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.
Which brings me to my final (and personal favorite) example: Toys For Bob’s Star Control 2, initially released in 1992 and influenced by Starflight. The game itself was utterly compelling throughout, comprising arcade-style action, exploration, strategy and diplomacy, while the scripting was second to none. Don’t be fooled by the fantastical setting – the story maturely dealt with wide ranging issues, from genocide to religious extremism, and still remained terrifying, touching and damn funny in places.
The always jovial head of TFB, Paul Reiche III, kindly took time out from his Christmas holidays to talk. “We intended for the alien races to exemplify human personal and cultural foibles in a focused and exaggerated manner,” humbly understating that he did what we think all good science fiction should do. He also revealed a human side to the ominous Ur-Quan: “My own take on [them] came from my relationships with people who had experienced significant childhood abuse and how those traumas produced distinctly odd behaviors in adults. [Their] doctrines were the overtly crazy but internally reasonable responses to their treatment by the Dynarri, and the pain they had to endure to win their freedom from slavery.” Further running themes examined cultural intolerances (racial, religious, gay etc.), as seen in the Androsynth’s oppression by “normal” humans. Thankfully, the burden of proof lies with the game, now freely available.
Videogames don’t need cell processors, billions of polygons or realism to be immersive, profound and capable of dealing with complex issues. Equally as important, they don’t need to lose their sense of play or interactivity to have rich and worthy narratives dealing with the above. Great game designers have always found ways to perfectly marry the two. While this young medium has been trying to elevate itself for well over a decade, the publishers and mainstream masses are only now waking up to the possibilities.
John Szczepaniak is a South African freelance videogame writer with a preference for retro games. He is also a staff member on the Retro Survival project, which contains articles on retro gaming and is well worth investigating.