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.

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.

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.

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.

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.