Grand Theft Auto V has been released to rave reviews (more here) and has put up some incredible sales numbers all while featuring some disturbing content (which should come as no surprise). And after the tragic Navy Yard shooting, it was revealed that the shooter played a lot of violent video games. We should’ve all known what was coming next: another round or two in the age-old debate regarding video game violence and its deleterious effects (or lack thereof) on society.
Thanks to this brouhaha, and the many others like it, it’s easy to forget that not every video game out there puts a gun in your hand or puts you behind the wheel of some death machine and encourages you to lay waste to everything and everyone you see. Believe it or not, there are some games out there that seek to move past violent storytelling altogether, or at the very least, re-contextualize it. The Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty titles may get all of attention and press, good and bad, but the video game medium is far deeper, and far more interesting, than that.
Here I’ll highlight two games that, when you read their premises, don’t seem like video games at all. There’s nothing to shoot, there are no power-ups, and there are no princesses to save or alien empires to obliterate. Both games are still in development, but they show a lot of promise — not just in and of themselves, but also as signs that video game developers are growing up and seeing the potential of the medium to tell powerful narratives in ways that no other medium can tell them.
The tagline for Thralled — “Experience one of the Greatest Calamities in Human History.” — isn’t exactly your typical marketing blurb. The calamity in question is the transatlantic slave trade, and in the game, you play a slave named Isaura who has escaped captivity and is searching for her son in the wilds of 18th century Brazil. The game, which is being developed by a group of students at USC’s Interactive Media & Games Division, is being developed for iOS devices.
Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse played a developer build of the game and had this to say:
It’s hard to imagine what it might have felt like for someone held in bondage to muster up enough courage to run away from slavery. As cruel as forced labor in the transatlantic slave trade was, there was familiar routine in its drudgery, complete with shelter, food and companionship. When runaway slaves launched out into the night, they were rushing headlong into the unknown. And that must’ve been extremely terrifying. Rough as it is, Thralled made me the tiniest portion of that terror.
But its historical allusions aren’t the reason Thralled made weepy. Playing the first few levels made me think about my daughter and how far I’d go to give her a better life. Would I put her in danger if the end result were an ultimately more fulfilling existence? But what if something happened? There’s no way I’d be able to live with myself. I don’t know what the silhouetted Isaura doppelgänger represents in Thralled but it might stand in for the fear, guilt, shame or conflicted feelings that came with making a flight to freedom.
And then there’s That Dragon, Cancer. I confess: when I first heard about this game, I didn’t really want to know anything about it. Some good friends had recently discovered that their baby daughter had cancer, and the thought of a video game that puts you in the shoes of a father caring for a young child with cancer… well, that hit a little too close to home. But the more I heard about the game — e.g., that it’s inspired by the developer’s real life experiences with his son’s cancer — as well as the developer’s intentions, the more intrigued I became. But it doesn’t sound like an easy game, not by a long shot. Consider this description of one of the game’s scenes:
In the short demo I had the opportunity to play yesterday, the player controls a father desperate to calm his son. Though the game uses fairly standard point and click navigation, the first-person view often swings wildly in response to player input, unceremoniously dropping the player into the viewpoint of the child, observing the father in extreme moments of anxiety and grief. The result is a game that seems almost too truthful to bear and gives the player an impossible objective: stop a three year old child from crying and experiencing anguish and pain. That goal is the curse of any parent, but in this case, it takes on wholly other dimensions.
You can watch a (heartwrenching) portion of the aforementioned scene in the demo below.
I find it particularly interesting that the game’s developer is a Christian, and that he intends for the game to be a hopeful experience and a “parable of grace”. In a recent interview, he put it this way:
Working on the game hasn’t really changed me, but it has given me the opportunity to share how I’ve been changed by Joel’s illness. I think differently about life and death. I think I understand God more deeply. I understand love and fear and helplessness and grace intimately. I see more urgently than ever the need to treat people kindly and to love mercy and to be less prideful. I realize that I don’t know as much I as I thought I did, but that I’ve learned far more than I expected. Joel’s illness is evil. Unequivocally. But the effect of Joel’s illness on us is beautiful and the journey is beautiful in the midst of unspeakable pain. I hope that we can share that beauty in some small way in this game.
So, as you can see, both of these games are a far cry from the games that so often make the headlines, but I think they represent the true strength of the video game medium. One of art’s (for the record, I believe video games have the potential to be art) greatest gifts is that it allows us to walk in another’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Or, as C.S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism:
In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own — though this of course is sometimes their effect — than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.
In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself… I see with a myriad of eyes,but it is still I who see.
Lewis was speaking of literature, but I believe his sentiment is just as true for video games, if not moreso, because of their interactive nature. I wrote this while playing the first Mass Effect game:
With their interactive nature, video games hold a unique potential for causing people to think about those “big” questions in ways that no other medium can — by allowing them to make those decisions and experience the consequences (albeit in a virtual form).
Reading a book about a father’s experience with his child’s cancer is one thing, and can certainly be a powerful and thought-provoking experience. But actually interacting with such a scenario, making choices within it, and seeing the consequences play out before you — that’s something else entirely.
At times, it’s easy to get cynical about video games, even if you’re a fan. The focus, both inside and outside the industry, is all too often on the medium’s sensationalistic aspects, be it the technology involved or the debauchery in which players can participate. But when I read about games like Thralled and That Dragon, Cancer, I get excited that the medium might finally be starting to transcend the sensationalism and instead, is exhibiting a (slowly) growing interest in topics that ultimately cause us to reflect on our human condition — and not simply the body count.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.