The Game Should Leave an Imprint

With a few exceptions, I haven’t been into video games in a very long time. Part of that is, of course, being a grownup with a job and a family, which leaves little time for, well, anything. (And I genuinely have no idea how folks with jobs and families can devote the hours they do to these things.) Also, I am usually terrible at them, no matter what I do (with Tetrisphere and Tekken Tag Tournament as notable exceptions). But more to the point, I’ve tended to see them as a waste of time, even if they’re really, really fun.
I found a kind of validation of my way of thinking from video game developer David Cage who gave an eye-opening presentation to the DICE video game conference, as reported by The Verge:

“When you think about it, you realize that many games have absolutely nothing to say,” said Cage. “They’re merely here to make you have a good moment, to trigger some adrenaline in your system, and that’s cool.” But Cage stressed the importance of using content to create real meaning. “All real world themes should be used. Anything you’d see in a book or movie or a tv series could be used in a game. Politics, homosexuality… we need to put games at the center of our society and our lives. They should talk about people, they should talk about our world, they should talk about relationships, about society, and games can do that in a very meaningful way.”

“By the time you turn off your console, the game will leave an imprint. You will think about what you’ve seen. That’s what every creative medium should achieve.”

Similar to why I’ve soured on television and even movies, I feel like so many hours can be whittled away on them, and I will have gotten nothing back — even if the show, film, or game in question was fun or amusing or whatever.

But games in particular, they can give even seasoned players, what, 60-plus hours of playing time. Why would you want to waste such a powerful medium on just more shooting and puzzle solving? It’s not even necessary to fill a game with politics or a moral or what have you, but like any great novel or film, shouldn’t the story and the experience enrich you in some way, given all that you’ve put into it?

Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I tend to look back on, say, Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VII as enriching experiences, but even they were more about the wonder of immersion into a fantasy/sci-fi soap operas. Where’s the Tale of Two Cities of video games? It may already exist, and surely my outdated experience would miss it. I wouldn’t have time to play it anyway!

Update: I thought of one that might count, Bastion, which I played on iPad. A game that was gorgeous, original, showed ambiguity about its (somewhat cartoonish) violence, and has a score and soundtrack that is to die for.

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15 thoughts on “The Game Should Leave an Imprint

  1. I’d argue that there are games which have started to do this. The biggest example to my mind is Bioshock which takes Randian Libertarianism and lets you explore a world which takes it to its absurdist extremes.
    [SPOILER}
    The ending is almost universally regarded as brilliant simply because it forces you to think and raises serious questions about free will.
    The player assumes the role of a man who crash-lands in a secret underwater city which has torn itself apart under the influence of a rampant drug market. You explore deeper and deeper into the city, having to fulfil various tasks and challenges along the way.
    Near the end, your character discovers a secret room with hundreds of pictures and files dedicated to him and the phrase “Would you kindly?” written over them. It turns out that you have been preconditioned to obey any instruction prefaced with “would you kindly…?” and your whole life has led to this discovery. (A flashback shows that every time you had to do somie mission in the game, the voice of the man instructing you always prefaced it with the phrase)
    The main ‘bad guy’ of the game, the creator of the underwater city demonstrates just how little freewill you have when he orders you to beat him to death with a golf club taunting you with the phrase “A man chooses, a slave obeys”
    It is a really clever twist which makes you wonder just how much of your life you have actually have control over – all throughout the game, it is laid out so that you have an illusion of freewill, that you could decide to play the game any way you see fit – what if life itself is the same thing?
    [/spoiler]
    Videogames are a relatively new artform and yet we’re already seeing games with better stories than most hollywood films (Metal Gear Solid is another which springs to mind) Give it a few years and I’m sure we’ll see videogame’s ‘Tale of two cities’ or ‘The Godfather’

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  2. I’d say the most interesting aspect of games isn’t even in their story telling per say but in making players examine their choices. I haven’t played it but I’ve heard interesting things about how spec ops the line approaches this. It’s also been the more interesting aspect of several other role playing games.

