Some of the world's commentators say videogames are either incapable of having meaning, or are only now reaching that stage. Lev Grossman said it in Time magazine, film critic Roger Ebert chimed in and even Steven Spielberg joked about when someone confesses "they cried at level 17." Critics say many things, but specifically that games cannot yet match film and books. No disrespect to the above gentlemen, or anyone agreeing with them, but I am determined to show games have been tackling old ideas and complex issues for at least 15 years now. They are as worthy as any other medium, and do have meaning.
Looking back over the decades, it's easy to read into things that aren't there, or wrongly re-interpret certain elements to prove a point. For the record, I have never once thought Pac-Man was a metaphor for drug taking or consumerism. You have to look at the motives of the visionaries creating games, finding those who intentionally set out to make statements through their work.
In Japan narratives dealing with fundamental ideas started to arrive in 1985, with early RPGs like Dragon Quest and many detective adventure titles. Seen as pioneering, they're fondly remembered as being full of charm. People who were fully-fledged writers before turning their hand to games mainly wrote them, after all.
Things progressed before culminating with Mother in 1989, previously covered in The Escapist. Having struggled through painfully archaic design mechanics until the end, which sees you peacefully ending your grandmother's existence and being stranded in the desert, you are left with an empty feeling and many deep questions. While the methods of conveying events weren't as elegant as in the sequel, there was genuine literary weight to the game.
Other RPGs have also given players the difficult task of killing someone close. The original monochrome Seiken Densetsu, released in 1991, only allowed further progression if you fulfilled a female friend's request. She begs for death, and this self-sacrifice results in her brother's salvation, which continues the story. It didn't have the flamboyant splendour of next-gen hardware, but neither did it shy away from such a subject.
In 1992, a title featuring congressman Masuzoe Youichi was released. It was an adventure game, classed as an "intra-office politics simulation." It subtly tackled the realities of office life, difficult bosses, and using sycophancy to succeed. Ironically, while American political figures fear games and demand bans, Japan accepts games, regarding them as something to be utilized.
One of the landmark titles in the early 1990s was the Western Sega CD port of Hideo Kojima's phenomenal Snatcher (originally a 1988 NEC PC title). The game was uncompromisingly hard-boiled and visceral, smothered in an excellent science-fiction storyline. It featured an amnesiac, recently estranged from his equally ailed wife, as he investigates an otherworldly threat and tries to piece his life back together. Borrowing from films like Blade Runner and Body Snatchers, it also had underlying themes of social paranoia and McCarthyism (there are many cold war references), and ultimately makes you question human nature. But it was still a game! Weaved within this finely crafted storyline were perfectly integrated puzzles and tense shooting scenes where a lightgun could be used. No separate element felt arbitrarily attached. Kojima has done much for videogames over the years, debating aspects of humanity with them, and yet only became recognized after creating Metal Gear Solid, in 1998.