That Dragon, Cancer
A generation has grown up with video games — and video games are growing up, too. Developers are using the medium to tell sophisticated, emotionally complex stories.
Take, for example, the game Gone Home. At first, it feels like a first-person shooter: It’s set in an isolated house in the woods; the player walks down dark hallways as a thunderstorm rages outside.
That’s where the similarities end.
“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,” says Steve Gaynor, the game’s lead designer. “It’s just you in this house, by yourself, trying to put the pieces together by exploring the space.”
The game is actually a coming-of-age story about a fictional high school student, Samantha Greenbriar. The player walks around the house, opening drawers and closets, discovering letters and journals from Samantha and her parents. Each one reveals a little bit of his or her story — a drama about a daughter finding herself, and a family struggling to accept her.
“It’s just about a normal family and what happened to them,” Gaynor says. “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 is selling pretty well for an independent video game — 50,000 copies in its first month.
Gaynor used to work on big-budget, AAA games like the BioShock series. He says 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,” Gaynor says.
And he’s not the only one.
Lucas Pope designed the game Papers, Please. In it, the player is a border guard working for a fictional communist country. The player is forced to make difficult choices about who may enter the country, 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.
“The people who make games now, they grew up with games their whole life — probably the first generation that did that,” he says. “So it’s really natural to consider that you can have a game about anything.”
‘From Mechanics To Storytelling’
Sony’s Nick Suttner says he’s noticed a broader change recently. As part of his job, he frequently hears pitches from independent designers hoping to get their games on the PlayStation.
“There was a really interesting shift away from mechanics to storytelling,” he says. More frequently he’s hearing pitches where a game is 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 Green is taking that to an extreme. His deeply personal project, That Dragon, Cancer, uses the medium of a video game to create an interactive memoir about his experience raising a son with pediatric cancer. The game creates interactive scenes that put the player in Green’s shoes during a night at the hospital. 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.
Green says his game is more like a poem.
He hopes the project’s reach won’t be limited to people who already play video games frequently.
“I hope it’s people that appreciate good film and good literature,” he says.