Ten Games to Scratch the Young Adult Novel Itch
Stories bad enough to satisfy your inner 8th-grader
To classify a game as a Young Adult (YA) novel, we must assert what a YA novel is. YA novels are almost inherently bad, but not all bad novels are YA, so there’s more to the novels than being bad. Many YA novels feature either a protagonist or an important character in the tween/teen space who comes to terms with adulthood by taking responsibility and (usually)being horny. Also, a YA novel needn’t feature an important character who comes of age as long as it’s pulpy enough.
With enough melodrama, violence, simplicity, and genre fiction elements, a story without a tween in it may appeal to a tween, so Shadow the Hedgehog is essentially on the same wavelength as Percy Jackson. Saying a story appeals to tweens is far more nebulous than saying a story is about coming of age, so I will argue for the former on a more case-by-case basis.
You play as Jack Cooper, a plucky rifleman in the Militia. The Militia seeks to gain independence from Earth by battling against the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation. Say that with a straight face. For competitive readers, the Militia’s the orange team, and the IMC’s the blue team.
Jack Cooper is the proud mentee of Tai Lastimosa, a Pilot. Pilots are parkour policemen with jetpacks who have manual control over the titular titans. The titans can function by themselves, but the Pilots’ motor skills are much sharper than the titans’.
One might ask: “Why don’t the IMC and the Militia have the robots fight each other and keep the soldiers alive?”
Well, shut up. After the tutorial, the IMC predictably pulverizes Tai, and Jack Cooper must ascend to Pilothood before he’s ready or whatever (hence the coming of age thing). He inherits Tai’s titan, Bravo Tango 7274, but the titan tells Jack to call it, “BT.”
Both Titanfall games are action-packed adventures that see players venturing across a dense new world. Whether you’re leveraging BT against the might of the IMC’s titans or charging through hordes of grunts and “spectres,” the gameplay is balanced and challenging on the harder difficulties. Not only does Titanfall have the same multiplayer progression system as Call of Duty, but it rivals CoD in terms of quality and popularity (at least among its hardcore fanbase).
Thief (The Reboot)
This game attracted lots of shade on account of being a reboot, but its comically dark atmosphere placed it easily among my favorites. Nostalgia for the original game may have dampened positive press for the new version. With its citywide plague, the Gloom, Thief appears to one-up Dishonored as Dishonored one-ups Thief. While I wouldn’t call Garret a YA protagonist, his apprentice, Erin, ticks a couple of boxes. She only fails to be an adult because she’s too cool for school. As in many pulpy fictional works, while Erin is a homeless street girl who lives off only what she can steal, her black makeup is, of course, flawless at all times.
One night (this is the tutorial), Garret and Erin must satisfy Basso’s contract by stealing a magic jewel from some zealots. Classic. In and out. But Garret isn’t so sure, this time. This is his fourth game, and he encourages Erin to be cautious. To the audience’s surprise, she isn’t cautious, and at the end of the tutorial, Erin’s about to fall through a glass ceiling into the zealots. “Garret!” she cries as he tries to pull her up, “I’m slipping.” To assert the weight of Garret’s traumatic guilt, the game offers this line via flashback absolutely more than once. It’s not a good line. I expect nothing less from Square Enix.
A year later, Garret wakes from a coma, and you spend the rest of the game trying to save Erin from the wealthy zealots. Speaking of whom, the primary antagonist’s name's as lazy as his personality. He’s the “Thief-Taker General” who’s lecherous, ugly, disabled, bald, and vaguely homoerotic. He’s one of those exceedingly generic villains who kill their own minions to make a point.
If nothing else, the challenge of collecting every morsel of silver without hurting a flea makes this reboot beyond addicting. Garret’s cute little hand animations that play whenever he opens a door or safe persist in my memory as one of my favorite parts of this experience.
ALL WILL KNEEL BEFORE LORD DIABLO! Diablo’s one of those franchises, like Harry Potter, in that it attracts people whose natural inclination is to obsess over it. They need to have the lunchbox, the poster, the apron, and the stand mixer to feel like real fans. I know this because I’m one of them. As many know, Diablo is the ARPG to play. Its popularity rivals that of frozen yogurt and pepperoni pizza. At least, it’s my favorite ARPG of all time. I’m so excited for Diablo IV that I may not be able to keep my clothes on during the day of its release.
In particular, Diablo III contains a story that encourages black-and-white thinking, a favorite pastime of young adults. As Diablo is the Lord of Terror, there’s not much incentive to empathize with him. In pulpy stories for adults, bad guys have dismissive backstories about why they’re evil, but Diablo has no thorn in his side. Diablo didn’t get bullied in high school or lose his mom. He’s just the actual deity of death and destruction. As far as I know, Diablo’s an evil guy who loves to be evil because he’s in a video game. His brother, Belial, might be harder to hang out with on account of being the Lord of Lies. Imagine spending eternity with some guy who lies all the time without reason. Maybe I feel bad for Diablo after all.
