Games rooted in abstract systems or that see you controlling vast armies of faceless soldiers can be great, but sometimes you want something that feels a little more intimate and human. Something where the characters are so lively, playing the game almost feels like hanging out with friends, or maybe an experience that offers piercing insight into our struggles with grief and trauma. The past few years have been a particularly strong period for games that explore friendships, relationships, and grounded, relatable human struggles — even when the settings are fantastical. If you’re craving a game that has that character-driven, human touch, here are 12 we particularly recommend.
Life Is Strange: True Colours
The latest entry in the Life Is Strange series has the same poignant, indie-music-infused vibe as its predecessors, but this third game arguably reaches new heights in its exploration of human connection. That’s due in part to Alex Chen’s remarkable expressiveness. Using motion-captured performances from its lead actors (a first for the series), True Colours has scenes in which every subtle emotion and gesture feels like a window into the inner worlds of its characters. The story it tells, one of community and friendship and secrets long buried, isn’t extraordinary, but the warmth and humanity it’s imbued with sure is.
This roguelike’s secret sauce isn’t its airtight combat or impressive arsenal of creative powers. It’s in the supporting cast, all drawn from Greek myth, who you come to know over the course of repeated escape attempts from the afterlife. Every run, you further the bonds between these characters and the player avatar, Zagreus. You reunite estranged lovers. You learn about the muted rage of a quiet man. You fall in love with death personified and die, ad infinitum, to the love of your life. Hades might run you through a gauntlet, but it tells you a fireside story every step of the way — win or lose. – Ari Notis
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
If you had told me at the beginning of the year that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy would be one of the best-written games of 2021 with the most loveable, well-rounded characters and tons of laugh-out-loud comedic moments, I would have been very confused since the game wasn’t announced until E3 in June. Then, after playing and reviewing the game in October, I would have lauded you for your precognitive powers and then trapped you in a mystic crystal to harvest your abilities for Kotaku stories for eons to come. GOTG might be a team game where you only play as one member, but you constantly feel the full brunt of the gang’s dysfunctional dynamic. The humour is almost relentless, but tempered with the occasional tender moment that demonstrates why intergalactic misfits Star-Lord, Groot, Rocket, Drax, and Gamora share such a strong bond. Now get back in your mystic crystal and precog me a sequel. – Mike Fahey
Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles continues Capcom’s illustrious legacy of gay lawyer games. While I find GAAC to be a much more mature game than its predecessors, it remains a melodrama at its core. There are tons of hilarious and heartwarming character moments, whether our protagonist is arguing with a disdainful prosecutor, analysing clues with his assistant, or fixing a great detective’s deductions. Even the one-off witnesses and jurors are delightful. By virtue of being a whodunnit game, GAAC has some of the most complex characters in this year’s lineup of narrative-focused titles. – Sisi Jiang
Once impossible to purchase, Taiwanese horror game Devotion was made available late last year on studio Red Candle’s own online store, and good thing, too, because this game is nothing short of a masterpiece. Your character may not interact much with other people directly as you explore a family’s apartment and uncover their anguish at various points in the 1980s, but the felt presence of that family, the depth of their pain, and just how misguided and awful what one of them has done all reverberate with tremendous force. A genuinely terrifying and devastating game from a studio that’s quickly establishing a reputation as a major new player in horror.
Boyfriend Dungeon is a top down action-RPG about dating the weapons you carry alongside you in your adventures. While you play as a mostly silent, self-insert character, the growth and development of your various “swordfriends” is the core of Boyfriend Dungeon. Every weapon has a well-thought-out and fully developed arc, each of which paints a different picture of how relationships progress and function. Combine these smaller stories with a main narrative about dealing with abuse, and the resulting emotional fallout, and you have an extremely unique action-RPG. – Renata Price
There’s a good reason why a Genshin Impact character is trending on Twitter every single day: the game showcases the personalities of its extensive cast through almost every aspect of the game. When I’m not mowing enemies down with Razor’s werewolf form, his idle animation shows him being headpatted by a phantom wolf. While it snows outside, Xiao helpfully informs me that thick snow can be eaten (No!). All of these small animation and dialogue flourishes help these characters feel like dynamic inhabitants, rather than passive NPCs.
Each character also has customised abilities specific to their backstory, a signature dish that only they can cook, and their own preferred furniture sets in the Genshin housing system. Earlier this year, the developers also added branching “hangout quests” where players can see more side stories involving the cast, which has helped keep older characters relevant between major updates. – SJ
It Takes Two
It Takes Two, from potty mouth Josef Fares’ Hazelight Studios, is a powerful game about marriage and how easily it can fall apart without effective communication. This narrative setup is the crux of the game’s character-driven moments, of which there are plenty, as It Takes Two blends gameplay and story together to create a tight action-platformer that necessitates cooperation. What makes It Takes Two stand out from Hazelight’s catalogue, which features other games about communication and cooperation, is the way in which protagonists Cody and May must work together to not only be effective parents to their daughter Rose, but also save their marriage by finding joy and silliness in life. The game is a reminder that clear communication is vital for any relationship. – Jeremy Winslow
Were Last Stop a TV show, you’d wolf it down in a weekend. The adventure game, developed by Variable State (a studio known for the dialogue-free adventure game Virginia), is ostensibly about the ever-unknowable arcane, but the supernatural stuff takes a back seat to three show-stealing main characters: a young woman who ends up inadvertently kidnapping a man with magic powers; a single father who swaps bodies with his younger, richer, fitter neighbour; and a married mother carrying on an extramarital affair — when her gig at a spy agency allots for any free time, that is. The dialogue is sharp as a tack throughout, and the three main plots converge in a choice-driven ending that’s satisfying no matter what route you decide. – AN
Opus: Echo of Starsong
Opus: Echo of Starsong is a riveting space opera about broken kids who are trying to find proof that they matter. The war is over, nobody won, and the survivors are left to pick over the bones of what’s left. You play as a trio of cave-divers looking for scrap and fuel resources to sell, and there’s a lot of incredible lore to discover. Despite its relatively short campaign, that lore makes the game feel much larger than it actually is, and in the characters’ struggles with their situation and each other, I found one of the most moving game stories in recent memory.
Disco Elysium stars a man on fire. At the beginning of the game he has lost his memory, and stumbles through the world in a drunken haze. Over the course of the next few days, you build him back up again. His hopes, desires, skills, and beliefs. He will likely be a beautiful and terrible man, trying very hard to solve a murder. To call Disco Elysium character-driven would be an understatement; the game is character defined. It does not exist without the detective and his partner, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, who happens to be the best deuteragonist in all of video games. If you have any interest in character studies and you haven’t given Disco Elysium a shot, I am all but begging you to give it a try. – RP
Psychonauts 2 has a fairly large cast of characters, large enough that you might expect some would be underdeveloped or forgettable. But in fact, most are memorable and given time to shine, often with fully realised arcs, sometimes crossing over into the lives and journeys of other characters in comedic or dramatic ways. Even better, none of these characters feel two-dimensional. Instead, they are depicted as real people dealing with admittedly wild circumstances. I’ve met people like the energetic Raz, the serious but sad Hollis Forsythe, and the strong but guilt-ridden Ford Cruller. And these characters and their personalities help ground even the zaniest moments of Psychonauts 2, making it easier to relate to them and to become invested in the outcome of their stories. – Zack Zweizen
And there you have it, our picks for some relatively recent great games to try if you want something with great characters, memorable relationships, or insight into the human condition. No doubt we missed some great ones though, so share your faves in the comments and help more folks get a little of that human touch, in convenient video game form.