by Bob Reinhard
When the topic of video games is brought up in any casual way, the main focus tends to be on how they were “meant for children” or “simple toys”. That video games are primarily about fun and games. Now, we’ve since shed that notion and have managed to push video games into full art territory. And part of that has come from many developers reaching into human nature itself to project things that are quite far away from “fun and games”.
There are those titles in every medium, the ones that throw aside positive feelings such as “fun” and “happiness”, and instead feed on negative emotions that we’re all familiar with. Things such as fear and sadness. Every artistic medium has just as many pieces that explore the negative human emotions as there are ones that instill a sense of happiness or give us a calming feeling. So how does this work? Why are we willing to explore, and even place ourselves into, feelings we tend to associated with bad things in our day to day life?
To find out, I played the freeware game Labyrinthine Dreams by Solest. A simple few-button exploration/adventure game built using RPG Maker. Showing the software’s ability so explore other genres outside of typical JRPGs.
The game uses a grand total of five buttons. The arrow keys to move and occasionally the Enter key to examine some objects. As far as gameplay goes, it uses these effectively. Each area you find yourself in has it’s own variation on simple movement-based puzzles. Such as a forest maze that doesn’t allow you to turn left or the all-too-familiar “slide in one direction until you hit a wall” ice-style puzzles. These are pretty well executed and a couple of them make you really have to stop and think. Though not once did I feel they were unfair or impossible, so the game is very manageable.
But the main focus of the game is narrative. An emotional story about life and death. It gives you a sense of loss and sadness through well-written dialogue and a few jarring visual pieces using the engine’s simple graphics output. All in all, it’s a fairly simple story but effectively told and it should leave you thinking about your own life a little.
Throughout the short time spent spent wandering the labyrinth of the main character’s dreams (GET IT?!), you’re faced with very real-lief situations. Doubt, regret, feelings of being trapped. Ditching your dreams for something “more realistic”. Facing the people in your life that do and don’t believe in you. Failing the people you care about. Losing the ones you love. It’s all very close to home and done in a very subdued fashion so as not to feel excessive in what it presents.
But it got me thinking about why we would want a “game” to show us these very real, very hard to handle concepts. Why is sadness and fear something we expose ourselves to in a medium meant as an escape? Why did I spend my teen years scaring the crap out of myself in Silent Hill or exploring the nature of death and the meaning of life in Final Fantasy IX?
At first, it seems very strange for something that’s perceived as being for “fun” to put us in these positions, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was the very nature of video games themselves that makes this so important. It’s actually one of the best mediums out there to present these kinds of things and it’s entirely based around what video games are on a fundamental level.
The core of almost every video game and genre is to complete a task. You are given goals to reach and challenges to overcome and you have to use reflexes, critical thinking skills, intellect, or observational ability to achieve this. Be it picking the right plays to score a touchdown in Madden or what angle you need to throw the red bird in Angry Birds, almost every video game puts you in a position to solve a problem using your mind. Which, in many ways, mirrors every day life.
Now let’s add the elements of tension, fear, sadness, thoughtfulness, things of that nature. Even with these added elements thrown on top of you, you’re still doing the same thing: trying to achieve a goal. But now you have an extra obstacle. In many ways, things like that uneasy feeling you get in Dead Space, are no different than a pit of spikes in a platformer or an enemy sniper in Call of Duty. They’re all just obstacles standing in the way of your goals. They’re there to test your abilities.
When you’re faced with a real-life situation, you have to use your same skills and abilities to solve each problem that comes up. And often times you have added factors in a similar fashion to what I just talked about in games. Perhaps you had a stressful morning, you’re tired, maybe someone you know just passed away and you’re sad. These are the same familiar obstacles and they’re almost always present in some way during your day to day problem solving.
In a way, you could look at video games as a sort of training mechanism for dealing with tasks in real life. It’s a controlled, safe environment for you to learn to solve problems why under stress or bogged down with negative emotions. If you become too scared or too sad, you can simply turn the game off and walk away. Thus, it’s a safe way to explore these things without exposing yourself to the danger of real-life failure.
A great game puts you in these situations, then makes you apply your critical thinking skills to test you while you’re under duress. Being able to find a way out while a monster is breathing down your neck or make a difficult choice with horrible consequences. Being able to apply these skills with added stress factors is great training for those moments in real life when we have to do the same.
Video games provide us with the thrill of fear and the emotional connection to sadness we could get from various other mediums, but it does so in a way that allows us to overcome these things ourselves. To face them head-on and come out the other side a winner in some way or another. Even if, for some of you, it’s on a more subconscious level, you are learning the skills that you will need in real life when faced with stress factors during problem solving.
This is why it’s important we continue to explore these areas in video games. Not only does it provide a different take on the concept of “fun”, but it also teaches us valuable lessons about life.