Of all the story games I've ever played, Chunsoft's visual novel for 3DS/PlayStation Vita Virtue's Last Reward stands at the top of the heap: it's storytelling as gameplay, not beside it, and that significant fact earned it a place on Gamasutra's games of the year list for 2012.
The story is complex and rich, with multiple branching paths that all lead seamlessly to a single conclusion; because of this, it has all of the features that make linear narrative compelling while offering up a palette of choices that invite you to piece together what's going on by continuously testing the story's boundaries.
Virtue's Last Reward
If you step back and consider how the game really works, you'll find that you have no meaningful bearing on how the story plays out. This matters less than it sounds like it should because of the role it casts you in -- a kidnapped college student who has no idea what's going on. As you learn, he learns; as you figure out what's going on, so does he. The player is deftly kept aloft in the updraft between what just happened and what's going to happen.
What's the secret to building a story game like this?
"When I am writing a story, I always have a conversation with an imaginary player. It makes the process more fun," Kotaro Uchikoshi, the game's director, tells Gamasutra.
Virtue's Last Reward is what is known as a visual novel, the Japanese form of the graphic adventure genre, which, as in the West, has its genesis in 1980s PC games. Uchikoshi has been working in the game industry since the 1990s, when he landed at one of the genre's major proponents, the now shuttered KID.
999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors
He launched his career as a freelance writer and developer in 2001, eventually partnering with Chunsoft, a developer with a rich history in the genre, to create the Zero Escape series, which includes 2010's 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors (Nintendo DS) and 2012's Virtue's Last Reward (Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita).
The Death Distinction
Both games put the player in the shoes of someone trapped in a contest, called the "Nonary Game," played out in a sealed environment, where they and eight others must escape to survive, and will die at any time if they break the rules.
In Virtue's Last Reward, the player is, in fact, constantly aware of the threat of death -- from the premise of the Nonary Game itself, to the themes of epidemic, murder, and terrorism that weave through the plot.
As players, we all know that death is nothing to fear; in games, we die all the time. In fact, Uchikoshi acknowledges this. "For games, regardless of the genre, the main character and surrounding characters can die many times. The weight of a character's 'death' may somewhat be taken lightly, and that is one of the weak points of games."
He has an antidote for that.
"So basically, rather than the desire of 'I don't want this character to die, so I'll try to avoid it,' we put emphasis on the desire 'I don't want this story to die as is, so I'll try to avoid it.' As a result, keeping the story alive will connect, in a way, to avoiding the death of a character," he says.
Cleverly, this turns the player's emphasis toward keeping the game's story moving forward. In fact, the story's branching scenarios -- which are represented by the in-game flowchart below -- are a large part of what makes Virtue's Last Reward such a significant achievement for game narrative.
This is not a mere play log; it's fully interactive. Players can jump to any point in the story they've reached so far, testing theories and exploring alternative outcomes. The threads of the story branch as you make decisions and change what happens.
The best bit is that you can take this knowledge into other threads and, armed with it, learn even more. As you do so, the tale begins to reveal its true depth in surprising ways -- when characters both do and don't act as you'd expect, it gives you more food for thought, and more knowledge to take back to other scenarios.
As the game approaches its conclusion, more and more of the story unravels, allowing you to grasp those threads and weave them together into the real tale.