When I was a kid, I’d mainly play video games to escape school and the boredom of another rainy day. I’d also put in thirty minutes here and there to block out the anger of being told to tidy my room or do my chores. Gaming was fun and it helped with growing up. No matter the mood or situation, playing on my Sega/Nintendo console made me feel like I was an integral part of a pre-ordained story about a plumber or blue hedgehog that I didn’t really have to think about, I just had to play. There were no real plot points to make me feel too much of a struggle, but I wasn’t really aware of life-changing decisions in video games because they didn’t really exist. Heck, I wasn’t really aware of life-changing decisions in life; being a kid was tough but it was nothing compared to the trials and tribulations of adulthood, via a rickety road through puberty. Back then, gaming was all about fun, excitement and simplistic escapism. You didn’t have to think too much about what the implications of pressing the ‘A’ or ‘B’ button were, you only had to make sure you didn’t fall down any holes and collected as much treasure as you could, taking down as many bad guys as you could in the process.
Then gaming started to change…
Technology improved, massively. Games started to look realistic. Characters started to look like you and me. The PSOne (in my opinion) paved the way for these games to come to life, creating 3D characters like Lara Croft and Solid Snake that felt like they existed; they lived and breathed in beautiful worlds that were vibrant and alive. Games developers were given more freedom with what they could create and do. As the years went on, other systems followed these trends and in today’s day and age, games aren’t always about fun gameplay. To me, games are about pushing the player mentally and leaving us with memories we will keep with us forever, whether they are fond ones or not. They can make you shed a tear of joy or harbour deep-seated feelings of regret or remorse. Video games can be just as poignant as any movie or song, sometimes leaving the gamer with a warm feeling inside or a bad taste in their mouth. In many cases, gaming has become a powerful, emotional journey and if you choose to step into these stories, you won’t be disappointed.
Shenmue on the Dreamcast was the first time I ever really paid a great deal of attention to this type of storytelling. It was probably down to the fact I was at the tail-end of my teenage years and I had seen and experienced a little bit more of the world than before. The main protagonist, Ryo Hazuki has just lost his father and it is your goal to track down the man that killed him, Lan Di. Unfortunately, the story of Ryo and Shenmue never ended, as the final part of the trilogy still hasn’t been made almost fifteen years on. Nonetheless, it is a great example of involving the gamer in one man’s struggle in coming to terms with a tragedy and his tale of revenge, love and loss. I really loved Shenmue. I loved how you could spend time with this character and really start to feel his pain and his need for answers. Ryo deserved the truth and maybe one day, he’ll find closure. There have been many rumblings of a HD release but as all rumours go, you can never believe them until they come to fruition. So far, we are still without a release date so I’ll just have to keep dreaming.
Up until this point, there had been games that had made me choose certain paths and actions within the model of the story (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Fallout 3 to name a few) but the first time I ever really struggled to come to terms with my actions in a video game was playing Fallout: New Vegas on the Xbox 360. One of the quests required me to go to the corner of the map and take out a man that had wronged the quest-giver in some way. I can’t quite remember what he had done wrong or even the details of the quest itself; I can only remember the way it made me feel. The quest wasn’t even part of the main story; it was optional and in hindsight, I wish I’d never taken it. The target in question lived on a decrepit farm on the outskirts of the New Vegas Strip. As I approached the farm, I saw a young boy playing in front of the main house. I spoke to him upon entering and he told me about his father and their struggles in the aftermath of the nuclear war. As he spoke, it didn’t take me long to work out that his father was the man I’d been contracted to kill. With urgency, I said goodbye and walked away. I had an uneasy feeling inside as this was the first time I’d had to really deal with the effects of my actions in such a visceral and realistic way. I entered the farmhouse and finally located the man—the father. He was stood at his desk, probably doing paperwork or something monotonous, never expecting that today would be his last. After somewhat of a heated discussion, I pulled my gun out and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. Within seconds, I turned round to see his wife wielding a shotgun and aiming it straight at me. Without having any time to think or contemplate my actions, I shot her dead. Just like that. Now, that poor boy’s mother and father lay dead in the house and it was all my fault. I sheepishly left the house and walked past the boy, who was still playing in front of the house. I felt like I should say something or do something but what? He had lost his parents and I was responsible. I felt really terrible about it. I still do.
There have been other moments in gaming that have left me feeling pretty terrible. Almost every five minutes in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead left you with decisions you’d never want to make in real life. Deciding whether or not to let someone live or die is never going to be easy and with only seconds to make that life-altering decision, you are inevitably going to feel like crap for making the wrong one. Many times I thought back to those moments and contemplated whether or not I chose correctly. The first decision in the very first chapter had me choosing to save either a young boy of a family I had befriended or the son of the farmer I was graciously being allowed to live with. Without spoiling anything for you, I won’t tell you who I saved or the implications of that choice, but it did stay with me for some time. The remaining chapters of season one were equally as punishing. It was painful at times. I was a man living amongst hordes of zombies (sorry, Walking Dead fans!), trying to keep this poor unwillingly abandoned child from losing all innocence and faith in a world gone to hell. Maybe I found it hard because I have two daughters of my own. I kept imagining dealing with this kind of trauma in reality; how would I cope with trying to pull the wool over my children’s eyes? I couldn’t, could I? After an incredibly heavy-going finale, I was stupid enough to play season two of The Walking Dead which was equally filled with hard choices. For some reason though, I adored the compelling stories and aesthetics of the two games. They are two of the most remarkable gaming experiences I’ve ever had and they will stay with me forever.
The Last of Us is the final example I want to share with you. If you have never played Naughty Dog’s masterpiece on PS3 or PS4 (a beautifully re-mastered version running at 60 fps), go out right now and buy it. If you don’t have the console to play it on, buy one of them as well. You won’t be disappointed. TLOU is the one game I choose when having friendly debates with my friends about the worth of video games in today’s day and age. I rival it against any movie in terms of its narrative and character progression. For me, this is one of the greatest video games of all time. Like The Walking Dead, it can be incredibly heart wrenching at times. From the opening five minutes (which brought tears to my eyes) to the closing revelations, the story of Joel and Ellie will change your life. It is the story of a man who has nothing left, struggling to save a girl that reminds him of everything he lost in the wake of a deadly virus. Yes, there are terrible moments you have to endure as a gamer but there are also tiny moments of light and we see that these characters are simply trying to find good in all the death and destruction that surrounds them (one word: giraffes). The game as a whole mixes great gaming mechanics and compelling storytelling to make The Last of Us the perfect example of the point I am trying to make.
Gaming has evolved and will continue to do so. We are never having the same experience twice. Even with the same game, every play through can be completely different to the last. Personally, I am excited as to see where these new stories will take me. I enjoyed being pulled from pillar to post, not knowing what a game has in store for me until I pick up the controller and press start. Now, I don’t just play games for the fun elements like I used to, I play because I want to feel something. I want to be thinking about these moments long after I’ve finished the story. The journey is a powerful beast and I as long as developers keep making games with such an emotional backbone, I will continue to play them wholeheartedly, to the end.