Lectures
GrownUpAwes
The Grown-Up Video Game

Video games have been with me for most of my life.  The industry is a medium that I discovered at a young age in my cousin’s bedroom, huddled in the corner waiting for the older kids to finish playing and wondering when it would be my turn.  Mesmerized by 16-bit Italian plumbers and plucky elves trying to save their respective princesses I imagined myself as a part of these worlds.  They were something that I could relate too.  It was not as though my life resembled in any way the characters jumping and slashing their way across the television screen, but rather the pixelated worlds gave form to the fantasies of a young boy who at the time would have rather been slaying demons and exploring new lands than living the life I had been assigned to at birth.

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This is by no means an experience that was unique to me alone.  In fact, I would wager that most of the global population has felt this way at one time or another, and there have always been avenues of escape for such thoughts.  For a long time it was the spoken word, and as society became more literate it was the written word that reigned supreme. As we progressed in technology eventually devices such as the radio and the television made their way into the majority of homes.  Then along came the computer and with that the eventual advent of interactive games.  These forms of escape help to define us, they represent worlds that for a moment we are able to glimpse through pages and frames-per-second.  They grow with us and help to shape our view of the world.

This same growth has been seen more recently in the culture of video games.  We’ve gone from saving princesses to fighting wars, and on into the more adult themes that the medium now demands.  Despite the relative youth of the video game industry it has grown up, and has done so more in a way that a person grows from adolescence to adulthood.  It is quite unique in that the kids these products were originally aimed at have been able to take the medium and develop it with them as they grew.  From the fantasies of children, to the awkward teenage years where none of us quite knew what to do with ourselves, into maturity video games have managed to progress.  Thus in this unique form of entertainment we find a unique type of video game, the “grown-up” one.

The idea of “The Grown-Up Video Game” can mean many different things to many different people.  It could mean excessive violence, nudity, or difficulty.  I like to believe that while examples such as those in the previous sentence make a game adult oriented it takes something a bit more to make a game “grown-up”.  Well what do I mean by this?  The human experience is one that is made up of great hardship, pain, loss, death, and a multitude of experiences seemingly designed to destroy a person.  However, that same experience is also filled with joy, love, laughter, family and friends.  It is from these experiences that we begin to question, “Why?”.  What is the motivation behind a person’s actions?  How did their life culminate in the experience that we bear witness to now?  Is there a good reason to be waging war on this particular nation?  Why did he just blow that guy’s head off with a shotgun?  It is this sort of thinking that is beginning to make its way into our beloved interactive games, and I believe that it is a very good thing.

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There are many themes used in video games in order to create this sense of maturity, and while revenge is probably the most common there are developers out there that are exploring other facets of life.  In late 2005, a game called Shadow of the Colossus was released to much critical fanfare.  Not only did the game feature stunning visuals and innovative game play, but it also delved into some of the more basic human emotions.  Both the themes of love and loneliness are explored in a ten-hour (give or take) journey throughout a vast world.  With very little dialogue, Shadow of the Colossus was able to aptly convey emotions that shape so much of who we are as people.  During the game, we follow the journey of a young man known as Wander on a quest to wake the woman he loves Mono.  One of the first things that strikes you in this game is the concept that you are alone.  In fact the feeling of uneasiness that you grapple with at times can be quite surprising, and will have you calling out for your horse Agro, just to have something living and breathing by your side.  Ultimately, Wander faces some of the largest foes that could be imagined in order to save the women he loves, and is even willing to sacrifice himself for the goal.  The game is a great representation of these themes and carries them well through the tale.

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These so called “grown-up” games need not be relegated to the category of niche gaming.  In fact, at times we find that these video games are capable of reaching mass popularity among the gaming community.  It is here that we find one of our generation’s outlets for the expression of conflict.   The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series is one that has been able to provide a great social commentary on the conduct of war.  Why is a country willing to sacrifice so many of its young men and women in order to achieve a goal that is unclearly stated?  While Modern Warfare doesn’t seek to point out possible inherent flaws with international policy and aggressive military action, the parallels it traces between its virtual world and our reality are strikingly similar, and intentionally so.  In the second iteration of the series, I found myself defending America on the streets of Washington D.C., and while I wouldn’t consider myself a flag waving, activist marching American, I will say that on more than one occasion I found myself yelling, “Get the hell out of my country,” at the screen.  There is a political and more so nationalist message to take into account.

