Back in 2004, Steven Spielberg famously threw down the gauntlet on video games: “I think the real indicator [that games have become a storytelling art form] will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17.” Among this year’s Games for Change Festival award winners are two projects that certainly rise up to the challenge: That Dragon, Cancer and Life Is Strange.
Both tap on emotional engagement through strong narrative and immersive, empathic experience. While one is about parents faced with their child’s terminal cancer and the other deals with teenage existentialist issues, both games explore the themes of loss, reconstruction, and dealing with inevitability.
G4C Game of the Year 2016: Life Is Strange
Last week Life Is Strange was honored as Game of the Year and the one game (among an initial 200) that best exemplifies the three Games for Change award categories: gameplay, innovation, and impact.
It is about a teenage girl (Max Caulfield) who witnesses a murder and discovers she’s endowed with a special power – to rewind time and change the past. She uses her ability to try and deal with issues ranging from everyday high-school life to teenage existential problems of identity and meaning, of suicide, love, and friendship.
All gamers are familiar with the temptation (and sin) of save-scumming – saving your game at crucial points and going back until you get it right. In this game, however, the rewind feature is actually at the core of both storyline and game mechanics. And more often than not, there are no ‘right’ outcomes, just different consequences for different choices.
As the episodes unfold, we realize together with the main character, “the more I use my power, the more I see how little control I have over what happens”. Or, in the words of Christopher Byrd for The Washington Post:
“What at first seems like just another story of wish fulfillment, reveals itself to be a tragic journey towards disillusionment.”
The initial, seemingly endless possibilities inexorably shrink and move towards the ‘polarized’ last episode and the tough final decision that can only lead to one of two possible endings.
“I see that some players feel there should have been more endings or more variations on endings based on your choice, but still, for us, I don’t think we’d change the way it is, because it was really important that those two endings, like we said before, offer definitive choice.
You make a sacrifice to accept your life as it is, to stop trying to have a perfect life, changing everything, and to stop looking to the past. This is the metaphor and the theme of the game.”
Beyond the obvious ‘every choice has consequences’, the message is then that loss, grief, and compromise are an inevitable part of life; that there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect past’ unlocking a ‘perfect future’. Life is strange and beautiful precisely in its imperfection.
And if this message has gotten across to even a small portion of the game’s huge fan base, then ‘Life Is Strange’ has done a load of ‘good’ and is truly deserving of its ‘game for change’ award.
“A Journey of Hope in the Shadow of Death”
That Dragon, Cancer is best summed up as gamified storytelling and recounts the real-life experiences of Ryan and Amy Green as they raised and lost their 5-year-old son Joel to cancer. Players navigate through this interactive journal in a series of short stories, switching perspectives from one character to another (starting with a duck in the opening scene), with a few mini-games on a lighter note.
The project is described by the creators as “an immersive narrative videogame that retells Joel Green’s 4-year fight against cancer through about two hours of poetic, imaginative gameplay that explores faith, hope and love”.
With its poetic narrative, symbolic imagery and eery audio (including some real audio footage from the family collection) the game has aptly been described as a ‘living painting and a poem’. As for the ‘crying game test’, this user’s reaction is quite telling:
I’m so terrified of this game. I’m 5 minutes into this video, my heart is pounding, and my eyes are tearing up. I don’t think I can ever play this, but I also feel like I need to… (PS2fweak on gamespot.com)
Kudos for the courage to relive and share and congratulations to Ryan and Amy Green and the Numinous Games team on the Most Innovative Award from the 13th Annual Games for Change Awards.
And whether you don’t feel up to the experience or couldn’t get enough of it, you might also want to check out the Thank You for Playing documentary which follows Ryan and his family over two years through the creation of “That Dragon, Cancer”.
Games for Change was founded in 2004 with the mission of ‘catalyzing social impact through digital games’. The 13th Annual Games for Change Awards (June 23-24, New York) distinguished the following games:
- Game of the Year: Life Is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment
- Most Significant Impact: Life Is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment
- Best Gameplay: Block’hood, Plethora Project
- Most Innovative: That Dragon, Cancer, Numinous Games
- Best Learning Game: DragonBox Numbers, WeWantToKnow AS
Find out more on gamesforchange.org
[featured image http://dontnodentertainment.wikia.com/wiki/Life_Is_Strange ]