Welcome to Dialogue Options, our weekly show where we take our gaming theories and opinions, and put them to you. There's a bit of a change of tone this week as we talk about whether games should be tackling sensitive subjects, and how they might go about it.
10 minutes after loading up Sea of Solitude for the first time, I was forced to turn it back off again. After being greeted at the title sequence with a content warning, explaining that the game covers sensitive subjects, before then being thrown into a dark and desolate world, I realised that I wasn't in the right mindset to be dealing with the topics that Sea of Solitude has so boldly decided to focus on. I then went to my PC and turned on Two Point Hospital, with its lighthearted gameplay and cheery music which, as it turns out, is just what the doctor ordered.
This led me to think, are sensitive subjects – such as mental health, loneliness, and grief – welcome in video games and, if so, how should they be dealt with? Games, as with any other form of entertainment, provide a welcome escape from reality. In fact, I would argue that it is more the case with gaming than with films and TV – the amount of times I have accidentally spent five or more hours on The Sims without meaning to is testament enough. So when you get home after a long, hard day of whatever it is that you do for a living, do you really want to come face-to-face with your own worries and insecurities?
Exploring sensitive subject matter
It also seems that gaming can, in many cases, generate a higher level of immersion than that of film and TV. Because of this, do game developers bear more of a responsibility to handle topics sensitively, and warn us when they're doing so?
If I'm being honest, I'm playing devil's advocate so far, as I personally have found several games that cover sensitive subjects to be incredibly moving and affecting – if encountered at the right time, of course. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed Life is Strange Season 1 and found that its discussion and exploration of mental health to be truly powerful. However, and without looking to spoil anything for you here, during the final hour of the game, Max Caulfield – and us, right alongside her – finds herself caught up in a litany of truly troubling experiences.
These events are portrayed in such a surreal and repetitive way that it made me feel physically uncomfortable as I was pushed to play through each scenario to reach the game's conclusion. And not in an immersive, enjoyable way; I mean in a hard to breathe, anxiety-inducing way. Should the game have done a better job of flagging what subjects it was going to explore ahead of me sitting down to play it? Had I have known, I might have saved that final stretch of Life is Strange for a time where I was feeling less vulnerable. Instead, those events arrived at a moment in time when I really didn't need anything external adding to my feeling of discomfort.
Of course, these subjects don't always need to be handled in such a dark way, as evidenced by the array of indie games showcased at Gamescom 2019. Sitting down with the developers behind games such as Spiritfarer, a game that openly tackles the subject of grief through the completion of tasks for animal characters before they pass on to the other side.
I was both amazed and impressed that a game that is addressing such dark and complicated issues as death and grief could be presented in a way that was so bright and cute. The characters you come across in-game are based on the real family and friends that the developers have lost over the years and, despite the surface level cuteness and ghibli-esque soundtrack, the game is still every bit as raw and emotional as other games of its ilk.
Night in the Woods also uses pleasing colour palettes and adorable characters as a way to address and explore topics such as mental health and self-confidence. The cheery aesthetic doesn't mean that the emotional moments don't pack any less of a punch; from the neon-nightmares that Mae experiences throughout the adventure, to the gut-wrenching heart-to-hearts that so honestly display each character's troubles and insecurities, Night in the Woods is an exploration of anxiety that never feels overbearing.
A different approach to dealing with grief
I personally find games that are more subtle in how they go about dealing with troubling subjects more affecting, but that's just me. Firewatch, for example, a game that I love and am shocked I haven't found a way to work into a video before now, is, on the surface, a game about a man who takes up a job as a fire lookout. Choose to look at the game's story and characters a little closer, however, and you will see issues of depression and alcoholism spilling out across the story. The feeling of loss, and the devastating effect of attempting to run from your problems rather than address them directly, is pervasive throughout. The subtle ways in which Firewatch approaches these difficult themes makes for a compelling narrative adventure.
For me, games that tackle these subjects in a more metaphorical, underlying way feel more like your own little secret. The idea that someone can play a game like Firewatch and simply enjoy a beautifully animated walking sim is fine, but to know that some of the topics that the game covers connected with me in ways it might not have done others makes it feel special. That its themes aren't just surface deep but woven through the fabric of its framework.
That's not to say that we should make light of dark subjects – or go 'easy', for lack of a better word – on difficult topics, but when entertainment is dealing with subjects that can be so sensitive to so many people, it's more important than ever for games to avoid taking a heavy-handed approach and employ a defter touch.
Games will continue to grow
Although I'm yet to return to Sea of Solitude, for example, I think that the pre-warning of explored subject matter was an important thing to do, something that I really feel that more games should adopt in the future. Similarly, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice also pre-warns players as to the subjects the game tackles – honestly, I couldn't talk about games tackling sensitive subjects without mentioning Ninja Theory's adventure here at least once.
Hellblade's main character, Senua, experiences psychosis, and you are made to feel as though you are just one of the many voices in her head as she undergoes her journey to hell. The game forces you, as the player, to overcome the voices telling you that you'll fail; they plague you as you try to solve the game's puzzles, and leave you with a sense of achievement that you didn't listen to the voices telling you to give up and instead chose to persevere.
Perhaps games such as these are rightly challenging what we have decided the purpose of games to be? At the start of this video, I so confidently announced that games exist as escape and entertainment. But says who? To think that a game shouldn't be dark, uncomfortable and focus on depression, for example, is based on nothing other than my past experiences of games being designed purely for fun. It's this assumption that has caught me off guard time and time again, and perhaps it's an indication that the way I think about games – and what they are capable of exploring – needs to change.
But what do you think? Are there any games that have helped you through a part of your life? Is there a game you weren't able to get through because of how it made you feel? Let me know in my comments below and let's try to keep it a safe space, just this once. I will see you all there and thanks for watching.
Check out more of our Dialogue Options, such as our discussion on the future of decision based games or our exploration of whether open-world games are really as open as they appear?