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Now we come to Heavy Rain, a title that has been anticipated heavily within the gaming community for some time.  It is of particular importance to this category of games because from what we’ve seen and heard so far it is willing to take a real look at what truly motivates the characters on screen.  At the core of the game is the investigation of a serial killer known as the Origami Killer.  You play as four very different individuals all with their own reasons for being drawn into the investigation, a distraught father seeking to save his son to redeem the loss of another, a woman who struggles only for a bit a rest and reprieve, a FBI profiler dealing with resentment from his coworkers and desperate to solve the case before another person is killed, and a jaded, beaten down private investigator on the trail of the killer.  It is the experiences and the decisions of these people when they are desperate that so realistically seem to mirror many of the ordeals in our own lives.

The games highlighted above are by no means the only ones with any sense of maturity to them.  There are many other games and developers behind them seeking to place more of the human experience into the industry.   Video games represent a form of entertainment which is just now coming of age.  What the future of “The Grown-Up Video Game” is I’m not sure, but it is a category of the gaming culture that I am interested in and expecting great things from.  They may not be the most popular or profitable games, but I hope that developers continue to explore the depths that are possible when making a game of mature caliber.  The industry may have grown up, but it is also still growing and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.

Nicholas J. Abbate

I urge everyone to comment, contribute, and disagree.  If you think I’m wrong let me know, if you think I’m right let me know why, and if your thinking of something completely different I want to know about that too. I am interested in your opinions and in hearing what you have to say.

9 comments
JV
JV

Great article. I couldn't agree more. Hopefully developers become more conscious of their games.

Nick
Nick

@deftangel: Yea, I figured I was going to catch some flack for the MW part, but I decided to keep it anyway. Most of the game, at least the single player missions, were not what I would call "grown up", but I felt that the situation the series was trying to mimic in the real world was to striking to ignore. I been to D.C., a few times, visited the Washington Monument, walked along the reflecting pool, and sat on the steps of the Capitol Building, even though it was a game it was kinda weird to see it all burning (maybe I'm just taking it all too seriously). You could probably equate it to seeing Palace of Westminster or Big Ben being bombed out. As for the "No Russian" part it didn't even cross my mind when I was writing the article as hard as that is to believe. Most of the time I was thinking about the "Blackout" mission of the first game in which the country is invaded by Marines, and the eventual WMD explosion. I like to believe that industry is grown-up, or maybe that's just hopeful thinking.

deftangel
deftangel

@Demon Beaver: I agree, especially on the MW2 front. I wrote a piece for this site (link below) you might find interesting though it's more to do with the disconnect in the quality of characterisation between the Taskforce 141 missions with Price, Soap et al and that of the US Ranger missions. As a fellow Brit, I wasn't feeling the Virginia/Washington parts either though I appreciate why the imagery may be evocative. Heard good things about S.T.A.L.K.E.R too, incidentally. http://www.couchcampus.com/lecture/thoughts-on-mw2-that-arent-about-no-russian/ The story of MW2 is notably daft, not that it stops it becoming a great game but it's very much an adolescent game and that's where I feel the game industry is right now, struggling through it's teenage years. Games like Shadow of the Colossus are exceptions rather than the rule which is why it is so revered and often referenced when talking about the development of games as a medium. The "Industry" is nothing like mature enough produce output that tackles such complex themes on an on-going basis. For me, game makers are only beginning to scratch the surface. It's good that they are. Clumsy as they might be, attempts like "No Russian" should be encouraged, critiqued and built upon. But grown up? For me growing up is where we're at. And that's just fine.

Nick
Nick

@Pete (Obel): Thanks for the comment Pete. Let me start off by saying I am not familiar with Lost Odyssey or Twin Peaks (though I have heard of them), nor have I ever had the chance to watch the Big Lebowski all the way through (man, I'm out of touch). I do agree though that it is the flaws that characters have at times that make them so believable. I often wonder when I'm watching television why these people I'm supposed to believe are real and in a real situation never stumble over their words, or for that matter stumble over their own feet (maybe I get to serious about my entertainment). Maybe if developers continue to inject more of what a person really is into their character it will help to create a more mature and believable story. But what do I know? I'm not much of a writer either.

Nick
Nick

@Demon Beaver: Yea I love Shadow of the Colossus, I still pull it out at least once a year to play around with. It amazes me how much the game was able to convey with so little dialogue. As for MW2 I do agree with you, I was more trying to comment on the fact that it is very similar to what is going on in the world today, and how there is a social commentary in the game. Is it innovative or deep, no, but it is there. As for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I haven't had the chance to play the game but I will definitely check it out.

