How Video Games Discovered Their Humanity

The 2010s was the decade in which video-game story-telling became self-aware

BY Gareth Damian Martin in Opinion | 16 DEC 19

Given that, over the past ten years, the medium of video games has ballooned to encompass everything from large-scale industrial projects to homemade experiments, reviewing the last decade in gaming – and the narratives that have emerged within it – is an impossible task. So, let’s begin with a proviso: I will make no attempt to weave the corporate powerhouses of blockbuster game releases into some arbitrary, decade-long chronicle of progression. It should be evidence enough that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the best-selling game of 2009, while 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (a reboot of that same series, along with its blatant pro-American ideologies and connections to the military-industrial complex) looks set to take that same accolade. The numeral in the 2009 title is working against time: a sign that narratives of innate progression should be distrusted. And yet, when I set aside these oxygen-stealing entities and their competitors, it becomes clear that a shift has happened in the last ten years in terms of the stories games tell.

Cardboard Computer, Kentucky Route Zero, 2013-ongoing, still. Courtesy: Cardboard Computer

It feels impossible to discuss narrative in games within the past decade without mentioning Twine. First released in 2009 (though it wouldn’t see widespread adoption until 2012), Chris Klimas’s software for building interactive fiction has had a comprehensive influence on a period in which video games have shifted significantly towards the personal, the expressive and the human. Twine allows anyone with a computer and a web browser to build, play and distribute games; its adoption by queer and marginalized communities in the early part of this decade saw a sudden widening of game narratives. The likes of Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World (2013), which gives you ten-seconds to decide how you want to spend the final moments of your existence, unfolding beautifully with repeated playthroughs, or Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s Howling Dogs (2012), which explores a stark institutionalised existence where your dreams are your only respite, remain powerful examples of how this tool provided a canvas for linking the experimental and the personal. This is emblematic of the decade, which was one in which independent developers sought to build platforms from which they can speak about their own experiences. The video games of the past decade have recognized that the experimental is inherently personal.

Galactic Cafe, The Stanley Parable, 2013, still. Courtesy: Galactic Cafe

A case in point is developer Davey Wreden, who progressed from The Stanley Parable (2012) – a fourth-wall-obliterating comedy, written with William Pugh, which took games themselves to task as works of manipulation and institutionalization – to his deeply personal masterpiece, The Beginner’s Guide (2015). While The Stanley Parable casts the player as an office worker, following or resisting the increasingly surreal commands of a omnipotent narrator, in The Beginner’s Guide it is Wreden himself who narrates the players journey, this time though a series of half-finished games made by the unknown developer Coda. As The Stanley Parable progresses, the player’s game of push and pull against the narrator’s wishes exposes the restrictive scaffolding of interactive narratives, but in The Beginner’s Guide what is exposed is not just structural but personal. As the game goes on, the line between Wreden, the narrator, and Coda, the developer, becomes blurred and then erased, with the game’s puzzles becoming reflections of fractured identity and personal struggle. Rather than questioning the structure of games, as The Stanley Parable does, The Beginner's Guide exploits the structure of games to shift them from functional to expressive. The Beginner's Guide is powerful because its experimentation is not in the service of novelty, but in the service of personal expression.

Sundae Month, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, 2016, still. Courtesy: Sundae Month

From that midpoint of the decade, not only is it possible to identify this confluence of the experimental and the personal but also to perceive an eagerness for games to reflect the experiences of their players, and for genres and forms to be used in self-aware ways. We might even be able to see games becoming a generation’s medium of choice for articulating their own realities within the increasingly systemized and manipulative institutions of their daily lives. Sundae Month’s Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016) is an exceptional example, taking a distinctly video-gamey, primary-coloured, sci-fi setting and casting the player as a member of a marginalized underclass within it. There are still laser swords and interstellar adventures, but they remain inaccessible, as players instead attempt to scrape together enough money from street cleaning to eat, drink and ‘gendershift’ (a surreal form of gender dysphoria where without regular, and expensive changes, the player’s vision and movement becomes distorted), praying to goddesses for ‘luck’ and being shaken down by police officers. The result is both absurdist and deeply personal, reflective of a generation raised under the sign of neoliberalism.

Infinite Fall, Night in the Woods, 2017, still. Courtesy: Infinite Fall

The latter half of the decade saw a series of games emerge that took this format to significant audiences in such a way that it could no longer be considered ‘alternative’ but, rather, a primary axis of development. The intermittent presence of Cardboard Computer’s magical realist adventure Kentucky Route Zero (2013-ongoing), its five poetic acts to date spaced out over the decade, have brought with them a remarkably literary exploration of debt and memory in the game’s titular state. Meanwhile, Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods (2017) combines cartoony stylisation with a deeply personal exploration of growing up among the post-industrial decay of America’s Mid-West.

Playdead, Inside, 2016, still. Courtesy: Playdead

Alongside this has been an increased self-awareness in relation to engaging with genre, which – much like Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor’s entwining of escapist fantasy and oppressive reality – has given a new lease of life to the tired regurgitations of gaming’s greatest hits. In particular, the 2D platformer – a formative genre for the medium – was beautifully re-interpreted again and again as a potential site for new expressive work. Playdead’s Inside (2016) for example, with its lone boy progressing through a Nordic dystopia, tied the natural logic of moving from the left of the screen to the right (one as intrinsic to the platformer as reading direction is to English literature) to their inevitable descent through layers of collapsed industry, towards the dark truth of exploitation that lies at the heart of industrial modernity. Meanwhile, Matt Makes Games’s Celeste (2018) used difficulty and challenge (often misread as a barrier to games’ ascendance to ‘art’) to engage with depression, perseverance and self-care. The game’s central journey to a mountaintop, usual fodder for a 1990s cartoon platformer, becomes a symbolic journey for the game’s main character Madeline, who like so many other characters in the games I have mentioned above, is young and struggling with their own identity and existence against macro-scale structures of difficulty and oppression.

Matt Makes Games, Celeste, 2018, still. Courtesy: Matt Makes Games

In 2019, the final year of the decade, these qualities – experimentation, personalization, self-awareness – have emerged as the hallmarks of the medium’s most significant releases. Neo Cab’s exploration of emotional health in a gig-economy-dominated near future; Sayonara Wild Hearts’s celebratory meshing of the ‘break-up song’ into classic arcade-game paradigms; A Short Hike’s playful Nintendo-esque adventure to find phone reception: each of these games speaks to the contemporary condition of a generation of developers who find themselves in uncertain times, asking questions of their own cultural moment, while searching for some semblance of beauty or joy. These games are nothing if not a reflection of a decade which has seen the palpable need for resistance against toxic ideologies of the far-right, the renegotiation of identity and politics within society and the ceaseless digitisation of social relations and structures. Neo Cab’s tagline – ‘Stay Human’ – is emblematic of a decade in which, while struggling against inherently oppressive systems (both in the game and in real life), a generation of developers has tried to find its own expressive voice. The video game industry itself may be a many-headed monster of unstoppable economic force but, as the past ten years have shown, it is still possible for developers to adopt, adapt and rewrite its structures in order to communicate with their own voices.

Main image: Simogo, Sayonara Wild Hearts, 2019, still. Courtesy: Simogo

Gareth Damian Martin is a writer, artist and designer. He is the founding editor of the videogames and architecture zine Heterotopias and teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He tweets: @JumpOvertheAge