Choose Your Own Adventure: Living the Story through Video Games

From the moment that Zork in the 1970s opened with “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door,” interactive fiction games have continued to evolve, and not just because of the inclusion of increasingly more sophisticated graphics. Story-driven experiences are still at the heart of many of today’s best video games, with as many different styles of gameplay as there are gamers.

The following video games are particularly suited to teens story-wise, though content ratings list most of these games as M for Mature, which are more appropriate for older teens. Consider these if you’re updating and adding to your circulating video game collection, and keep them in mind when talking with teens as “outside the box (or book, in this case)” recommendations.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons: Two brothers leave their storybook village to look for a cure for their dying father, meeting people and creatures and villains that they can help, ignore, or hurt. You control both brothers at the same time, each mapped to a thumbstick on the controller; the better you get at the controls, the more seamlessly the brothers work together to solve puzzles or avoid danger. The brothers have different personalities and motivations, and their growing relationship is the heart of this story. This game has a beautiful, fairytale-inspired world and a story that packs an emotional punch. Rated T, Teen.

  • Appeal: Teens can connect with the themes of sibling love, sibling rivalry, and the fear of losing a parent.
  • Platform: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac, IOS, Android

Gone Home: Kaitlyn, 21 years old, returns from a trip abroad to find her parents and 17-year-old sister missing from their new home. You play as Kaitlyn as she explores this empty house, full of letters, photos, journals, tapes, and so on, piecing together the clues of what happened. The story takes place in the 90s and a lot of it is focused on Sam, the sister, starting a new school and making a new friend named Lonnie, who she eventually falls in love with. Rated M, Mature.

  • Appeal: This is a touching story about the difficulty of fitting in in a new school, making new friends, and falling in love as a young lesbian. The ending will spark a lot of conversations.
  • Platform: Xbox One, PS4, Switch, PC, Mac

Kentucky Route Zero – Conway, a truck driver, ends up traveling a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky in order to make a delivery. Along the way, he influences the lives of this secret area’s strange denizens. This is a point-and-click adventure focused on character and atmosphere, with meaningful choices for the player to make. Episodes of this game started in 2013, but the fifth episode is forthcoming early 2019. There are also interludes released in between larger episodes that add to the story’s immersive nature, inviting players to interact online in different ways. No ERSB rating available.

  • Appeal: Billed as a magical realist adventure game, this is great fit for the ever-popular Welcome to Night Vale crowd.
  • Platform: Xbox One, PS4, Switch, PC, Mac

Life is Strange: – This episodic adventure game follows Maxine (Max), a 12th grader who discovers she can rewind time after witnessing a mysterious vision of lightning striking the town’s lighthouse. Max attempts to fix difficult scenarios (a fellow student’s suicide, for example) and investigate the disappearance of a classmate by choosing (and sometimes rewinding and changing) actions or dialogue options. The first episode of Life is Strange 2, a sequel with new characters, will come out in September 2018. Rated M, Mature.

  • Appeal: Teens will appreciate the idea that their choices shape the direction of the story, especially as Max is a relatable character with difficult choices to make. This is also a good choice for readers who liked the time rewinding aspect and contemporary scenarios of Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall.
  • Platform: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac, IOS, Android

Detroit Become Human: The story in this interactive movie game follows three androids in a future Detroit as they become self-aware and, through various means including escape from the city and forming a revolution, seek freedom from their oppressors. The gameplay is based on dialogue, exploration, and completing quick-time events (QTE), and nearly every choice can alter the story. Any of the three main characters, and several important side characters, can die or fail, and the way events play out is exclusively due to the choices players make. Incredible graphics, strong voice acting, and a fully-realized future world flesh out what is otherwise a rather typical science fiction story of sentient AI. Rated M, Mature.

  • Appeal: Science fiction fans will love the story, or at least love discussing it, and with the multitude of choices that alter the narrative, replay value is high. 
  • Platform: PS4

Until Dawn: This is another interactive movie game, but this time, you play as eight distinct characters in a slasher story. On the one-year anniversary of the disappearances of twins Hannah and Beth, their brother Josh and seven friends gather for their annual winter getaway, now a sort of memorial, at the remote mountain lodge from which they disappeared. Naturally, events grow sinister and the characters, typical to the horror genre, split up, discover secrets, and oh yeah, get menaced by an elusive killer. Every decision the player makes for the characters can lead to their survival–or death. Rated M, Mature.

  • Appeal: This is a fun alternative to movie night. Whether you’re invested in keeping your characters alive or in killing them all, this good-looking but cheesy horror movie game has inspired couples and groups of friends to play together, each in charge of a different character’s ultimate fate. It has also spawned numerous Let’s Play livestreams on Twitch and YouTube.
  • Platform: PS4

For more recommendations, check out this past YALSA Hub post on Storytelling in Video Games.

—Krista Hutley, currently playing Horizon Zero Dawn