Nick
Nick

@Dan: Thanks for commenting, and yes I do agree that there are plenty of games meant for children that appeal to and older audience, I like to see games that focus on the story and characters and draw in a larger demographic.

Pete (Obel)
Pete (Obel)

Nice article, I frequently wonder why games these days claim to have a deep, immersive story, but all they mean is they drag on a long time and sometimes a character will die. There's a lack of research into why characters act the way they do and in a way I think it's the smaller things that make a character special. Take for example a game I've been playing through lately: Lost Odyssey. I looked forward to this game greatly through its development as it claimed to have a really emotional storyline, it was literally described as a game that would make you cry (and cowritten by a popular Japanese novelist). What I found is that all they meant is some scenes would feature extremely forced emotions, like how the characters tend to cry a lot. Specifically a scene in the early section of a game where you meet a couple of kids, save their lives, then they take you home and it turns out their mother is the main characters daughter he thought was dead and everybody cries a lot when she dies of some mysterious illness and as a player you're sitting there thinking "oh kay....". In a storytelling perspective Lost Odyssey fails in another way, in determining who the bad guy is and what makes him evil. For the benefit of those who haven't played it before I'll sum it up now: He has an evil goatee, audacious clothing and laughs when bad things happen to innocent people. You know, like all the real life villains. It would be equally appropriate if he walked around with a t-shirt on simply saying "Bad Guy". This isn't criticism unique to Lost Odyssey though, lots of games suffer from a similar analysis into the characters. Going back to what I was saying about the smaller things that makes a character special, I want to draw reference to some of the events in film and TV that make me smile the most. There's this bit in the first episode of Twin Peaks when Cooper is about to do an examination of a corpse and he asks the assistant to turn the light off, in real life the actor misheard and thought he was asked what his name was, to which he replied "Larry". Not breaking character, Kyle MacLachlan once again asked him if he could turn the light off, to which the other actor awkwardly obliged. It's this really awkward moment which is given so much humanity because of a slight slip up! It's little things like this that make characters seem more human and sympathetic at times which you literally NEVER see in games these days. If I wrote a game I would ensure the characters sometimes trip over their words, get things wrong sometimes, lie.. Actually, just make mistakes in general, because it's the most human trait I can think of! One more short example before I wrap up this overly long comment. There's a cult comedy that I'm sure many are aware and fond of: The Big Lebowski. Some people don't get the humour in this film, but the reason why others are so in love with it is because of the characters that are built up and the language they use, which was an absolute master stroke of writing by the Coen brothers. The Dude struggles to get a straight, clean sentence out of his mouth most of the time. He's always umming and ahhing and stealing quotes from other people and things he has heard on the TV, every um and ah of which was written into the script, not adlibbed by Jeff Bridges. It's all these "flaws" I guess you'd call it which I believe makes a character more charming. Maybe it would be better for game story writers to not write a beginning, middle and end? Perhaps it would be better to establish a world, then write the characters and REALLY flesh them out, then write the beginning to the story and see how these human characters react to the story. Maybe, just MAYBE they'll end up in a much more interesting scenario. But what do I know? I'm no writer. Pete

Demon Beaver
Demon Beaver

Great article! I very much agree with your description of Shadow of the Colossus, it was a touching experience. I'm hoping to see more of the kind, and often do, often found in Indie gaming. Dear Esther, for example. I have some issues with Modern Warfare 2, though. It is a Hollywood Blockbuster in video game form, with not much depth in storyline, and a rather sad attempt to make something controversial. Not being an American, I might not identify on your level with the defense of Washington, but most of the rest of the game, "No Russian" especially, struck me as a weak attempt at "Look at us, we're so deep!", while at the same time trying to make James Bond style escapades (snow-mobile chase scene?). Though trying hard, Apocalypse Now it is not. I suggest comparing it to a game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which, while being an FPS, is still an emotionally compelling game.

Dan
Dan

Rockin' article. I think that sex/violence etc. can actually make a game less "mature" by making it more of an instant gratification dispenser and less of a thinking game. I also suspect there is a fair range of E rated games that, despite relative simplicity of play, get more play from adults simply because they are better able to relate to/process the story elements and characters. I remember as a kid that it took me a while before I really understood the value of RPGs... and then there was Chronotrigger.