As much as I love video games, I love movies more. And it’s not all close. Do you know what my favorite moment of the year is? Sitting down to watch "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" — Extended Edition, obviously — at precisely 10:45pm on Christmas Day. It’s a whole (slightly unhinged) thing at this point, and a ritual I’ve been doing for years.
Suffice to say, there’s not a video game in existence that I’d repeat such an annual, bleary-eyed “wide awake at three in the morning while you blub over Boromir’s death” routine. That’s precisely because there isn’t a single game that comes close to the level of storytelling that Peter Jackson’s trilogy-opener accomplishes. Granted, that’s probably an unfair bar to set developers, considering Fellowship is frequently listed in top five lists when it comes to the best movies of all time.
The clutch of films that have all been nominated for Best Picture at the 2024 Oscars, be Past Lives to Poor Things, also blow away the narratives of the vast majority of story-driven games in existence. With an astounding 13 Academy Awards nods to its name, Oppenheimer is nominated in more categories than any other movie this year and rightly so, in my opinion.
Over the course of its runtime, I’d argue Cillian Murphy’s incredibly expressive eyes alone do a more effective job when it comes to emotionally devastating storytelling than the combined narrative output of the entire games industry throughout the last decade.
Clearly, games can do better when it comes to raising their narrative… well, “game.” To be fully transparent, I’m very much wagging my finger at the AAA space when I moan about in-game storytelling and how the vast majority are wince-inducing when you compare their yarns to the finest the film industry frequently spins.
Play it forward
For me, gaming as a medium delivers its best plots and most convincing emotional arcs when the experience is almost fully interactive. When I look back at some of the titles that have a profound impact on me, I think of experiences that don’t try to ape the output of your average Oscar winner. I’m talking games like Ico, Gone Home and Shadow of the Colossus; titles that all put you through the emotional wringer despite the fact they contain either almost wordless or entirely mute central characters.
As much as last year’s Resident Evil 4 remake is one of my favorite blockbuster games of the past half decade, I wouldn’t dedicate 206 minutes of my life watching a YouTube compilation of its cutscenes because its story is ultimately throwaway. With that said, I’d happily spend exactly that much time rewatching Martin Scorsese’s sobering tale of colonization that is Killers of the Flower Moon.
Obviously comparing a multifaceted tale of racial hatred and unchecked greed to a knowingly camp zombie shooter is about as fair a fight as pitting peak Mike Tyson against Michael Cera. What I think is a more reasonable question to pose is this: How many games would you happily go and buy a cinema ticket for if their studios released supercuts of nothing but their cutscenes? If you’re anything like me, that’s probably a single digit list. And I’ve been playing video games since 1993.
On the topic of TLoU, and as much as I adore Naughty Dog’s stealth/horror hybrid and truly cherish Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson’s career-best work, I think the HBO show comfortably outdoes it from a storytelling perspective. That’s mainly down to showrunner Craig Mazin and ND’s Neil Druckmann being given the airtime to expand upon the game’s plot points. There’s no better example of this than the astonishing Bill’s Town-inspired episode, Long, Long Time.
A modern Marvel
I had a whale of a time playing it over the Christmas break, so much so I stayed up until silly o’clock unlocking its platinum trophy. While earning those sweet in-game accolades is down to my inner obsessiveness, what got me to (and crucially kept me at) the wall-crawling party was that central plot.
As someone who grew up on the awesome ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon, which does amazing justice to Venom’s origins in large part thanks to stellar work from Hank “Chief Wiggum” Azaria, I don’t make the following statement lightly. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 has hands-down my favorite version of the symbiote storyline. And yes, that obviously includes Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3.
Tonally far more settled in its skin than Insomniac's original Marvel’s Spider-Man, it kept me guessing and thoroughly invested throughout every major story beat. For me, it’s the best game on PS5 precisely because it’s that ultra rare example of a AAA video game copying and nailing the formula of a good silver screen blockbuster.
Would Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 have a chance against the nominees for Best Picture at the 2024 Oscars? Clearly not. That’s not to say I wouldn’t rather rewatch a certain Time Squares mega showdown a dozen times before I entertained the idea of forcing my eyeballs to endure a second of Fast X.
Contrary to how it might come across, I actually think great storylines in games can easily be found. It just rarely happens when they chase the Hollywood formula. For every Her Story, What Remains of Edith Finch or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture — titles that do a wonderful job of artfully subverting what’s expected of video game narratives — there are dozen mega hits like Halo Infinite or Starfield, that thematically, have nothing interesting to say.
I’m not saying your average big budget video game has to be on the same riveting story level as Best Picture Nominee Anatomy of a Fall (a nerve-shredding French courtroom drama I’m pulling to win the big one at this year’s Oscars). That would be an incredibly unfair ask. I realize as a medium that gaming is decades behind cinema when it comes to telling traditional A to B narratives.
All I hope for is a hopefully near(ish) future where the majority of AAA games don’t have me either listening to a podcast while their cutscenes play or force my index finger in the direction of the skip button every time a cinematic starts.
Maybe that’s too much to ask in 2024. But hey, the industry has come a long way since 2004 — I’m still sore over that outrageous Halo 2 cliffhanger — so I’m hopeful virtual storytelling will have made huge strides by the time 2034 rolls around.
Also, apologies to Kratos for that opening image. I actually think God of War Ragnarök is pretty great, but I had a silly photo mode shot saved on my PS5, so there you go.
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Dave is a computing editor at Tom’s Guide and covers everything from cutting edge laptops to ultrawide monitors. When he’s not worrying about dead pixels, Dave enjoys regularly rebuilding his PC for absolutely no reason at all. In a previous life, he worked as a video game journalist for 15 years, with bylines across GamesRadar+, PC Gamer and TechRadar. Despite owning a graphics card that costs roughly the same as your average used car, he still enjoys gaming on the go and is regularly glued to his Switch. Away from tech, most of Dave’s time is taken up by walking his husky, buying new TVs at an embarrassing rate and obsessing over his beloved Arsenal.