Diablo III may further appeal to YA audiences with Leah, one of the primary characters with whom the protagonist spends the most time. Her character’s almost as dismissive as Diablo’s because she’s such a textbook YA protagonist with her careless eagerness and passion for learning about demons. Diablo’s narrative is entertaining enough to stand up to the monotonous gameplay inherent to most ARPGs, and I recommend the DLC classes because they’re as broken as my heart.
My understanding is that Chell isn’t particularly young, and she has no coming-of-age arc to complement her escape from Aperture Science. We do what we must because we can for the good of all of us, except the ones who are dead, but Portal raises a major YA flag with its sophomoric sense of humor, some of which is nauseatingly unfunny. The next time a game makes a lazy reference about how the cake is a lie, I’m writing a bad review, AAA studios. Otherwise, the franchise’s humor is fun enough to be reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ work. I present a few examples that made me laugh when I first heard them:
“How are you holding up? Because I am a potato.” -Glados
“Don’t be alarmed, but you might have a very minor case of serious brain damage.” -Wheatley
“When life gives you lemons, don't make lemonade! Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don't want your damn lemons! What am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life's manager!” -Cave Johnson
Portal may not have the necessary protagonist, but its comical sci-fi world is more than pulpy enough to compensate.
Assassin’s Creed Franchise
Not all Assassin’s Creed games present YA narratives, but many do, namely II, III, and Odyssey. Throughout the series, young assassins often face a disruption of stasis, usually the loss of a parent, that thrusts them into their white and red robes too early. The protagonists crack a few bad jokes here and there, generally acting like YA readers. Because Assassin’s Creed games are so long, their narratives provide a strong sense of growth. Ezio stops philandering. Connor presents his famous question, “Where’s Charles Lee?” to dozens of confused people. Alexios and Kassandra leave Kephallonia for the first time. All protagonists need to be wise enough to recognize that the conflict between Templars and Assassins has lasted for centuries and will endure for centuries. The narratives of most Assassin’s Creed games give me YA vibes, though they may be slightly above that pay grade because of adult references to sex, alcohol, etc.
The whole franchise, including Emily’s story in the second one, fits the YA bill well. The main problem with the narrative is that it serves as exposition about the game’s world instead of the game’s world informing the narrative, and this is a distinctly YA problem for the inherently pulpy YA novel. There’s no reason for Sokolov to say, “Hold still, High Overseer Campbell.” A human wouldn’t say the full title, and neither would Sokolov. That line rubbed me the wrong way as soon as I heard it. Another unnatural line materialized from Hiram Burrows’ mouth moments later: “Corvo? Two days early. Full of surprises, as usual.” I knew I was going to have to spend half the game killing that little guy. I was thoroughly enchanted by Dunwall’s legal system when Hiram appeared before Corvo with two guards and said, “Yes! He’s killed the empress!”
Lena Headey’s Callista seems as bored by Dishonored as Peter Dinklage’s Ghost is bored by Destiny. I’ve heard that these prolific nerds are friends in real life. She was slammed by some shitty lines. That I don’t remember them is probably best.
Emily’s story mirrors those of many YA protagonists. Delilah Copperspoon’s seizure of Dunwall castle sends Emily on a quest through Karnaca to remove her dad from a Han Solo-esque state. Because “high-chaos” and “low-chaos” actions determine how Emily’s story unfolds, her discovery of who she is without Corvo breathing down her neck is a fundamental game mechanic rather than an exclusively narrative structure.
Dishonored 2’s greatness rivals that of the first one, but I played Dishonored so far into the ground that by the time I played the sequel, I was still burnt out. Its low frame rate upon its sketchy release didn’t do it any favors either. Most importantly, both games scratch that YA itch you may have been neglecting, and the first one is more than optimized enough to make up for the second one’s performance. Excuse me? Dork of the Ducksider? Sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
The Last of Us Franchise
This franchise presents a problem because its narrative is actually good. The Last of Us probably offers the best story of any video game. Many praise Bioshock’s narrative, but Bioshock doesn’t hold a candle to The Last of Us.
The Last of Us is a story about Joel. For laymen, that’s the dude on the cover. Joel’s story is one of redemption, but Ellie’s story of growth parallels Joel’s well because as the two become closer, Ellie learns so much from her surrogate dad that she becomes playable at one point. While Joel hogs the spotlight for much of the first game, one of the most memorable parts of my experience was watching Ellie go from tween to zombie-killing machine with a backpack full of weapons. What obviously becomes more apparent in the second game is that, not only are Ellie’s abilities similar to Joel’s, but they’re identical, indicating how much she learned from him.
