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12:56 am
Tue January 7, 2014

In Gaming, A Shift From Enemies To Emotions

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 4:56 am

A generation has grown up with video games — and video games are growing up, too. Developers are using the medium to tell sophisticated, emotionally complex stories.

Take, for example, the game Gone Home. At first, it feels like a first-person shooter: It's set in an isolated house in the woods; the player walks down dark hallways as a thunderstorm rages outside.

That's where the similarities end.

"There's no violence in Gone Home; there's no shooting, there aren't any enemies, there aren't any other people in the game at all," says Steve Gaynor, the game's lead designer. "It's just you in this house, by yourself, trying to put the pieces together by exploring the space."

The game is actually a coming-of-age story about a fictional high school student, Samantha Greenbriar. The player walks around the house, opening drawers and closets, discovering letters and journals from Samantha and her parents. Each one reveals a little bit of his or her story — a drama about a daughter finding herself, and a family struggling to accept her.

"It's just about a normal family and what happened to them," Gaynor says. "It's not about science fiction or military or supernatural stuff. It's a story that could have happened down the street from you."

And the game is selling pretty well for an independent video game — 50,000 copies in its first month.

Gaynor used to work on big-budget, AAA games like the BioShock series. He says he left that job to focus on more intimate projects.

"I have always been interested in working on stuff that is more personal and smaller-scale, and more about people and individuals," Gaynor says.

And he's not the only one.

Lucas Pope designed the game Papers, Please. In it, the player is a border guard working for a fictional communist country. The player is forced to make difficult choices about who may enter the country, all while making barely enough money to help his family survive.

Pope says today's developers have a broad definition of what a video game can be.

"The people who make games now, they grew up with games their whole life — probably the first generation that did that," he says. "So it's really natural to consider that you can have a game about anything."

'From Mechanics To Storytelling'

Sony's Nick Suttner says he has noticed a broader change recently. As part of his job, he frequently hears pitches from independent designers hoping to get their games on the PlayStation.

"There was a really interesting shift away from mechanics to storytelling," he says. More frequently he's hearing pitches where a game is not just about "shooting something; it's about an experience the developer had and wanted to communicate that idea in their game, or about this moment of beauty or sympathy."

Some call these "empathy games." They focus on engaging with the player on an emotional level.

Ryan Green is taking that to an extreme. His deeply personal project, That Dragon, Cancer, uses the medium of a video game to create an interactive memoir about his experience raising a son with pediatric cancer. The game creates interactive scenes that put the player in Green's shoes during a night at the hospital. It becomes apparent there's nothing the player can do to make the situation better. Just like in real life, sometimes there is no easy answer.

Green says his game is more like a poem.

He hopes the project's reach won't be limited to people who already play video games frequently.

"I hope it's people that appreciate good film and good literature," he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Those robust gaming sales were helped by promises of better graphics and better online gameplay than previous versions of both Playstation 4 and Xbox One. But some game developers are pushing a different boundary: better storytelling. They're using videogames to tell sophisticated, emotionally complex stories.

NPR's Travis Larchuk has more.

TRAVIS LARCHUK, BYLINE: At first, the game "Gone Home" feels like a first-person shooter, or a horror game. The player is in a house in the woods, walking down dark hallways. A thunderstorm rages outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

LARCHUK: But that's where the similarities end. Steve Gaynor is the game's lead designer.

STEVE GAYNOR: There's no violence in "Gone Home." There's no shooting. There aren't any enemies. There aren't any other people in the game at all. It's just you in this house by yourself, trying to put the pieces together by exploring the space.

LARCHUK: "Gone Home" is actually a coming-of-age story, told through the journals of a fictional high school student, Samantha Greenbriar.

The player walks around the house, opening drawers and closets and discovering letters and journals from Samantha and her parents. Each one reveals a little bit of their story.

Here, Samantha realizes she and a girl in her class have feelings for each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "GONE HOME")

SARAH ELMALEH: (As Samantha) She put her arm around me, and was so close, and whispered in my ear: I really like you. I just nodded my head, and I really hope she could tell.

LARCHUK: It's just about a normal family and what happened to them. You know, it's not about science fiction or military or supernatural stuff. It's a story that could have happened down the street from you.

And the game's selling pretty well for an independent video game: 50,000 copies in the first month. Gaynor used to work on big-budget, blockbuster games, like the "Bioshock" series. But he left that job to focus on more intimate projects.

GAYNOR: I have always been interested in working on stuff that is more personal and smaller scale and more about people and individuals.

LARCHUK: And he's not the only one. Lucas Pope designed the game "Papers, Please." In this game, the player is a border guard working for a fictional communist country. The player is forced to make difficult choices about who can cross the border, all while making barely enough money to help his family survive.

Pope says today's developers have a broad definition of what a videogame can be.

LUCAS POPE: Like, my generation, or the people who make games now, they grew up with games their whole life. Probably the first generation that did that. So I think it's really natural to like consider that you can have a game about anything.

LARCHUK: Nick Suttner says he's noticed a bigger trend recently. He works for Sony, the company behind Playstation. As part of his job, he frequently hears pitches from independent designers.

NICK SUTTNER: There was a really interesting shift away from mechanics to storytelling, when you play a game, and it feels like it's about something, and it's not just about shooting something. It's about an experience the developer had and wanted to communicate that idea in their game, or about, like, this moment of beauty or sympathy.

LARCHUK: Some call these empathy games. They focus on engaging with the player on an emotional level.

Ryan Green's taking that to an extreme. His deeply personal project uses the medium of a videogame to create an interactive memoir. It's called, "That Dragon, Cancer."

RYAN GREEN: My wife and I have four boys, and our third son Joel was diagnosed with cancer when he was one. And we've been fighting that for the past almost four years.

LARCHUK: The game puts the player in Ryan Green's shoes, during a night at the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "THAT DRAGON, CANCER")

GREEN: I hate that we're here. I hate that he's sick. I just want him to feel better.

LARCHUK: It becomes apparent there's nothing the player can do to make the situation better. Just like in real life, sometimes there is no easy answer.

Ryan Green says his game is more like a poem. I asked who he imagines will play this.

GREEN: I hope it's people that appreciate good film and good literature.

LARCHUK: All three developers I spoke with share that hope, that their games will also reach an audience of people who may not consider themselves gamers.

Travis Larchuk, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.