There Is No Escape(ism) in Emotionally Oppressive Games
When I first heard about the game That Dragon, Cancer, I was probably not the only one confused. For those of you who don’t know, That Dragon, Cancer is an indie game in development that takes the player through the experience of a father whose son is diagnosed with cancer. It deals with the day to day trials and tribulations of the terrible and crippling disease. The project is actually based upon the real life experience of lead developer Ryan Green and his son, Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and, unfortunately, passed away earlier this year. So with the subject matter in mind, it begs the question: How can this be a game? Shouldn’t games be fun? Shouldn’t games be an escape? The answer is no, not necessarily.
You see, That Dragon, Cancer is a different type of game that has existed in short and brief pockets of the industry. It is a type of game where there are no heroics, no power ups, not necessarily any winners, or ways to defeat the “enemy.” These are games that push us to feel things we may not expect, may not want, or may fear. I call it “emotionally oppressive gaming.” While That Dragon, Cancer may be one of the most prolific examples of this type of gaming due to its real-world inspiration, it is not the first to attempt to make the gamer experience something other than an enjoyable escape.
To better understand how a game like this works, I’d like to take a look at two contemporary examples that you can play now. The first of them is Red Barrels’ Outlast. Outlast is a first-person horror game set in an asylum, but don’t expect to be running and gunning zombies or beating monsters down with whatever bats or hatchets you can get your hands on. You’re a journalist, you have no combat experience, and the “monsters” you are going against are psychopathic human beings set to think and out-think you in order to kill you. Your only weapons are your senses and your reflexes.
Outlast’s ideas were most likely inspired by games like Clock Tower on the SNES. You’re not tasked with finding a way to defeat your enemies. Your mission is to simply survive them. The “hero” is not a person who can find a shotgun, know how to use it instantly, and just mow down his enemies. Nor is he some gifted being with some sort of supernatural power just waiting to be awoken. The protagonist is an everyday person who can bleed, break, and die and isn’t ready for these most inhospitable of scenarios. Outlast and games like it don’t make you a hero. You’re not put on a pedestal. In fact, these games go out of their way to convince you that you’re a nobody at best, and at worst, you are another possible victim in a line of unfortunate circumstances.
Another type of game that plays heavily with the idea of emotionally oppressive gaming is something that has been referred to by many people as a “bad decision simulator.” There are quite a handful of these in the indie scene in recent years; games like Deconstructeam’s Gods Will Be Watching and Vagabond Dog’s Always Sometimes Monsters. However, to those who might think that emotionally oppressive gaming is confined to the indie or cult scene, I’d like to direct your attention to the 2012 Game of the Year: Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead.
The purpose of these games is to put you in the role of a decision maker, obviously. Here’s the problem though--sometimes there is no right choice. Do you make the choice to save a person who has access to helpful resources or a child? Will you give up one life for the many? What if that one life is yours? What if it is the life of your best friend or the person you love? These are the hard questions that you are forced to ponder on in these games. Sometimes you have to give up something for what you might think is the greater good. Sometimes you have to face unexpected repercussions that you could have never seen coming. However, your choice ensures that you were responsible for the outcome.
Games like The Walking Dead forced us to make choices that kept us awake at night. When we saw what the outcome was, it made us question what we could have done differently. It made us want to go back and try again. Games like Outlast made us cautious to go into the dark. We were forced to listen very carefully because the sound we didn’t pay attention to, could be the one that spelled demise. It made us frantic when we were in danger and forced us to find a way, any way out of the adrenaline fueled panic that we were experiencing. Both types of games are set up that way to attempt to inspire two very powerful reactions in us as the players: helplessness, and fear of the unknown.
So why would anyone play these games? They are obvious contrasts to an industry that is built upon giving you a definite way to win in the end. Why would anyone subject themselves to the very real emotions that developers are attempting to saddle you with in their designs? The fact is that they are not for everyone. Emotionally oppressive games are meant to tax your moral and psychological compass. As said before, they are meant to push you to feelings that you may not have expected or wanted. If you feel emotionally exhausted playing these games, then you’re reacting the way the designers wanted you to react.
A comparison of these games could be made to the noir and melodramatic movements in the history of cinema. At a time when the ideas of family and heroes were always established as concepts to be lifted up and idolized, noir and melodrama instead sought to portray the darker and muddier sides of human interaction. Its “heroes” were often flawed. Expressionism portrayed darker and grittier scenes and often blurred the lines between good and evil. The person we wanted to win didn’t always win. True to life, these movies showed us that not everything comes out okay in the end. They bucked the standards of how we experienced the silver screen.
Emotionally oppressive video games are of a similar vein. They are not a bad thing. They are not a despicable subset of interactive entertainment that aims to ruin our escape from real life. They are simply a different way of looking at something. Of course, not everyone will like them, just like not everyone likes melodrama. Even most of the people that do like them might find that they cannot handle an emotionally oppressive game for extended periods of time. That’s the point though, and regardless of if you like them or not, there is something to be said for what they do. Just like noir and melodrama, emotionally oppressive games will continue to exist because they are different techniques to an art form, and art will always find a way to evolve.