Can mainstream video games tackle mature topics?

While recognising that there have been serious-minded games going back to the days of the 1980s text-based adventures, there is an unstoppable evolution in the industry, which has sparked recent online feuding between fans, bloggers and developers.

A scene from Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the latest in the series of action-adventure games, which will be out next month. Ubisoft / AP Photo
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For many of the game designers showing off their latest creations at the recent Penny Arcade video game expo in Seattle, the push to feature more mature storytelling has been one of their most significant challenges.

“We are changing as a medium,” says Richard Dansky, a writer who has worked on several Tom Clancy games, during a talk titled You’re So Mature! Is Storytelling in Games Coming of Age?

While recognising that there have been serious-minded games going back to the days of the 1980s text-based adventures, Dansky says there is an unstoppable evolution in the industry, which has sparked recent online feuding between fans, bloggers and developers.

“We are throwing open new doors and exploring new territory in ways that are advancing faster and obviously making some people unhappy,” he says. “We can’t just say: ‘They have to deal with it.’ They’re letting us know they’re unhappy in ways that are reprehensible. It’s up to us to keep reinforcing and pushing for change.”

In the past 50 years, the interactive medium once considered merely child’s play has gained financial and cultural significance, but a disparity persists, as could be seen on the floor of the Seattle expo, known as PAX Prime.

There, the likes of the child-friendly, cartoony Pokémon icon Pikachu loomed over gamers firing virtual guns and slashing virtual throats in games such as Far Cry 4 and Assassin's Creed.

“I think it’s important not to lose track that games tackling serious subjects have been woven into the DNA of the industry since the beginning,” says Dansky. “We’ve always had people who’ve attempted to use this medium for more than just ‘shoot ‘em in the face’.

“I think what’s happening now is unprecedented access to consumers and the awareness the internet allows us.”

Ryan Payton, the head of the game studio Camouflaj, has worked on the Metal Gear Solid and Halo series. He says he had to balance the financial rigours of game development with his personal desire to explore a mature topic while crafting the mobile game Republique, in which players take on the role of a hacker guiding a woman through a dystopia where individuality is banned.

“My end goal is to not only make enough money to keep the business going and our 25 employees well-fed,” says Payton. “It’s also that I know, through our game, we could touch millions – if not possibly tens of millions – of people in all parts of the world and get them to think seriously about surveillance infrastructures – whether they’re corporate or governmental.”

While indie games have long been the biggest sector of the industry that tackles sociopolitical topics such as diversity, personal freedom and mental health, developers at PAX Prime say that line of thinking has come to many mainstream games in recent years. They point to The Last of Us and The Walking Dead: The Game as examples of titles that have successfully taken such risks.

Toiya Kristen Finley, a writer who recently worked on a mobile game called Fat Chicken, which lightheartedly looks at the issue of factory farming, says the most difficult topic for game designers to confront has been sexual abuse. She chastised the PlayStation 3 game Beyond: Two Souls for limiting interactivity during a scene that dealt with a sexual assault at a bar.

“I’m not saying you can’t have that content, but I think it’s a problem when it’s shortcut character development,” says Finely. “It’s often used to toughen a character up, but it just doesn’t work that way. When you experience trauma, it can take years of healing. It’s a long process. It’s disrespecting to the character and players who’ve been through that, as well.”

Ultimately, designers such as Qais Fulton, who has worked on such games as Crimson Dragon and Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death, believes there's room in the cloud and on hard drives for all types of titles and hopes to bridge the divide between not-so-serious and more thoughtful games.

“I think the resistance to mature storytelling in games is coming from a place of concern,” says Fulton. “It doesn’t mean mature games preclude juvenile games.”