I started a video game yesterday as a form of distraction. But it has ended up being a captivating experience that requires thought and feeling. There is a soulfulness to the game that I find quite beautiful.

I’ll set up the basic backdrop of the game (which is a typical sci-fi trope) and then get to what’s actually unique and rewarding. It’s 2038 in Detroit, USA. It is a world divided by many things, one of which is the existence of androids. People are threatened by the ways in which they are different and because they take jobs from people (clearly a metaphor for immigrants). You play through different scenes as three different androids.

It is a choice based game meaning that every choice you make determines what happens next. There are so many choices that at the end of every scene you are given a flow chart showing you how your choices led to certain outcomes. There are blanks in the flow chart for all the different possibilities that you missed by not making other choices. It doesn’t show you what would have happened–there are only blank boxes. It is a lovely way of connecting one to free will and responsibility and, therefore, to regret and doubt.

I will confess that at one point I wondered if, like most other games, you can go back to a previous save point and replay a scene. This was handled beautifully by the game designers: when you access the menu that would allow you a replay an android appears and, while looking you straight in the eye, gently reminds you that it is your life and your game and that you can indeed replay the scenes. However, it also asks you to let go; to allow yourself to play through the game once without altering your decisions. What a powerful and creative way remind us that–even within the context of a video game–we often try too hard to control things. I decided to go ahead and allow my decisions to stand.

The scenes are full of difficult decisions that reveal to us our biases, values and character. I don’t mean that in a “linear” sense because in fantasy one can also choose to live out one’s shadow sides without hurting anyone. But even so, if one is self-aware enough then even the choices one makes under the guise of “it’s-only-a-game” can themselves be revealing!

One especially powerful scene was one where I play an android named Kara. Kara is a “household” model of android–especially designed to cook and clean (again, the metaphor is clear). She works for an extremely abusive man who has a young daughter. You find out in the scene that this man frequently destroys you and then, when getting you repaired, asks them to wipe your memory. The scene begins with the man picking you up from the repair shop and taking you home. He asks you to clean and initially the only choices are cleaning options. Sound boring? Good! That’s part of what makes the game unique: in life we often have limited choices whether they be self-imposed or imposed by context. As your choices broaden you can do things like approach the daughter and play with her. It is clear that the child knows something. That she is guarded around you but that she seems to care. She is full of love but deeply frightened. After earning her trust (an accidental byproduct of my sincere sweetness toward her) she drops a key in your hand (I realize I just went first person) leading you to a beautiful little box she keeps on her nightstand. In it are drawings she has made. In one drawing it is implied that the father has previously ripped you to pieces.

One evening as you serve them dinner you witness the man’s dark shame and pain get projected onto the daughter. He hits her across the face. You watch helplessly (there are no choices available yet). She runs upstairs and he tells you angrily not to move. The words “Do Not Move” are shown in your vision matrix making it feel like it’s not only the command of the abusive man but a command from the game itself (meta profundity!). In many games, going against linear structure leads to your demise (like when you fall off a cliff and die). I sat motionless for 10 seconds. Then I thought, “Fuck this. I cant’ just stand here!” I moved my controller just a bit and suddenly the screen went haywire and I had to move the controller a certain way to break through my own programming. I decided to run upstairs and go to the daughter. I tried to play non-violently but my attempts to hide and run off with the girl were thwarted by the violence of the father. I was beaten pretty badly but managed to operate the controls well enough to escape onto a bus with the child. At the end of the scene the child leaned her head against me and I chose to hold her hand.

After playing through the scene I went to the kitchen to get myself a snack. I wondered if I was avoiding playing out my shadow side in the game because I am disowning it or if it is because I spend so much time connected to it that it is gratifying to play as the shadow to my shadow. It occurred to me that I play the scenes as close as possible to my sincere feelings. If we look at the examples above aspects of my personality show right through: my distaste for authority; my love of the underdog; my tendency toward despair; my tendency to–for better or worse–overvalue feeling, my love of beauty; and maybe even my reactivity (hey, there is no way to know if I would have caused less damage or been given different options if I had not chosen to break free of my chains so soon. Maybe biding one’s time is better in the bigger picture). I would say that even though my character’s choices did not imply anger, there was a part of me who wanted to kill the abusive man. To abuse the abuser. I did not choose that route, but wow did I want to. So even my rage was right there.

Another touching, but far less dramatic, scene involves you playing an android named Markus (a black android I should add for context). The scene begins with you running an errand. During the course of this errand you encounter both micro-aggression and straight out aggression. The worst coming when a group of protestors beat you up. A police officer steps in to stop it but not because he cares about you; he makes it clear that the violent hoard might be “guilty of destroying private property”. Eventually you get home and you come to learn that you are not only the caretaker but the best friend of a paraplegic artist. He speaks to you as though you were human and it confounds your character who you can tell continually tries to make sense of human emotion. The artist insists on treating you with humanity and, though you help him with going to the bathroom and serving him meals, he never treats you like a servant. Indeed, he encourages you to go off and do your own thing. I chose to read Shakespeare (I chose between Plato, Shakespeare and Keats or doing other activities–not easy choices!). After your guy eats breakfast he takes you into his studio and you watch him paint. He then asks you to try. Initially I painted something that was technically perfect but shows no unique vision. He asks me to try again. He asks me to close my eyes and paint that way. Choices suddenly appear on screen: “LOGIC”; “DESPAIR”; “ANGER”; etc. You have to make a quick decision. I chose “despair” and the painting I end up with is actually quite lovely. You realize that the elderly artist believes in you and infuses you with humanness. He is not long for the world and it is meaningful to him to do so. He insists on you having a soul even if you yourself doubt it.

Enough about my game. I realize that, like a little kid, I felt the need to ramble on about a silly thing that I’m excited about. I enjoy doing my best to show people that some video games can be edifying and soulful experiences. Yes, most games lack depth and are pointlessly violent; but there are people out there creating unique and visionary gaming experiences.

Having said all of that, I think I’m going to read and listen to music now as even an “edifying game” can become numbing if you forget to do other things.

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