Media is the lens through which human beings attempt to reach out to strangers and in our best examples of media the feelings of the creator are inherently embedded into every fiber of their creation. This is a factor that I like to believe that video games, great video games, all share. While speaking about his creation of the indie game hit Braid Jonathan Blow explained how he took his “deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and put them in the game.” In the same film Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac creator Edmund McMillen said that his “whole career has been me trying to find new ways to communicate with people, because I desperately want to communicate with people but I don’t want the messy interaction of having to make friends and talk to people because I probably don’t like them.”
I share that feeling. I feel like on some level all of us do. I don’t want to split hairs and talk about what constitutes a “gamer” or not—that’s a whole other difficult and largely volatile conversation for another day entirely—but I believe that this desperate need to communicate with other people while being inhibited by whatever mental or physical blocks one enforces on themselves is a trait that all “gamers” share. I don’t play video games solely for the escapist fantasy of, for a brief moment in time, becoming someone else. I don’t play violent video games solely for catharsis or the entertainment of violence—again, whole other issue for a whole other article. And I don’t play video games because I do not or cannot interact with the outside world. I do want that and I feel like video games have been an integral part in helping me develop these social functions. Video games are a part of me, I am a gamer, and I love that. It’s a wonderful thing. It isn’t for everyone, and nor should it be. But as a gamer I feel like I should share the stories, the mechanics, and all the little bits of love that game devs put into their work.
For most of my childhood and adolescence, I was the only one in the house who played video games. I would spend hours either in my basement or in my room playing my Playstation and Xbox. And largely, though I was comfortable playing my games and experiencing them for myself, when I would venture downstairs later I would most often be greeted like a cave troll hiding upstairs and avoiding the rest of the family. And if I gave off that impression, it wasn’t intentional. The medium I had chosen to immerse myself in was simply not known to the rest of my family. But I desperately wanted to share it with them, to show them what video games could to. I tried to share my experiences but the wonder I had associated with them at first was turned into bemusement, confusion, or at worst revulsion. I knew that video games might not be for them but that need to share these feelings with my family—not just my friends—persists to this day.
In particular, my sister and I have a complicated relationship. I love her. Of course I do, she’s my sister. I love her in that way all family members love their siblings: we can pick on each other, but we will crush anyone else who does the same. But our tastes and hobbies are so wildly different we have always had a difficult time always getting along. We argue over things only one of us likes more often than we share things we are both enjoy. I cannot count the amount of times we somehow got embroiled in an argument over the merits and flaws of the writing or presentation of some TV show or movie or book. Every so often though we would find common ground and just talk, and I loved those moments. These discussions however do not extend to video games.
I especially wanted to share experiences that didn’t belittle my sister as a female. The gaming industry has a real problem with that and I’d really understand if that is one reason why she doesn’t play them. Gender and sexual politics is an issue that the video gaming community is currently dealing with and will continue to deal with. But I would nonetheless like to share the examples that managed to sidestep this difficulty, if for no other reason to show that there is a place for more than just the Mountain Dew and Dorito fueled Halo player who instantly starts slinging hateful and derogatory comments when he spots a girl in the multiplayer lobby.
So I am going to try a little exercise here. I am going to compile a list of games that I would seriously like my sister to play. It isn’t an insistence. Rather my writing this article is more of a heartfelt plea to explain some of these feelings, to explain that there are things in this realm of media that I think would interest her as well. At the end of the day though, these are bits and pieces of my life that I would like to share with her, if not my whole family, because they are examples of how gaming can do great things. I don’t expect any of this to spontaneously make my sister a gamer, nor do I want to use this as an opportunity to tell someone who, for instance, doesn’t care about huge medieval fantasy game how amazing The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is (though it is). Rather, these are games that I feel like I could share with someone like my sister, who doesn’t have the same knowledge of video games as someone like I do, that I feel like they’d enjoy.
So yeah, this one’s for you sis.
This one is extremely hard to talk about. I know I’ve mentioned it to you before, sis. I’ve brought it up a few times but never really elaborated on what it is. I saw you roll your eyes and half-listen, and that’s okay. But trust me, you would love this damn game. First off, it’s very short. I got through it my first time in about an hour. And it tells a simple story: a girl named Kaitlin Greenbriar returns home after a trip abroad, but not to the home she was raised in. See, while she was away her parents moved into a (possibly haunted) mansion her father inherited from a mysterious relative. So while this is technically where Kaitlin lives now, the house is entirely new to her. And on the night that the game starts in 1995 Kaitlin finds that the house is empty. Your objective as the gamer is to guide Kaitlin through the house and figure out where your parents are. You do this by exploring the house and finding items; be they greeting cards fallen behind dressers, discarded hair dye tubes, or even keys to the hidden crawlspaces that spider through the walls of the huge mansion.
