Everyone today agrees that games are art, but no one can define for sure what an “artistic” game looks like. Some, for instance, seek to make gaming more cinematic, which has its advantages (such as more realized characters, grander visuals, and deeper stories), but also ends up creating games with narratives that are so linear they almost make you feel like a spectator in your own experience.
Others, meanwhile, seem to be approaching games with the deconstructivist ethos of modern art, whereby a work becomes artistic the more it forces you to question existing standards of beauty or quality. This can lead to some interesting experiments, and works well with horror games, but can also act as a fig leaf for poor quality.
What very few people notice is that games have an artistic potential unique to them. Namely, they can dramatize thought experiments, and force us to contemplate abstract ideas in the first person. Games can place us in worlds where the rules of our own existence can be rewritten, or where we can experience choices that we ordinarily wouldn’t. This enables us to understand the stakes of philosophical questions that might seem remote to our everyday lives at a deeply personal level. Video games are the ideal philosopher’s playground.
As it happens, there are five game franchises that I think explore high-minded philosophical ideas particularly well, without sacrificing the fundamentals of good game design. These franchises, in my view, deserve to go down in history as high art independent of their genre, and should be recognized as significant to art as a whole, rather than their contribution to gaming. Without further ado, I present these gods among gaming for your consideration… along with one honorable mention.
Speaking of God and His properties, let’s start with a game where you literally play as Him.
Specifically, you play as some sort of hybrid that combines the Christian God, who is served by angels and opposed by Satan, with a more personal, Pagan conception of a deity, who personally slays monsters so that his worshippers may expand their civilization.
ActRaiser splits its time between two different modes of gameplay. First there is a fairly traditional side-scrolling platform section, in which you fight your way through the aforementioned monsters (and a few bosses). Second, there is a primitive civilization building strategy section in which your angelic assistant oversees the development of a civilization of people while fighting off encroaching demonic threats.
Where this gets philosophically interesting is when you look at some of the game’s mechanics. For example, the stronger and more populous your civilization gets, the more health your avatar gains as you travel through the world destroying monsters. The idea of a God that derives His power exclusively from worshipers has been raised most persuasively by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that the advent of reason and science “killed” God by making faith in Him progressively more and more irrelevant to daily life. But Nietzsche’s point is abstract, where ActRaiser portrays a God whose life is sustained by faith in accessible, concrete terms.
And if that wasn’t cool enough, here’s another thing about ActRaiser. Have you ever wondered why a benevolent God would let natural disasters happen? ActRaiser gives us an answer – because He wants to give us a reason to progress.
You see, ActRaiser makes it so the only way to make older parts of your civilization modernize (that is, level up to match your newer developments) is to strike them with earthquakes so they have to be rebuilt from scratch. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “God works in mysterious ways,” then consider this at least one attempt at demystifying Him. And if you really want to spend ages thinking about what it must mean to be an omnipotent being controlling the destiny of billions of innocent beings, ask yourself whether such a tradeoff (progress at the price of sentient life) would be ethical from your perspective. You’ll find you can probably argue with yourself (and others) for hours over the answer.
ActRaiser isn’t the only game to have a God’s eye perspective like this, and other games, like Shin Megami Tensei, arguably carry it off with greater complexity. But because ActRaiser predates Shin Megami, and emulates divinity in a way that raises such tantalizing ethical and theological conundrums, it deserves a spot on this list.
But what if you weren’t so much interested in what goes through God’s mind? What if you instead wanted to know about the inner workings of the human mind? Well, then number four is the series for you.
4. Silent Hill
One of the problems that philosophers often find themselves confronting is something called “intersubjectivity.” In layman’s terms, it refers to the idea that you’ll never fully be able to understand or anticipate what another person is thinking, or how they think. Their experiences and personality will inevitably frame how they react to something, so short of perfect empathy, you’ll never quite get fully inside their head.
Enter Silent Hill. Or, more precisely, enter Silent Hill 2, since this is a franchise that really earns its inclusion on this list thanks to a single game.
Where other games in the series seem to treat the eponymous town as your typical cursed location, Silent Hill 2 attempts something far more daring and makes it a staging ground for one man to work through his trauma. And in so doing, it shows us what being in someone’s head might actually be like in the most visceral way possible. Practically everything in this game is symbolic in some way, and figuring out the ways in which the game’s symbolism works to explain its protagonist’s own neuroses is part of the fun.
