Friday, June 12, 2009

Difficult Games, part 2: A Reflection on Themes

In my previous post, I introduced Tony Kushner's "The Art of the Difficult," an article that argues on behalf of plays that challenge their audiences. Kushner rails against plays that are "eager to please" audiences accustomed to simple messages presented in uninspired ways. By addressing the messiness of of humanity in complex ways, people are challenged to think critically and struggle towards an understanding of human existence.

The comparison between theater and video games is not a perfect one, as games require a level of immediate physical dexterity that theater does not. Still, Kushner's philosophy can be used to explore the approach to thematic Difficulty in games. Using Kushner's argument as analytical tool, we can begin to undo the common conflation of "adult" and "mature" games.

Mirror's Edge and Echoes of Schindler

Kushner cites Schindler's List as an example of how a serious or "adult" topic does not necessarily yield a Difficult work:

For all of its crepuscular, ashy tonalities and its galumphing ponderousness, it's too squeaky clean, it's too careful, it betrays what it purports to represent, which was the antithesis of clean and careful, which was madness. Schindler risks nothing in attempting to make sense of the unfathomable; it only seeks to succeed, and so it's finally shallow, successful (237 Oscars!) and can speak to the Holocaust only in Hollywood cliches. Sure, it made German audiences "think about the Holocaust." Have you noticed that every five years something comes along that makes German audiences "think about the Holocaust"? And still they have in many ways some of the most draconian anti-immigration laws in Europe. They need to stop thinking so ostentatiously and to think more constantly, quietly and deeply instead.

Although it draws on less specific imagery and history than Schindler, the story of Mirror's Edge is subject to similar criticism. Summarizing the game's story is as easy as constructing a Don LaFontaine-inspired intro: "In a world where government enforces order at the barrel of a gun, people trade freedom for security, and the media is nothing but propaganda machine, one brave soul must have the FAITH to stand up." Ah, if only he was still with us today.

Mirror's Edge does not present the audience with a story that will teach them anything. Faith's morality is as unblemished as the sun-bleached roofs she traverses: she fights against governmental corruption, exhibits un-shakable loyalty to friends and family, and exhibits an appreciation for human life in a society indifferent to suffering. Her enemies are similarly shallow: whether they are killers, traitors, or mindless followers, everyone is sorted into camps that either endorse tyranny or liberty. In the end, Faith remains the same person she was the moment I met her.

I do not mean to suggest that the story is dull: I enjoy a good dystopian tale. I am, however, disappointed that Mirror's Edge never made an attempt to challenge the way I understand humanity. The narrative is Orwellian in tone, yet stripped of any nuance. The most compelling part of Nineteen Eighty-Four was not the cruelty that Winston endured, it was how that cruelty changed him as a person. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the very nature of reality is called into question. In Mirror's Edge, truth is easy to find: just look at Faith.

Faith in Progress

So, are we doomed to wait for a thematically Difficult game? Actually, I can think of several recent examples of games that challenge their audiences to discern their obscure meanings through a number of subtle nuances and conflicting messages:

Far Cry 2

As Jorge's analysis of Far Cry 2 demonstrates, it is possible for games to both engage with themes of violence, race, and colonialism while at the same time existing as products of said constructs. Who are the heroes and villains in Far Cry 2? Does the game offer any philosophies on human nature, or simply present questions?


I maintain that Flower is one of the most mature games we have seen in a long time, exactly because of its difficult narrative. What is Flower about? Is it a treatise on the environmentalism? A Christian allegory? A meditation on the meaning of "nature?" It could be any of these things or none.

Noby Noby Boy

Playing Noby Noby Boy is an exercise in confronting thematic challenge. Is the game a metaphor for capitalism, a study of the impulse to consume, or simply a game that lets you eat your own butt? We create order in the world by creating stories, so how do we understand a system that seems opposed to structure?

Onward to Fallujah

Amidst the controversy sparked by Six Days in Fallujah, Anthony Crouts, Konami's VP of marketing said: "We're not trying to make social commentary. We're not pro-war. We're not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience." In saying this, Crouts eloquently articulates the exact the argument for avoiding the Difficult. People do not want to think, they do want to be challenged, they do not want to be shocked because these things lead to discomfort.