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  3. The game that often gets thrown around when people ask these types of questions is Planescape: Torment. While modern gamers may find the find the graphics not nearly up to today’s standards (not even close) and the combat a big chunky the story, which is a literal journey of self-discovery through a bizarre and macabre world, remains an impressive feat with revelations that leave the player with more to ponder than just “how do I beat the big-badguy?”
    An even earlier example would be Ultima 4. The RPG didn’t revolve around killing the final boss or rescuing the lost princess but instead the player had to lead a virtuous life by embodying the 8 virtues of the land in order to claim the title of Avatar. However this game looks even clunkier that PS:T as it’s from 1985.

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  4. I’m not sure that every activity needs to be saturated with meaningful thought. These days, the only game I play with any regularity is World of Warcraft, and there’s a number of things I really enjoy about the game. The two biggest things are complexity and competitiveness; I really enjoy the mathematics and theorycrafting of figuring out optimal choices and play style and I really enjoy implementing that in playing with or against others, challenging myself to do as well as possible. For me, this medium isn’t at all similar to television or reading, I’m not playing for a plot, I’m playing it the same way I play basketball. I think it probably does sharpen certain aspects of mental acuity, but that’s not really the goal.
    I know most games are quite different from that, I just wanted to chip in something from someone that plays a game as a hobby, but has no real desire to see it develop any moral to the story. Orcs beating up humans is good enough.

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  5. I would argue that Assassin’s Creed is another game that does this, which may be what all the hype is about. Not only do you learn an awful lot about history, (and how to play pinochle and other period games) there is a pretty powerful alt history storyline. There is also not very much straight killing in the game (in fact, you are penalized most of the time when you kill someone unless it’s part of the plot). There’s also an awful lot of spying, eavesdropping and double-crossing which keeps you on your toes. A lot of the time, finding information is the main point of the mission. I rented the game for a couple of days, so I haven’t played it all the way through, but now I really want to.

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  6. Cage wrote and directed the game Heavy Rain, produced by his company Quantic Dream. It’s essentially a noir-ish murder mystery that’s very heavy on storytelling and choices, and blurs the line between games and film/TV. My wife and I have both played through it and have gotten very different endings based on our choices. It earns its “M for Mature” rating not only because of the actual content (violence, language, sex), but also because at times it forces you to make some hard choices for the characters. I had a very rare “holy shit!” moment after playing through the prologue and watching the opening credits.

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  7. Spec Ops, The Line is probably the best recent example of this. Basically a take on Heart of Darkness which uses gameplay as metaphor, and forces players to reevaluate their own relationship with modern military style shooters.
    Actually, on the subject of Planescape, the original “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” rpg had an interesting twist about 3/4 of the way through which certainly helps put the good/evil choices made so far into perspective. The failure to address the detailed choices made throughout Mass Effect in the conclusion of the series was the major sticking points with fans of the game.
    Journey, of course, which uses gameplay to emphasize the hero’s journey monomyth.
    I haven’t had the opportunity to play them (yet) but Team Ico’s two playstation games, Ico and Shadows of the Colossus both have pretty deep, resonant themes.
    While not as deep or emotional, Portal remains one of the most perfect games out there: Tutorial and narrative baked right into the gameplay.

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  8. There are very few modern games that “imprint” on me like a lot of older games used to when I was growing up (although that may be more due to my own age than actual story quality.) 6 was always my favorite Final Fantasy, not the least reason being that it was the first story I ever read/played/watched that had a loveable, but totally evil, villain. (Who also wasn’t a total broody, emo-fest like Sephiroth was. 😛 Kefka was just insane, which frankly is a lot more frightening, and also a lot more enjoyable.) Breath of Fire II helped my young mind along in questioning religion. And good ol Megaman/Megaman X in raising the question of “If an AI is advanced enough, is it alive? Should it have rights?”
    For more recent games, there’s the aforementioned Shadow of the Colossus with it’s ambiguously artful storyline. As a Westerner, Okami was a delightful little introduction to a lot of Japanese folklore (as well as just being absolutely wonderful in terms of graphics, story, gameplay, and music. Seriously, go play it. It’s on PS2, PS3 -via PSN and in HD-, and Wii.)
    Monster Hunter is my current favorite addiction, although it tends to fall squarely in the game-for-game’s-sake category. But I love it because despite taking place in a world with giant dragons/monsters and anime physics, it has a lot of surprising mundanities that make it a lot more interesting and fresh. Like, despite being a total fantasy setting, magic doesn’t really exist, people use technology to get by instead (especially blacksmithing.) And Evolution by Natural Selection is taken as a granted. Monsters are closer to “animals” than “monsters.” They are part of the food chain. They have competition from other species. They fight over territory and mates. My inner Biology nerd just loves it. XD

