secretive clients as they come in off the street. Unlike a traditional adventure game, though, everything you need isn't necessarily in the game itself--you're encouraged to use Google to perform some real detective work.
Early on, for instance, you're given a quote, and it's up to you to go to Google and find out which book it's from to continue the investigation. In another section of the game, you need to figure out which city to fly to by investigating a partial cancellation notice on a postage stamp. I solved the first easily enough, but struggled with the stamp; I picked the right country, but not the city.
To travel, you jump into your travel app and book a flight using Amira's cash reserves. Depending on how effective you are at solving the game's puzzles, though, it's possible to waste time and money on the wrong flight. The final game promises over 30 locations, so you need to be careful. Resource management seems to be important in Chinatown Detective Agency, and a wrong move could be disastrous. Once I tracked down a target, for instance, Amira ended up in a gun-drawn standoff, and how I aimed my shot with the mouse determined whether my target lived or died--and, thus, whether they would stick around for the rest of the game's plot.
Chinatown Detective Agency looks like an intriguing spin on the adventure genre. Even a slightly tedious code deciphering puzzle that the demo threw at me felt like a good fit for what the game is doing--after all, detective work isn't all glamourous, which just makes the moment when you find the person you've been looking for all the more satisfying.
Developer: General Interactive Co. | Platforms: PC, Switch | Release Date: Early 2021
Ring of Fire
The Ring of Fire demo recommends that you play with a pen and paper on hand. You play as Grosvenor, a brash, abrasive detective who disdains her young partner, Nacir, and is openly antagonistic towards witnesses. She's unlikable in a way game protagonists rarely are, which makes for an interesting dynamic. The year is 2062, you're in London, and for reasons that aren't immediately clear many people now wear animal masks that are tied to government issue IDs.
The first crime you encounter is an absolutely grisly murder--a man has been severely mutilated (thankfully you don't see the body, but the description is a lot to deal with), and there are no real leads on who did it or why. In the demo, I explored the corpse's apartment, interviewed a witness, and got stuck pretty fast. You cannot brute force solutions in Ring of Fire, because getting ahead requires using the game's search bars, figuring out and typing in both addresses and terms that might point towards more evidence.
For instance, to find the name of the victim's wife, you need to examine a photo, extrapolate from the caption what her first name is, then find the victim's surname, and search for them together. To find where the victim was the night before, I cross-referenced some details to find the name and address of a bar he had visited. Typing in the exact details and finding a hit is very satisfying, and allows Grosvenor to interrogate the victim's wife and visit the bar for further clues.
Truth be told, I found myself frustrated by Ring of Fire demo thanks to a code that I could not crack, but there's huge potential already in this world, the protagonist, and these mechanics to really make something interesting. Ring of Fire won't be for anyone who gets queasy easily, and Grosvenor's quick anger and cynicism could turn some players off--but these elements are also what makes the game distinctive and interesting.
Developer: Far Few Giants| Platforms: PC | Release Date: TBA 2021