Video games are interactive forms of play. We’re supposed to dive right into the action and story without feeling sidelined as spectators. Sometimes that intended sense of immediacy is suppressed by excessive cut-scenes or quick-time events that remove all control from the player, but in most instances, we’re the ones leading armies, saving princesses, and stopping the forces of evil. The narrative is unfolding with our every move and decision. With morality-based gameplay topping the list of popular trends nowadays, that’s perhaps even more true than before.
Another mechanic contradicts the do-it-all-now attitude, adding a storybook layer to our favorite games: narration. We’re not talking about the Star Warsian prologue scroll of text, but rather the continuous stream of voice-overs that catch gamers up to speed on what they did ten minutes ago, or in some cases, one second before. Here are some of our favorite examples.
Bastion is the most recent game to use narration, and it takes the tool to new extremes, giving players a recap of their actions as they happen. You can thank independent developer Supergiant Games for the quirky approach to the RPG. The deep-throated narrator (voiced by Logan Cunningham) gives the main character more purpose and personality, simultaneously helping to create a world with depth as well as color and beauty. As the environment materializes with every step, so does the campfire narration, vocalizing key moments of “the kid’s” quest.
Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain
The first Blood Omen is also the first in the line of five Legacy of Kain games, and one of the biggest draws (besides the Diablo-esque gameplay) is the garrulous and vengeful narration, provided by the lead vampire (actor Simon Templeman) himself. Players can listen to the excellent voice work as they reach new areas and obtain new items and spells. If the grueling load times get you down, the narration more than makes up for it.
With the third Max Payne game due in stores soon, the original is a perfect nominee. The retrospective narration is done over comic book panels and actual cut-scenes, and it’s spoken by James McCaffrey, who voices the gruff character Payne. The style continued in the sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. McCaffrey will return in the upcoming, long-awaited Max Payne 3.
Prince of Persia
The Prince of Persia games also have a reputation for using a retrospective narrative style. “Sit down, and I will tell you a tale like you have never heard,” says the Prince at the beginning of the first game, The Sands of Time. The young, then unnamed Prince was voiced by Yuri Lowenthal (recently the character Toby Nebbins in Catherine). Warrior Within introduced a hardened Prince, chased by the Dahaka, and the narration (and heavy metal soundtrack) reflected the change. Naturally, with each style or reincarnation of the character came a different sound and mood of voice actor.
God of War
Kratos is huge. He is as the game’s title says, but he’s also one of the biggest names in game franchises today. Once a servant of Ares, Kratos battled his way victoriously into Olympus, became a god and toppled gods, learned he is the son of Zeus, and traveled to the underworld and back. He’s covered a lot of ground. His epic journey, if there ever was one deserving of the word, is narrated by Gaia, the mother of the Titans. She’s voiced by Linda Hunt.
The first Mafia game, The City of Lost Heaven, is narrated by former taxi driver Tommy Angelo (actor Michael Sorvino), who inadvertently becomes involved in a life of organized crime with the Salieri family. Mafia II operates in the same vein, this time passing the microphone over to Vito Scaletta (actor Rick Pasqualone) so he can tell the story. It seems like retrospective storytelling is the easiest set-up for voiced narration—the game starts with Scaletta reminiscing over a family photo album.
Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse
The narrator in this series of the episodic Sam & Max games is just that: He’s simply called the Narrator. He’s drolly voiced by Andrew Chaikin, who comments on the game’s events and addresses the player directly. Dressed in a suit with a red rose tucked into the front, the Narrator also aids the player with instructions and advice.
Dear Esther is a first-person ghost story that focuses not on gameplay, but rather the mystery of the island and your place there. Originally created by Dan Pinchbeck at the University of Portsmouth as part of a project, the game consists of letters, read aloud and addressed to a woman named Esther. Nigel Carrington provides all voice work as the unidentified narrator. The game is currently being remade for commercial release.
In Portal, considered one of the most inventive games of 2007, GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) acts as an instructional narrator, guiding the player along and teaching him the essentials of gameplay. Ellen McLain voices the corrupted artificial intelligence, who means to dispose of the protagonist Chell. It’s just another case of a robotic entity gone horribly wrong.
Anything with Patrick Stewart
Patrick Stewart does a lot of voice work in video games nowadays, especially in fantasy games like Oblivion and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (he played the narrator slash character of Zobek). He’s also a narrator in Lego Universe and the voice of his television and movie personas, Jean-Luc Picard and Professor Xavier, in various video game adaptations, not to mention a myriad other roles. Given his talent and recognition as an actor, what game wouldn’t be made better with Stewart in its cast?