The latest instalment of everybody’s favourite douche-‘em-up series, Grand Theft Auto, is set to release for PC and next-gen consoles this autumn.
Whilst the more mature gamers among us look back at the series’ development with a fuzzy fondness for the unrelenting mass hysteria and controversy around the GTA series, the fact is that despite GTA V’s huge success, the quick-hit-power-trip sick fantasy genre seems to be very much taking a back seat in favour of something more progressive – the narrative-driven, moral choice-centred game.
Now, no-one’s suggesting that running virtual cows over on your quad bike whilst simultaneously snapping a quick in-game selfie isn’t an absolute blast, because it is. However, with the advent of games such as Papers, Please, The Walking Dead, To The Moon, Papo y Yo and Coming Out Simulator 2014, more and more gamers are being introduced to a style of video game that focuses more on exploring what it truly means to be playing a game and to be an active part of a story, all whilst remaining fresh and entertaining.
You’re dropped into the centre of a narrative, rather than being shooed to the sidelines to observe sheepishly. Then these games (sneaky little bastards as they are) start showing you how game-y they are, how fun they are. Oh look!, you note as you trundle through Papers, Please, I can decorate my office wall! Don’t all the little pinprick-people have funny garbled voices?! Cool, I beat my previous earnings from last time! Oooh, the contemporary texting-style interface of Coming Out Simulator 2014 is giving me complex narrative threads triggered by choices I’ve previously made in-game! Cool gameplay mechanic, maaaaan.
You’re starting to revel in your assumed role as all-powerful protagonist and tactical gameplay super-wizard, detaining innocent refugees left, right and centre for extra cash to upgrade your family’s living quarters. You’re being purposefully facetious with your homophobic parents; you’re starting to take a perverse delight in their hyperbolic reactions to you telling them that you’re a bisexual man and that you love your new boyfriend. It’s not exactly quad bikes and cows, but it’s enjoyable gameplay nevertheless; we, as gamers and typical human beings, automatically focus on gaining the most entertainment and/or beneficial outcome from the system were are presented with.
Then suddenly, as a result of our in-game choices, an innocent refugee is shot and killed. Nicky’s dad brutally punches his son in the face.
Having been seduced into easing into the role of protagonist by atmospheric design, spot-on characterisation and the possibility of beating the system, we feel the devastation of these moments. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had to control immigration at the border of a small communist country, and because I’m straight, I’ve never had to come out to my parents.
Struck with the sudden gravity of the in-game situation, your heart breaks a little and your mind instantly starts reeling – “Shit, how the hell do I fix this?”, you ask yourself. You realise that you care deeply about the protagonist, not least because for the duration of the game, you are the protagonist. This is your life, as they say – but the story in the red book isn’t turning out so well. It becomes extremely difficult to keep risking people’s lives for the extra cash to feed your family. It’s impossible to take back some of the crazy things you’ve said to your parents without thinking – they’re designed to remember.
These games with moral choices, repercussions and high stakes are hard to win outright, and then you recall that the situations are based on real life events and systems, and you get it: these games are difficult because they’re personal. This is, or was, real life for some people. You’ve been smacked upside the head with the two-by-four of painful, disorienting empathy, and you’re trying to shake off the emotional headache and think about what you can do to solve the problem that the system is presenting to you.
Brenda Romero’s one-of-a-kind tabletop game, Train, epitomises and legitimises this emerging concept of gaming. Her game involves three players each trying to get their train and its passengers to its terminus (or the end of the line). You grab the instructions from the typewriter, avoiding the glass from the broken window the game rests upon. You follow the rules, rolling the dice, picking up cards, loading on passengers and moving your train in order to reach your goal. Until, once you turn over the terminus card after delivering one of the trains, you find out that that goal is Auschwitz.
It’s that “oof”, gut-wrenching moment again as you realise you’ve been entirely complicit with a set of rules that have been typed out on an actual Nazi typewriter Romero sourced for the game. Players of Train have often cried at this revelatory moment; again, it is at this point that the player tries to start fixing the situation, to think their way out of the problem, to insist that the Jews have “gone to Denmark”, to try to derail the other trains whilst still sticking to the rules.
Train is a study in how people naturally gravitate towards systems, rules and games, and a poignant construction that bridges the gap between game systems and real life systems. It gives us the chance to inspect and understand the atrocities of the past, the struggles of others, and help us work through the innovative mindset required in order to question and change harmful social constructions. Train has many endings, and, according to Romero, multiple winning endings too.
It’s very difficult to play Train as there’s only one copy in existence, and Romero avows that it will never be digitised because the full range of human choice and individual thinking couldn’t be represented. It’s also a bit of a downer, obviously, and errs more on the side of serious art than entertaining time-sink with a message. However, many developers have made digital games of the same (and a slightly happier) ilk readily available that often don’t cost more than a few quid, or are even free like the entertaining and touching Coming Out Simulator 2014.Games that offer the keenest empathy with individuals, whole groups of people and real situations you may never experience IRL. These games are able to teach you how these things happen, how the people affected must feel, and even more importantly, how to use one’s own individuality and be inspired to change the course of history and even the future.
Imagine even more games being created based on factual societal injustices. Imagine a game in which you’re a homeless person trying to get out of the infinite loop system of “no job, no address, no address, no job”. Maybe there could be a thousand chance cards and only one of them is a stroke of luck in which someone takes pity on you and gives you a job cleaning windows. Imagine a game in which you’re trying to become a games journalist. You’re randomly assigned characters – one of you is a white male, and one of you is a transgender woman. Play the game and realise that the odds are ever in the favour of one of you. Play the game and feel rightly awkward as the white male when you reap respect and reward whilst the transgender woman lands on squares that means she suffers rape threats on Twitter.
If more people and more types of people make and play these kinds of video games like they read novels or watch films, one can’t help but feel that society would be better off. Filled with people who’ve been able to experience the plight of others through having been able to play through the system that created their situation, to empathise with their struggles, people might possibly be more inclined to help alter these systems.
These types of video games, if gaining wider recognition and a less niche following, really could be the future of art and the benchmark for how we relate to each other. Perhaps it’ll be the case that those who game together, overcame together. And maybe the powers that be will make less of a fuss if we occasionally decide to let off some steam by flattening virtual cows in GTA.