Last weekend, I was a bacterium. I was also a brown cow, a frog, a piano and some lush, green grass. Above all, I was aware of my place in the universe.
I was playing a game called Everything, created by David O’Reilly and available on PlayStation 4. In it, the player starts off as one animal before discovering that they can then take control of practically any other creature they meet, no matter how large or small – which leads to some astonishing discoveries about the interconnected ecosystem of our universe.
Along the way, the player stumbles upon audio recordings by the late philosopher Alan Watts. His musings on the nature of existence form most of the game’s soundtrack.
It’s beautiful. It’s mind-expanding. It’s not a typical game.
And yet it’s not so very peculiar either. Games are dealing with more and more subtle topics in more and more sophisticated ways, leading me to wonder, ‘Is there is any subject that games cannot tackle?’ As a writer, it’s an exciting question.
In recent years, games have addressed such sensitive issues as coping with the loss of a child (That Dragon, Cancer), alcoholism (Papa & Yo), immigration (Papers, Please) and the dehumanisation of society (any number of games by Molleindustria).
While these aren’t mainstream titles, they’ve achieved significant critical and commercial success. They’re the equivalent of indie films in the movie industry: creative, brilliant, but all too easily lost among the studio blockbusters.
What’s more, games like this can often communicate more eloquently and powerfully than the written word alone. I know that Everything will leave a greater impression on me than a collection of Watts’ essays ever could.
A recent event at the British Library showcased a handful of existing and forthcoming games adapted from books: The Witcher series, Around the World in 80 Days, Kim and The Kraken Wakes have all had the ludonarrative treatment.
But sophisticated stories don’t have to be books before they become games. Writers of all kinds should consider games as a viable, expressive medium for their ideas. The technology is increasingly accessible, and there’s a growing market for intelligent, thoughtful work. That growth will only accelerate if more writers take the medium as seriously as they do books, poetry, TV, radio, theatre or film.
If the purpose of art is to produce empathy – to make someone better understand the human experience – then games can be an incredibly effective art form. Because most games require the player to take an active role in the story, they immediately place you in someone else’s shoes. The player is not just a passive observer. They must play a role. They must make decisions. They must take action.
In the past, there was a fairly narrow selection of potential player-characters, limited by the range of actions a game could reasonably simulate: physical movement and destruction were easiest to replicate, so we ended up playing as warriors, adventurers, sportspeople and ravenous beasts.
Motion and destruction are still things that games do well, and the industry is in a constant arms race to produce bigger and better explosions. Mega-budget military games are never far from the top of the charts and that has led to casual observers believing that video games are mindlessly violent. But judging all games by whatever is top of the charts is like judging all music by whatever wins The X Factor.
Looking beyond the mainstream, writers will find games that force their players to confront some deeply emotive and subtle dilemmas. Papers, Please asks the player to choose between enforcing a series of unfair laws and protecting their own family. Depression Quest elegantly shows the diminishing range of options that a depressed person has when dealing with everyday life.
And such examples have started to influence the mainstream too. In last year’s hit The Witcher III, an epic fantasy adventure, the fate of the world ultimately hinges on a handful of nuanced parenting decisions made far from the field of battle.
Games are a relatively new medium and their capabilities are still growing. These are formative years and writers should be at the forefront of the medium’s development, applying their storytelling skills, diverse voices and emotional intelligence to help produce truly moving works of art – about everything.
David Varela is teaching a residential Arvon course in Writing for Games alongside producer John Dennis at The Hurst in Shropshire, 5-10 June. Bookings close on 21 April.