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  9. What’s a “waste of time” or not is really just a matter of opinion. I’ll enjoy the silly sci fi western just fine thank you very much.
    That said, plenty of games have had a LOT to say, some of it through the very medium of gaming. Metal Gear Solid 2 made a point extremely limited options and the illusion of choice by BEING very limited with only the illusion of choice. I’m not being sarcastic, that was all on purpose. Once that “clicked” it sure made me think.
    Ocarina of Time is a tale about growing up to me. I love it. There’s a LOT to get from that rather simple tale of a boy and girl saving the world.
    Xenogears is a rather massive tale about the impact of religion, ending with the death of god.
    Some people think Lord of the Rings is pointless escapism with no redeeming value. I myself found a lot about friendship and how easy it is to do terrible things with the best of intentions.
    Final Fantasy 6 has resonance with me that stays to this day, as it provides a sense of purpose even if everything will die. The end isn’t the point, the moment by moment concerns are.
    Even Earthbound made me enjoy “trivial little things” by realizing they aren’t little things. There’s a sign in the game that just says “keep this in mind”. I kept that sign in mind for a long time before realizing that wasn’t a hint, the sign just wanted me to keep it in mind. Now I rankle whenever someone says something is trivial and pointless because I think those trivial things can be as important as one makes them out to be.

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  10. I know it’s currently popular to hate on it, but as far as games that “leave an imprint”, I’ll throw out “Walking Dead” (the TellTale games version – I think there is a phone app already, and an FPS called “walking dead” in the works).
    The whole game is about choices and their consequences. Sure, many plot points are unavoidable or the outcome rigged but watching my sister in law play it I was surprised… as much by seeing what changed as how much it makes you second guess yourself and how much it forces that feeling of “I could have done more”. It was hard for her to come to terms with until I just sat down and said “don’t stress on it, this game constantly makes you feel like you messed up – that’s part of the experience”.
    Probably getting cheaper – if you haven’t played it, I’d recommend it! It’s also done in 5 episodes (about 2 hours apiece) so it’s easy to pick up and put down if you’ve got rugrats or other life-related interruptions going on.

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    • I was just going to leave a reply about The Walking Dead game too. It took out the video game award for Game Of The Year 2012 all while being fairly graphically basic just with in incredibly well written story.
      I’m only two episodes in so far since I don’t have a lot of time to spare on it, since once I pick it up I can’t put it down until the episode is complete. Episode one is fairly decent as far as zombie stories go, and fits with the early period of the comic, but episode two is where the game really shined. Pretty much everything in episode two after the big twist in the middle is incredible drama and storytelling that will stay with you, and some of your choices will haunt you later.

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  11. There are a lot of interesting and artsy games out there. I just played this Twine game, howling dogs, the other day and I don’t understand it very well, but it really left an impression. The games dys4ia and Lim are about being trans and navigating the world. There’s a smartphone game called “Phone Story” that’s about “the hidden social costs of smartphone manufacturing.”
    I’m reading the stuff other people suggested up there and nodding my head. I wish I could think of more suggestions, because I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are already games out there that were made to get people talking and thinking, or to leave an impression with the person playing it. It’s just like every other medium, though–there’s a lot of fun schlock (that I also love) that you experience and you just turn your brain off until you’re done playing. The other stuff’s around, though!

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  12. The Mass Effect games certainly made an impact on me (I haven’t played the third yet because EA sucks). And I’m enjoying Guild Wars 2 a great deal, especially because of its focus on coop play instead of competitive play.

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