In Gaming, A Shift From Enemies To Emotions by UNDED

Spec Ops: The Line (White Phosphorous Scene)

It’s not often that NPR focuses on gaming, but in this late 2014 episode of All Tech Considered they focus on “empathy games” that center around smaller, more personal stories about everyday people.

Those robust gaming sales were helped by promises of better graphics and better online gameplay than previous versions of both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But some game developers are pushing a different boundary; better storytelling. They’re using video games to tell sophisticated, emotionally complex stories and Travis Larchuk, has more. At first the game Gone Home feels like a first person shooter or a horror game. The player is in a house in the woods walking down dark hallways. A thunderstorm rages outside. But that’s where the similarities end. Steve Gainer is the game’s lead designer. “There’s no violence in gone home. There’s no shooting. There aren’t any enemies. There aren’t any other people in the game at all. It’s just you in this house by yourself trying to put the pieces together by exploring the space. Gone Home is actually a coming of age story told through the journals of a fictional high school student, Samantha Greenbriar. The player walks around the house opening drawers and closets and discovering letters and journals from Samantha and her parents. Each one reveals a little bit of their story. Here Samantha realizes she and a girl in her class have feelings for each other. “She put her arm around me. It was so close and whispered in my ear ‘I really like you.’ I just nodded my head and I really hoped she can tell.” It’s just about a normal family and what happened to them. You know it’s not about Science Fiction or military or supernatural stuff. It’s a story that could have happened down the street from you. And the game’s selling pretty well for an independent video game. Fifty Thousand copies in the first month. Gainer used to work on big budget blockbuster games like the Bioshock series. But he left that job to focus on more intimate projects. “I have always been interested in working on stuff that is more personal and smaller scale and more about people and individuals.” And he’s not the only one. Lucas Pope designed the game Papers, Please. In this game the player is a border guard working for a fictional communist country. The player is forced to make difficult choices about who can cross the border. All while making barely enough money to help his family survive. Pope says today’s developers have a broad definition of what a video game can be. “Like my generation, or the people who make games now they grew up with games their whole life. Probably the first generation did that. So it’s really natural to consider that you can like have a game about anything.” Nick Suttner says he’s noticed a bigger trend recently. He works for Sony the company behind PlayStation. As part of his job he frequently hears pitches from independent designers. “There was an interesting shift away from mechanics to storytelling. When you play a game and it feels like it’s about something. And it’s not just about shooting something. It’s about an experience the developer had and wanted to communicate that idea in their game. Or about this moment of beauty or sympathy.” Some call these “empathy games.” They focus on engaging with the player on an emotional level. Ryan Greene’s taking that to an extreme. His deeply personal project uses the medium of a video game to create an interactive memoir. It’s called That Drago Cancer. “My wife and I have four boys and our third son Joel was diagnosed with cancer when he was one. And we’ve been fighting that for the past almost four years.” The game puts the player in Ryan Greene’s shoes during a night at the hospital. “We’re here. I hate that he’s sick. Just want him to feel better.” It becomes apparent there’s nothing the player can do to make the situation better. Just like in real life sometimes there is no easy answer. Ryan Greene says his game is more like a poem. I asked who he imagines will play this. “I hope its people that appreciate good film and good literature.” All three developers I spoke with share that hope. That their games will also reach and audience of people who may not consider themselves gamers. Travis Larchuck NPR News.

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