A cry for games that matter

I find it laughable and sad that despite the fact that the average gamer is 33 years old, games are still mostly juvenile power fantasies. We have a few settings and mechanics we revisit time after time, and there is very little debate about leaving this well-treaded path to explore others.

Now, listen. I don’t want to shoot another alien. I don’t want to survive among mutants in a post-apocalyptic world. I don’t want to save the princess or the world. In fact, I’ve grown rather tired of killing things all together. And I know I’m not alone in this. We’re adults now. We crave games with topics adults give a damn about. Most of the time, that doesn’t include space marines or headshots.

Of course, gameplay needs some sort of conflict, and violence is a conflict that is easily translated into gameplay. And the gods know we’re good at it; we’ve done it since the birth of the industry. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire to find mechanics that can portray other conflicts.

At GDC 2008’s Game Designer’s Rant, Clint Hocking stated that the industry did not lack creativity, it simply lacked the courage to create something that challenges people.

“Why can’t Call of Duty be about duty? Why isn’t Medal of Honor about honor?”

[…] “Even with 6 million Halo users, you’ve reached only 10% of the audicence size of the LoTR movies. That movie is fundementally about the mechanings of trust. Those should not be harder to simulate than the mechanics of rope.

The industry is not completly oblivious about this. There’s been discussions for quite some time if games are art, and if games can make players cry. At this stage, someone always bring up the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. I have two problems with that. Her death is predetermined – it happens in a cutscene and the player has no chance to effect the outcome and doesn’t even really take part in the event.

Secondly, trying to evoke feelings of sadness like this is a very simplistic way of touching the player – it usually happens by portraying a character in a good light, and then killing her halfway into the game. It’s storytelling on a very simplistic level, and those who’ve read and seen many stories are likely to scorn at it.

It seems like the most powerful moments appear through emergent (not intended) situations. John Walker writes on Rock, Paper, Shotgun about the guilt he felt when he let his comrades die in battle while he remained hidden in Call of Duty, in an in-character piece called “I Am A Coward“. Just as interesting are the comments of the readers. One guy talks about Stalker.

“I was tackling the Monolith base in the Pripyat Palace of the Arts and a Freedom guy was doing the same. I sort of hung around him, shot people who were shooting him and he ending up shooting some guys who were shooting at me a couple of times. We continued inside, our partnership going well, but eventually got split up.

[…] Just as I got there the Freedom guy came in the room behind me and said something quite friendly sounding in Russian. I freaked. Before he could finish talking I’d spun around and emptied my clip into him and he slid to the floor.

I had to quit the game. There was just no point going on. I didn’t want to play any more. I felt utterly despondent. If I’d paid attention to my scope I would have seen that little green dot. But this would never happen again on reload. It could not be undone, redone or made up for.”

But these cases are few and far between. Our medium can be the most powerful one there is, if we look for other adjectives than “awesome”. We must strive to produce games that matter – matter to us.

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