And it’s not just the protagonist’s neuroses. Rather, the town of Silent Hill completely eradicates the concept of intersubjectivity by manifesting the terrors and phobias of other characters as monsters and bosses. A particularly frightening example is the boss known as “Abstract Daddy,” which represents brutal sexual violence experienced by side character Angela Orosco. Fittingly, it is shaped like a human form melted into a bed, waddles toward the protagonist on the clawed feet of said bed, and attacks by rearing up and trying to mount the protagonist. Where in real life, Angela Orosco’s pain and terror at her past experience would be something we could only understand through words uttered on a therapist’s couch, here we get to see it made flesh-and-blood along with everything in our own head. It’s an exploration of human psychology that is at once terrifying and deeply compelling. It’s the sort of story that could offer a Freudian or a Jungian endless fruit for thought, while also probably making them grateful for the existence of intersubjectivity.
Oh, and just so we’re clear, if Silent Hills were still being made, it would have gotten sizable airtime here, too. Silent Hills looked like it might rival Silent Hill 2 as a philosophical masterwork. The game’s Playable Teaser, or P.T., offered an unnerving dramatization of how guilt leads to self-recrimination by having its player traverse the same hallway and scrutinize all its details over and over, rather like a guilty mind replaying the same act. Memo to Sony: Let us see the game made so we can see more of this.
As it stands, though, Silent Hill only earns the fourth spot because of one game. If you want to see franchises whose fearlessness extended through all their games, you’ll have to read on.
3. Deus Ex
If this were a list of games that used controversy to force people to think, this series would be number one. Consider the recent controversy over the forthcoming “mechanical apartheid” element of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided‘s plot. Without going into too much length on the subject, let’s just say that anyone who is surprised to see Deus Ex tackling weighty, controversial questions hasn’t been paying attention to this series. For instance, the last game – Human Revolution – was arguably a meditation on transhumanism, a rights struggle our society has barely begun to have.
However, while these games are controversial and smart, they don’t quite plumb the same philosophical depth as the first game’s ending. At the end of Deus Ex, the main character, JC Denton, is empowered to establish a new order to govern humanity, whether that means an anarchic Dark Age where everyone is free, but technology is effectively destroyed, a return to the old order where humanity is ruled in secret, or an attempt to establish an openly benevolent dictatorship guided by superhuman intellect.
This is timeless stuff. The qualities of an ideal social order have been debated since Plato. And each of the several options the player is presented with has its antecedents in a variety of philosophical traditions. For instance, the Dark Age option hearkens back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who taught that mankind was solely made up of “noble savages” before the introduction of property and technology. The secretive strategy, meanwhile, is much more in line with the works of Leo Strauss and Thomas Hobbes, who suggested deception and absolute control respectively as the tools for a ruler to maintain power and, in so doing, stave off chaos. And the final option invokes Plato himself, with his notion of the infinitely knowledgeable Philosopher King who can steer mankind toward its better natures the same way a captain steers a ship.
Of course, players can pick whichever option sounds coolest and just move on, and all art affords the opportunity to engage with it at a shallow level. But if the player really lets themselves think about the stakes inherent in their decision, then they might find themselves pondering how to end the game – and what implications that has for their own relation to politics – for quite some time.
Still, political philosophy remains relatively accessible, for all its depth. If you want games that will make your head hurt with thought, you’ll need the last two on this list.
Many of you knew this was coming, and with good reason. It’s one of the few franchises that doesn’t even bother to mask its philosophical aspirations. However, what marks BioShock as such an excellent example of philosophical art isn’t its open philosophizing, but rather its refusal to be didactic. It would’ve been easy for this series to push a particular viewpoint, especially after the spectacular success of the first entry, and yet if you analyze the three games, that’s precisely what it didn’t do.
Based on the first game alone, you’d have thought BioShock was an anti-Ayn Rand polemic, as the resemblances between the game’s supporting antagonist Andrew Ryan and the infamous Russian emigre philosopher were headbangingly obvious. Nevertheless, the game offered a surprisingly nuanced critique of the Randian “self before all” philosophy. Rather than attacking Randian selfishness as simple evil, the game made a fair attempt at dramatizing how a society organized around such a principle might break down when egoism was no longer treated as a high-minded ideal, but instead simply as license for bad behavior. By the end of the first BioShock, for instance, Ryan arguably comes off as far more sympathetic than the real antagonist, Atlas.
The second game, meanwhile, did a complete about-face and instead portrayed the evils of a society utterly governed by altruism with lurid, disturbing detail. In fact, BioShock 2‘s antagonist, Sofia Lamb, comes off as far more depraved than Ryan despite her seemingly more compassionate worldview. Nevertheless, after playing both games, one could’ve been puzzled as to what exactly the franchise was trying to make us think about, having so neatly dispatched with its two philosophical targets.