The game tells a lovely story through the items and artifacts left behind by Kaitlin’s family. It’s an emotional story that I unfortunately can tell you nothing about, because piecing it together for yourself is kind of the point of the game. It’s a story of the private moments that are left behind by a family in the house they live in. The question of where Kaitlin’s parents and sister are on the night she returns home is presented in a fascinating way that only video games can do. In fact, on my second playthrough of the game, I found things in the house I had missed on my first runthrough that deepened the fascinating story of the Greenbriars.
Gone Home is a story steeped in the same kind of emotional plots John Green writes about, the kind that we could find in The Perks of Being a Wallflower or any other teenage coming-of-age story you could think of. Plus, given its 1995 setting, the world in the game feels authentic. Kaitlin’s sister’s room is littered with punk fanzines, Super Nintendo Cartridges, and dorky mixtapes. The game itself has been criticized a bit by people who think that it’s simple style of gameplay means it “isn’t a video game” and could more accurately be called a “walking simulator” but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s a beautiful piece of period storytelling and familial archeology. And I know you would love it, sis.
Life is Strange
This is the part where I explain what episodic adventure gaming is. Playing episodic adventure games is much like watching a season of television; except the episodes range between 2 to 3 hours long each, are released about every other month, and place the player in the seat of the director of the story. Episodic adventure games are the evolution of the old Point-and-Click adventure games made popular by Lucasarts and Humongous back in the day with games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Sam & Max, Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo, or Pajama Sam. Not only does the style of release of these kinds of games encourage a much deeper and personal connection between a player and their avatars in the games, they also manage to be some of the cheaper games on the market. For instance, Life is Strange went on sale for around $20 for the full game, but if you only wanted to try the first episode you could buy that for just $5. I picked this one up based on it’s endearing and dorky trailer:
In a way, Life is Strange aims to tell a story in much the same vein as Gone Home. It’s the story of a teenage girl named Max Caulfield (the most transparent Catcher in the Rye reference and not the only one in the game). Max has recently moved back to the town of Arcadia Bay, where she lived a child, so she can attend a prestigious Blackwell Academy to study photography. While there Max discovers that she has spontaneously gained the ability to travel through time at will, which becomes an ingenious device with which to solve puzzles and navigate dialog trees with the other characters in the game. In addition Max becomes reconnected with Chloe, an old childhood friend who fell on hard times in Max’s absence and has embraced a punky, blue-haired, rabble-rousing attitude to cope with her living situation.
I’m not going to lie, the game isn’t perfect. The lip syncing in particular is weird and offputting until you just learn to stop noticing it and the dialog is dorky and mired in teenage slang terms that make characters sound like they’re trying too hard to be hip teenagers. But once you get past that initial cringe-factor, you’ll realize that this game gets teenagers more right than a lot of games. Max is an introvert who very much wants to use her powers for good, Chloe is a dysfunctional mess of a person who is nonetheless magnetic and endearing, and every other character in the game could easily correspond to someone you knew in high school. In fact I would include the “trying-too-hard-to-sound-like-a-hip-teen” dialog adds to that feeling.
Life is Strange is a teenage drama novel you get to play through. It features heavy themes like broken families, the weight of emotional abuse, introversion vs. extroversion. In one truly spectacular case there is a heartfelt and earnest inclusion of the topic of teenage suicide that has to be seen to be believed. If there was ever a game that would help me connect with someone on an emotional level, it would be this game. Because this game and it’s developers both remember and understand high school. They knew that it was at times beautiful and cringe-worthy; awkward and embarrassing as much as it was spectacular and filled with beautiful memories. The story of Max and Chloe is the story of any high school student just like we were, sis…albeit with the inclusion of time travel.
Plus the music is awesome.
Life is Strange was technically made by Dontnod Entertainment, so while it draws on the style of Telltale it wasn’t actually made by them. So that’s why I’m separating this portion of the article. Telltale perfected the style of episodic video gaming. Their Walking Dead video game was a revelation in the realm of gaming because of the way that it presented its narrative. You played as Lee Everett, a former prisoner before the zombies attacked, who names himself guardian over a little girl named Clementine and over the course of 5 episodes forged a beautiful bond that is tested by the horrifying reality of the zombie apocalypse. You thought worrying about Daryl Dixon on the TV show is harrowing, sis? Wait till you meet Lee & Clem. Believe me, even I nearly cried.
