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Games with Meaning

By Daniel D'Agostino, 2010-06-12

Introduction

Having played games for many years, I thought I'd seen it all. Games started to look all the same: games like Starcraft, Warcraft 2 and Warcraft 3 (or Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Medal of Honor and Quake 4) were essentially the same game, each new title having nicer graphics and a different story, but I still had the feeling that, deep down, I was playing the same game over and over again. Assassin's Creed was cool, but it still felt like Prince of Persia.

There were a few titles that did provoke thought and did give me a feeling that I was doing something other than killing zombies: Deus Ex, Alter Ego, Ultima 4 and PlaneScape: Torment to name a few. However, these were practically all games created between 1980 and 2000. What happened to game quality from 2000 onwards?

Fortunately, it was not (completely) because of a drop in the quality of games today (and by quality I do not mean graphics). It seems that the most meaningful of today's games are being made by independent developers, and in this article I am going to take a look at three indie games that really struck me.

Every day the same dream

Every day the same dream The first of these is Every day the same dream, an "existential game about alienation and refusal of labor". As a game it is very short and simple in gameplay, art and sound. You play as an average employee working for a big company, and are made to reflect on your routine life as you go to work every day. No matter what consequences you face, you always wake up the same way.

The game is full of imagery about death (the dead tree, the cemetery, jumping off the building, the downward-sloping graph), redundancy (the countless cubicles and identical employees, the cars stuck in traffic), and loneliness (the house without kids, the endgame). This is all depicted in grayscale (with a few exceptions). The game music, a constant looping of what sounds like a vent of frustration and moaning, adds to the atmosphere.

To win the game, you must live your days in five different ways. The endgame reinforces the miserable feeling - although you have broken out of your daily cycle, the cycle itself culminates in events that were inevitable considering the way things have been heading all along (I will not elaborate in order not to spoil it).

Don't Look Back

Don't Look Back Another interesting game is Don't Look Back. Based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, it is the most game-like of the three games I am discussing here - it is a more traditional platform game with jumping, climbing and shooting abilities, as well as several traps and monsters. What distinguishes it from the rest is its creepy feeling. The whole game is presented in about four colours (basically black, and some shades of red), and begins with you standing beside a tombstone. The eerie music adds to the dull feeling that pervades the game. Like Braid and Knytt, there are occasions where you need to take leaps of faith, not knowing in what danger you will end up. Having played Every day the same dream before this, I was uncertain whether such leaps would result in death or progression.

The game becomes progressively darker, until you cannot even see the platforms you must jump on - you can only be guided by the monsters that crawl on them, and by bumping into them. You must beat three different bosses to reach the ultimate goal of the game - finding the ghost of someone you left behind. At that point begins your journey back to the grave where you began - and here we again see the concept of returning to origins, as in Every day the same dream and Knytt - but with the added challenge that you cannot look back at the ghost who is following you.

This game is remarkable in the way it sets the atmosphere, and in the ways that it conveys the feelings of sadness and loss.

Passage

Every day the same dream Passage, like Every day the same dream, is more of a metaphor than a game. However, unlike Knytt, EDTSD or Don't Look Back, it does not present the idea of returning to origins.

Passage is about the flow of time, and in each game of five minutes you play through a lifetime. You begin as a vibrant young man on the left side of the screen, with only a vague vision of what is ahead of you. Throughout the game you always move further to the right, showing that you have several memories behind you, and you also have less to look forward to as life goes on. When you reach the far right hand side of the screen, you die.

Throughout the game you can make various choices. You can choose to live a simple life by sticking to the north part of the game, or you can venture south into the maze and see what treasures you can find. This seems to represent the choice between really enjoying the time that is available to us, or spending time looking for material things that gratify us. Ultimately, however, death is inevitable.

You can also choose to fall in love and spend your life with a woman, or remain single. It is more difficult and clumsy to navigate the maze with a woman by your side, but on the other hand she is always there to support you in every thing you do (materialised by the extra points you get by exploring with her by your side).

Passage is a very brief game, but it is full of symbolic references to the way we live our lives, and provokes a lot of thought about it.

Conclusion

There is an ongoing debate about whether games are art. Having played these three games, I have no doubt about it. Games are an art form in their own right, because of the ways in which they can convey meaning, instil emotion, and provoke thought.

Each of the games discussed above takes only a few minutes to complete, and yet has a depth of meaning comparable to that of a poem or a painting.

The interactive nature of games, that is mentioned in many of the discussions, is merely a means to an end, much in the same way that books differ from movies.

What really matters is the experience we can achieve from this interaction.