The answer came in BioShock Infinite, which hooked the player with a red herring about American exceptionalism, only to end by examining the nature of choice. And with that conclusion, it finally became clear what the designers were actually trying to contemplate: Not politics, but choice itself. After all, one of the axioms that Andrew Ryan imparts to the player in the first game is “a man chooses; a slave obeys.” Yet in the sequels, BioShock doesn’t so much reject this framing as question what it really means. The ending of BioShock Infinite, with its multiple parallel universes and crushing sense of inevitability, forces us to ask this question: “A man may choose, but is choice really possible? Are we really the masters of our destiny, or is fate simply whispering ‘would you kindly’ in our ear?” The series refuses to answer this question, but forces us to contemplate it, and for that reason, it ranks as one of the greatest philosophical achievements in gaming.
But not the greatest. Which franchise earns that title? Read on.
1. Dark Souls
If I were to set out to teach a college course on existentialism, I’d almost be tempted to tell the students to beat both games in this franchise before they read any of the material. It’s that good.
What sets Dark Souls apart from the other entries on this list is that it manages to make you experience all the ins and outs of a philosophical worldview without shoving any of its ideas in your face. This is fitting, because existentialism is a worldview that is obsessed with peoples’ search for meaning in their own lives, so a game so steeped in it by definition couldn’t force that meaning down your throat. Even the game’s endings refuse to provide you with an easy answer, as the stakes of your final choice are never entirely clear. It is just one of many design choices that make Dark Souls a true experience of how existentialists see our own lives.
Existentialism teaches that human existence is defined by two things: Death and loneliness. That is, whatever else might be true of all of us, we will all die, and we will all experience death alone. By extension, then, we can only fully define the importance of our own lives for ourselves, while others must conduct their own search for meaning, even if we interact with them and influence that search.
Dark Souls reinforces all these concepts: The game’s difficulty ensures that death is a constant, looming threat to the player, and one they cannot escape until they’ve decided what place in the game’s narrative they will have at its end. Furthermore, each and every death the player experiences is felt with crushing solitude, as any allies the player might summon eventually fade away rather than dying alongside you. Summoning other players into your world, meanwhile, provides only temporary companionship, and makes no difference to their own exploration of the game, even if it aids yours. You can see others trying to fight their way through, either by touching bloodstains and witnessing recent deaths, or just by seeing other shades running through the world around you, but they’re separated from you, and their quest to find meaning in the game’s narrative is ultimately irrelevant to your own.
Speaking of finding meaning, let’s also mention the fact that both Dark Souls games tell their stories in the most cryptic, sparse way possible. You have to pour through item descriptions, and engage in hours of optional dialogue to even get a hint of what’s going on. Even if you do, it won’t give you a full answer. Debates still rage in forums and on Youtube videos over the metaphysics and history of the Dark Souls universe. In other words, you inevitably have to use your own imagination at least a little to create the story of what you’re doing, rather than having it handed to you.
Furthermore, the only way that a member of the game’s race of immortal, “undead” protagonists can lose their immortality is to lose their sense of purpose entirely, which transforms them into zombie-like, mindless creatures called “Hollows.” This makes almost every character you encounter in Dark Souls a protagonist of their own existential journey, forced to confront constant death and crippling, lonely self-assertion in a desperate attempt to make their journey mean something.
And if you do manage to beat both games, then the final boss, Lord Aldia, imparts a bit of wisdom that any reader of existentialist philosophy will instantly recognize:
There is no path.
Beyond the scope of light, beyond the reach of Dark…
…what could possibly await us?
And yet, we seek it, insatiably…
Such is our fate.
Jean-Paul Sartre couldn’t have said it better.
But there’s one more game to consider… Our honorable mention.
Honorable Mention: Pokemon
Okay, so this is partially a joke, but there is at least one element of Pokemon that actually has terrifying implications if you subscribe to a theistic worldview. I refer to the process of encountering and capturing the Pokemon known as Arceus.
As any die-hard Pokemon fan will know: Arceus is described as the Pokemon that created the universe. In other words, Arceus is God. Yes, God is a Pokemon.
The implications of that fact alone should make your head spin. It destroys any conception of an anthropomorphized deity, for one thing, and also suggests that there’s something intrinsically servile about the Creator (Pokemon do, after all, exist to be captured and tamed).
But it gets worse. Arceus starts at Level 80, which isn’t even the maximum level a Pokemon can reach. Which means that the power of human persistence can literally mold creatures that are more powerful than God. Your level 100 Feraligatr? Not only can he beat up the Elite Four; he can beat up the Almighty.
And if that wasn’t head-spinning enough? Well, one of the most common questions pondered by logicians and theologians is the age old paradox of whether God can create a rock he can’t lift. Pokemon doesn’t answer this question directly, but it does answer a question that’s analogous to it, at minimum. You see, the foolproof Master Ball – which can be used to capture any Pokemon, no matter how powerful – also works to capture Arceus.
So whatever else God can or can’t do, it seems he certainly can create a substance from which he can’t escape.