But while The Walking Dead is what Telltale is most known for, it’s far from the only license Telltale got to play with. For instance: did you know there is a Back to the Future video game? There is and it’s every bit as goofy, enjoyable, and so very 1985 as you’d expect. They even got Christopher Lloyd to come back and voice Doc Brown:
Telltale has made games about Back to the Future, Wallace & Gromit, Law & Order, CSI, and Jurassic Park in addition to more well-known titles like Game of Thrones, Borderlands, Fables, and Minecraft. And all of these games are amazing in their own ways. They focus on player choice and encourage the player to craft their own story with their choices. Characters die, the story changes, you get different endings. The choices matter in games like these. They’re games that are presented in such a completely different way than most big-budget shooter games but in the end are so much more enjoyable than even the shiniest Call of Duty or the most realistic looking Halo. And I love it when something that illustrates that difference is as amazing as Telltale’s games. These games are really enjoyable and I really want to share them with anyone who will listen, especially you sis.
Plus they made this awesome little puzzle game that has a story that is basically what you get when Twin Peaks happens in Fargo that I absolutely adore:
The Stanley Parable
“This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was employee number 427. Employee Number 427’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in room 427, and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what Employee 427 did every day of every month and every year, and although others might have considered it soul-rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy.”
These are the opening lines of the wonderfully bizarre Stanley Parable. What follows is a short game that takes our playable Stanley through an existential crisis in which he at times defies the omniscient narrator who is “directing” his life, dies and comes back to life, and traverses realities. And all of it is wrapped up in a pretty sly critique of video game choice and the concept of free will vs. destiny.
The Stanley Parable is a game about video games. It specifically critiques violent games by placing you in the shoes of a pretty run-of-the-mill everyman like Stanley who commits no violence. In fact the most accurate comparison to Stanley would be a hamster in a maze under the control of the mischievous Narrator. The fourth wall in this game is barely present and the Narrator takes a lot of time to make that known. He talks to the player as well as Stanley and the humor, which starts off as silly and meta, can quickly turn dark and existentially horrifying.
The Stanley Parable is a game that makes you think about why you are doing what you are doing. It’s goofy at times and terrifying at others. But in the end, I’d like to see what you think of it, sis.
Indie Game: The Movie
Yes, it’s not a game. Think of it more as a gateway to other games. Funded by a very successful Kickstarter, Indie Game: The Movie is a beautifully directed documentary chronicling three things: 1) the aftermath of the runaway success of Jonathan Blow’s Braid, 2) the then-current development and release of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes’s Super Meat Boy, and 3) the personal crisis of Phil Fish who at the time was agonizing over the creation of his long-awaited game Fez.
I have watched this movie at least a dozen times. It’s wonderful and it has this beautiful magic about it. It chronicles the niche indie games that it seeks to cater to, but it also gives us a window into the lives of Jonathan, Edmund, Tommy, and Phil. You see the passion they put into their projects; the blood sweat and tears they spent in making them. In fact I would credit this movie with giving Edmund the reputation he caters to today as a man who used the memories and experiences of his own life to craft games like the poop-joke laden, biblically inspired, yet deeply personal Binding of Isaac. There is a beautiful moment late in the movie where, after Super Meat Boy proved to be a massive success on the Xbox Live Arcade, Edmund begins to cry because of all the positivity and success he has received for this silly little game he has poured his soul into.
It’s a fascinating window into all of the things that games can do well, all the beautiful heart that can be put into games. These are not the big budget studios cranking out the newest Assassin’s Creed game broken up into several pieces, these are small studios comprised of about maybe 3 people pouring all of their heart into games that are very much made for themselves that they really hope other will enjoy and empathize with.
Why recommend the movie and not just the games it talks about? Because I want you to understand why I love these things, sis. I could show you all the video games on my shelf from end to end and tell you about all the memories I have associated with them but I don’t think you would get the depth of emotion and joy that I have associated with them. Indie Game: The Movie does a great job of showing that love; the love that can go into and come from games when they aren’t being annualized and abused by larger corporations for financial gain. It’s a snapshot of the best of the culture of video gaming and the nostalgia that strengthens and continues it.
Plus it’s on Netflix, so you can watch it pretty easily anyway.