Without Difficulty, we will never know discomfort, which means we will never know plays such as Venus or games like Today I Die. By shunning the Difficult, video games may continue to evolve technologically, but they will grow stagnant in terms of their contribution to our knowledge of the world. Rather than hide from the discomfort elicited by games that make us truly grapple with painful, confusing, or ugly concepts, we must embrace them and in doing so gain a greater understanding the human experience.

We must seek out and embrace the Difficult. Whether this means traveling to Fallujah or visiting a magical worm-boy that eats entire towns only to poop them out whole, we must proceed with the confidence of knowing we will be better for the experience.


  1. Great article. I agree entirely, thats as long as the gaming industry is looked at from purely a business perspective, then we will continually see games with mass appeal, as in simple plot and things do not "discomfort" us. Its sad that games like world of Goo and Braid do not receive more attention, as these are games that meet the difficult in at least some sense. I hope there will be a part 3? I find this sort of discussion very interesting.

  2. Have you noticed that every five years something comes along that makes German audiences "think about the Holocaust"? And still they have in many ways some of the most draconian anti-immigration laws in Europe.

    Wait! What? That's BS! There was a new Immigration law in 2005 but it's nowhere near "draconian". Germany is an immigration country.

    "As of December 2004, about seven million foreign citizens were registered in Germany (8.8% of the Population), and 19% of the country's residents were of foreign or partially foreign descent. The young are more likely to be of foreign descent than the old. 30% of Germans aged 15 years and younger have at least one parent born abroad. In the big cities 60% of children aged 5 years and younger have at least one parent born abroad."
    (From Wikipedia)

    In fact, I am myself of Polish origin and immigrated into Germany where I acquired German citizenship. Linking German immigration laws to the Third Reich is insulting! German People certainly think MORE about the Holocaust than any other Nation. Maybe this guy ought to live LESS in the world of 1945.

  3. @Mario

    Thanks for stopping by Mario. Out of curiosity, can you think of any big-budget, mass appeal titles that did have a challenging plot?


    I actually debated whether to excise that part of the quote; the essay was written in 1997, and it seems that there have been significant changes to German citizenship laws since then.

    While extreme, I think the underlying point Kushner tries to make is worth thinking about: How does our rhetoric compare to our actions?

    For example, every year folks in California celebrate Cesar Chavez day while at the same time allowing a broken immigration system to continue functioning. For most people, it's a day off or a night to watch a biopic about him. To truly honor him would be to take up his legacy: immigration reform.

    You bring up one of the shortcomings of Kushner: his strength lies in art rather than social science.

    Apologies for any offense, and thanks for raising this issue.

  4. @ Scott

    Off the top of my head, i cant really think of any. Personally, some games that at least have an interesting take on "Story/Plot" are free roam games. While I don't necessarily adore these games, I do find myself playing them from time to time. Games like Morrowind Oblivion and fallout 3. While the actual central storyline is pretty simple and generic, the idea of the player interacting with the world, characters and environment in any way he/she chooses becomes interesting, dependent on the player of course.
    I think there is more to be said about these "free" roaming games where the player can do what they please. The problem, or maybe a short coming of these games is that there actions hardly (not at all in most cases) have any effect at all in the world. For example, if you kill a certain character, will that characters relatives come after you? This is of course more of an actual game mechanic rather than a difficult plot, however, i think if something like this can be fully flushed out, the plot/story would become difficult, as a player would see consequences for actions which would actively shape the game, and maybe even the story they are engaged in.

    This reminds me, while the gaming industry can easily become a story telling, or even theoretical tool to question our understandings of our culture or our world, But is this the path that games should take? Egoraptor discussed Braid, and how the story telling is more engrossing because you never loose control your character and how the lack of cut scenes actually provide better story telling and provide more leg work for the player, as far as putting the pieces together.

    So uh yeah... to answer your question, no i cant really think of any mass appeal games with large budgets that had a "difficult" plot/story with the frame work that was established in the article.