“Long ago, two races ruled over Earth: HUMANS and MONSTERS. One day, war broke out between the two races. After a long battle, the humans were victorious. They sealed the monsters underground with a magic spell. Many years later…”
The setup to indie darling Undertale is nothing new to people familiar with the genre of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs). However, Undertale sets itself apart in that you are not forced to kill a single enemy in the game unless you want to. Which is interesting, considering that video games are often dramatically decried as murder simulators. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it did in the late ’90s and early 2000’s, but every once in a while someone will hop up on a soapbox and shout to the sky about how video games are corrupting the youth.
See here’s the thing. How can a game like Undertale even exist, if all video games are supposedly for is simulating violence and mayhem? Why do these critics of the gaming medium not seem to acknowledge games like this?
I think the simple answer is that they just don’t know these games exist.
Part of the problem with the general discourse around video games is that it becomes locked in this exclusive club of gamers and video game journalists. If you belong to either of these clubs, a game like Undertale pops up on your radar regardless of what you do. At some point, you will hear about it because everyone starts talking about it. And yet, people outside these circles will most likely just cock their heads sideways and utter a confused “huh” if the game ever crops up in conversation.
This is because while Undertale is loved by critics, it doesn’t have the reach that other games do. When people outside the typical market hear about games, which ones get their attention? The ones that sell the most. The ones that are “popular”. So namely games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, the ones that earn megabucks profits whenever they hit the scene. And anyone familiar with either of those games knows that they are violent by nature. So is it any wonder that the vast majority of non-gamers just don’t get it?
I’ve talked about Gone Home at length in a previous post, and I bring it up again here because it’s another example of a game that received great attention, but only within the restrictive group of gamers and game journalists. In my opinion, it’s a wonderful game that prides curiosity and exploration over all else. But then again, I’m a big fan of Myst and that sort of adventure gaming mindset.
But I digress. Gone Home was a game that charmed many and irritated others. It was even awarded “game of the year” by at least a couple of online outlets. But again, outside of the immediate group of gamers and game critics, few know it exists. Honestly, if I hadn’t written about it in my blog previously, I bet if I went up to my parents and asked them about the game, they would say they had never heard of it. But why would they? They don’t read gaming news. They don’t peruse review sites for video games.
When it comes down to it, I believe games are a form of expression. Just like movies. Just like books. Just like painting or any other such endeavor. They have the capacity to evoke emotions, make you consider different ways of looking at the world, and they can even help improve your cognitive skills (science said so). And in that sense, they should be allowed to explore all that they can do. Unless someone can prove beyond even a shadow of a doubt that games are detrimental to society, we shouldn’t give in to fear just because we don’t understand them. I’ve been steeped in gaming culture for a long time. I’ve played games since I was very young. I know how they work. I’ve seen the different ways they can express worlds and stories. But that’s just it. I have history with the medium. A lot of people out there don’t. Their experiences with gaming often barely extend beyond Mario moves left to right on his quest to save the princess from Bowser. Modern video games are a mystery to them. Grand Theft Auto and other similar games just strike them as bizarre.
In much the same way that we don’t blame movies every time someone commits a horrible act inspired by the film, we shouldn’t blame games for every time a kid shoots up a school. Because unless it affects all people the same way, causing them to go mad, then it stands to reason that there was something unique in the perpetrator’s case, something that caused him/her to go berserk. And one way we could alleviate this is to spread gaming culture beyond this exclusive little club we have going on. Show people that games don’t just have to be about big, tough guys with guns making things go boom. Sometimes, a game can just be about a place, a time, a feeling. They can be Gone Home, a game whose central premise is that you’re exploring a house, trying to piece together where everyone is. They can be Undertale, a cutesy game about humans and monsters with bold moral choices. They can also be the equivalent of a big, dumb action blockbuster. The breadth of experiences they can provide should not be brought down by a simple misunderstanding and unfamiliarity with the medium.
Games like Undertale and Gone Home show that games aren’t just simple toys for entertainment. They are stories. They are worlds. They are the culmination of hundreds of hours of hard work by people with a drive and passion (most of the time anyway). They are a system of mechanics that come together to form something truly marvelous. Even in Grand Theft Auto, a game more widely known for its emphasis on rampant violence and chaos, provides a stunning world that at times seems almost believable. An absurd amount of time goes into crafting radio stations that you can listen to while you play, with talk radio shows that can have hours of content. And it’s all in the service of the experience.
Because to me, that’s what games are in the end: an experience. And experiences are meant to be shared and enjoyed…
Well that’s all I have this time. Thanks for reading. Check back next Wednesday for another post. Have a wonderful week and a happy new year!