Shortly after Later Levels began at the end of 2016, I wrote a post about walking simulators in which I said I’d decided to put some distance between myself and the genre. This prompted several bloggers to provide recommendations in order to convince me otherwise and Kona popped up on my radar: a ‘chilly interactive tale’ by Parabole. It looked like something I might enjoy so I promptly added the title to my Steam wishlist.
Unfortunately however that’s where it stayed for the following year while other releases caught my attention. It’s therefore thanks to James from Killer Robotics for putting it back in the spotlight recently after very kindly offering me a key. My other-half spent a few evenings working our way through it last month and we both ended up really enjoying it: we were sucked into this surreal story set in an eerie village in Northern Canada and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys narrative-focused games.
One of the reasons we adored it so much was down to the title’s narrator. Actor Forrest Rainier (such a cool name) gave a wonderful personality to this nameless voice and the script was written in such a way that you were never quite sure whether he was joking or being serious in his observations. For a game that’s set in a blizzard and where isolation, it lightens the mood when things start to get too serious; and it gives the player little clues to let them know they’re heading in the right direction without spoiling the action.
This got me thinking about storytellers in other video games I’ve played and why they can be so important to a plot’s atmosphere when done correctly. A great voice can make a good story even better and add emotion to digital worlds, turning just another release into something truly special with a human touch. In honour of Kona’s narrator, here’s a list of some of the most memorable in gaming.
What kind of list would this be without mentioning Rucks (also known as The Stranger) from Bastion? Wonderfully played by Logan Cunningham, his sonorous voice sticks in your head after he first tells the player that ‘proper stories start at the beginning’. The reason why we love him so much isn’t just because he tells the Kid’s story; it’s because he offers commentary, guidance and context to your actions in this strange world, and gives the impression this RPG is a game that is watching your actions.
Although this title will always stick in my memory as being the first walking simulator I ever played, it wasn’t one I can say I particularly enjoyed. But Dear Esther deserves to be on this list thanks to its well-spoken narrator: an unnamed character played by Nigel Carrington whose unrealiable mind has merged stories, events and reality together during his descent into grief. His haunting voice makes this an incredibly atmospheric game that, unlike a lot of other releases, isn’t afraid to focus on unhappiness or regret.
Completely different from the previous entry on the list, the quirky LittlePlanet is a series all about fun, creativity and sharing. Stephen Fry’s voice is therefore perfect for the narrator and he has a wonderful way of twisting words that instantly connects the player to the game’s world – there aren’t many storytellers that could talk about ‘erect pistons’ with a straight face and get away with it. When he told us not to throw the controller at the cat because things would only escalate, I couldn’t help but look at my own pets and laugh.
The Stanley Parable
Aside from Rucks above, The Stanley Parable’s narrator is probably the most famous on this list albeit for totally different reasons. Instead of being entirely supportive, Kevan Brighting’s voice can change from antagonist to deuterogamist to neutral character depending on your actions. He teases, mocks, and gets bored and annoyed at you; and at his worst, can be thoroughly sadistic as he forces poor Stanley through a countdown to his death. We really shouldn’t like him but this narrator makes the title exactly what it is.
Thomas Was Alone
If I remember correctly, I think Thomas Was Alone was the first indie game I ever played and it completely blew me away. I was amazed that such a story could be told through a minimalist platformer and unique personalities could be given to protagonists who were simply shapes on a screen. This is largely thanks to Danny Wallace, who won a BAFTA Games Performance Award for his work. It’s a simple tale but because he so excellently helps us feel each characters’ motive through his words, we want to complete the game for their sake.
Thank you once again to James for helping me to finally get around to experiencing Kona after so long and find another title I’ll look back on fondly. If there are any other memorable narrators who deserve a mention, please feel free to mention them in the comments below!