There’s no doubt that the whole zombie thing’s overdone. I can come up with a zombie show right now: The survivors call the zombies something else to be original. The survivors fight each other even though there are also zombies now. Survivors have sex, cheat on each other, and die. The end. That’s Season 1. The next season will feature different people doing the same stuff.
Without abandoning these tropes, The Last of Us presents an unthinkably good story about zombies. Emotionally investing in the relationship between Joel and Ellie was certainly easy for me. Relationships among all characters interested me and drove the story to soaring emotional heights and cosmic depths alike. Considering the monotony of the genre, The Last of Us should be crossed off any gamer’s bucket list.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
I imagine robot dinosaurs are good enough for most gamers. They were definitely enough for me. Horizon owes its closeness to the top of this list exclusively for gameplay reasons. It offers some of the best enemy designs I’ve ever seen, and Aloy’s arsenal is just diverse enough to handle the differences among the robot dinosaurs in the game. Nothing excites me more than hitting one of those little red eyeballs for an instakill. Practically nothing.
There’s lots of amusing YA stuff in it, too. Like many YA protagonists, Aloy is ostracized by her community basically for no reason. The tutorial shows an adult keeping other toddlers away from Aloy because Aloy doesn’t have a mom, and they live in a matriarchal society. It was just funny to watch an adult being that judgmental toward a baby who doesn’t have a mom. Who would do that?
Thankfully, Aloy has a dutiful and doting dad named Rost who’s enough like Joel for me to say that he’s like Joel. The main difference between these iconic dads is that Rost never has the spotlight the way Joel does. Rost raises Aloy in the game’s “noob zone,” which you can’t leave until you complete the YA test that elevates Aloy to the actual rank of robot hunter.
These tests are nothing you haven’t seen before. She has to do a ropes course and kill stuff. During these tests, there’s a Draco Malfoy guy who keeps telling Aloy she sucks. Everything else about what happens in this noob zone is a spoiler, but the story becomes a lot less YA once the player ventures beyond the noob zone. By that point, the story is only pulpy and bad, but it’s undoubtedly entertaining with the snappy dialogue among its one-dimensional characters.
From my teens, I remember Captain Price and Ezio, but I’m glad today’s teens are growing up with Aloy and her friends. Games didn’t always have aro/ace people in them (Aloy’s not getting it on with anybody), and they didn’t always have lesbians, disabled people, or Black people. Hedgehogs were in video games before lesbians were. I enjoyed seeing such a diverse cast of characters in this franchise, alone.
Ghost of Tsushima
This contender also doesn’t have a YA protagonist. The game offers some flashbacks that make Jin Sakai a child for a few key scenes, but he’s otherwise a regular protagonist. Also, the story is as uniquely incredible as that of The Last of Us, so I don’t have a lot to work with, but I do think that the story is pulpy in that it’s a love letter to samurai movies from the mid-20th century. The settings offer a fuzzy “Akira Kurosawa” filter so that players may enjoy the game in black and white. This filter also distorts sound to seem old. Personally, I couldn’t stand it for more than 15 minutes, but film buffs may appreciate it.
Without the filter, the struggle for dominance between Khotun Khan and Jin is such an over-the-top opera that I recommend easy mode. The story can be front and center, and the game will still knock all socks off.
My final thought about this game’s YAness is that the Iki Island DLC delves into Jin’s past in such a way as to present a more fleshed-out YA experience. If you’re in the mood for a YA story, maybe don’t expect anything until you begin the DLC, which is part of the Director’s Cut.
Celeste is the best (only?) game about mental health I’ve ever played. It is easily the best two-dimensional platformer ever made, pitilessly leaving Mario in its wake. Creative puzzle objects complement crisply responsive controls. Struggling with anxiety, Madeline turns to the great outdoors to work on her issues: She wants to scale Celeste Mountain. Her journey of self-discovery is entertaining to watch, and there’s a distinctly cathartic climax.
Like many YA stories, Madeline’s is simple and short, but what I admire most about the story is how, instead of saving the world, Madeline tackles a much more mundane problem that’s a lot easier to relate to. Celeste’s YA narrative is by far the simplest among the others on this list, but it’s also the most powerful. More powerful than Ghost of Tsushima and more powerful than both parts of The Last of Us. If you want a great indie game, a challenging platformer, and a fun story, you should pick up Celeste if you haven’t already.
So there's ten games for the YA lover in all of us. Let us know your favorite in the comments!
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