At one point or another, every medium becomes a vehicle projecting a reflection of its time. Arguably any form of media does by its very nature. But many go the extra mile to preach one or many specific messages. The birth point of western literature culture, The Iliad was, for all its talk of stabbing people just below the nipple, a commentary on the virtues of aristocrats and how they might rule. More recently, films have increasingly become vehicles for a higher agenda, the most recent perhaps being the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (horribly average by the way). Our fair sport may be a bit slower on the uptake, but it’s by no means bereft of intelligent philosophy in a digestible, entertaining form.
The obvious touch stone is of course the Deus Ex series. Steeped in a world based on technological developments in their gestation today, taking to heart genuine concerns of corporate-manipulated government, and drawing on the hallmarks of conspiracy theories involving those classic conniving crusaders the Knights Templar; playing Deus Ex, you would find yourself inundated with questions to ask yourself. Who are the real power figures? How is this affecting the every day lives of the people around you? And finally of course, who should I hand power over to in the game’s climax? It was remarkably lucid about our own world, discussing at length the nature of terrorism years before Georgie B stepped into the Oval Office. It presented a balanced argument of the pros and pitfalls of the “Human 2.0” concept, questioning just how far technology in development today can help us before someone takes advantage of it for their own nefarious means.
Outside of Deus Ex’s narrative, it also took advantage of uniquely game orientated techniques, particularly the constant provision of seemingly non-beneficial dialogue options and snippets of books and newspapers that further extrapolated the game’s multi-faceted ideology in ways no book or film can do so without breaking the flow of the narrative. There’s a whole host of alternate routes or hidden areas that you actually have to go out your way to find (e.g. the Prototype AI in Everette’s home.)It’s a crucial asset game developers have at their disposal. Unlike a book or film, you can let the player pick and choose what they read. You could go through the whole of Deus Ex without reading or listening, and still enjoying it for its equally diverse game mechanics. In a book or film, you have to take what the creator gives you and like it.
Moving on from Deus Ex (as hard as it is mind: Deus Ex is worthy of an article and/or university degree of its own), we have the example of the Oddworld series of games. They’re distinctly linear affairs in terms of narrative progression, and it’s hard to miss the overall message Oddworld Inhabitants are trying to teach you. Where Oddworld shines through though is its slick presentation. In the first game, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, you play as the “employee” at a corporate meat processing factory who escapes the factory, liberating his fellow co-slaves along the way (at least if you resist the temptation to meat saw them), eventually bringing down the corrupt corporate installation itself. Cleverly, this is all told through a mix of some of the finest cutscenes in gaming, and subtle artistic hints throughout the whole game. Rupture Farms itself points towards the harsh conditions of the corporation. It’s a mess of pitfalls without railings, ill placed meatsaws and guarded by cyborg idiots with guns and a bad temperament. The levels are filled with cleverly written hints and tips built into the world in the form of sarcastic, unfeeling billboards or strangely socially aware fireflies. One on hand, it’s a fiendish puzzle environment. On the other its a stylised portrayal of a world any wage-slave can relate to.
Each of the Oddworld games bring new commentaries to the table. The first is simple enough – Abe fights to emancipate his fellows and destroy a decadent, destructive corporation. Abe’s Exoddus is actually interesting complex. The Glukkon enterprises enslave the peoples of Oddworld through a multitude of means, strangling them through consumerism and a monopoly on transportation. The two (alas) X-Box games Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger looked into the nature of scientific exploitation and the provision of medical care. They’re hugely intelligent, yet the subtle presentation makes them accessible and enjoyable no matter whether you’re actively looking at them from a sociological point of view or not. I played the first game when I was 10 for example. The richness of presentation allows them to transmit their message without bloating it with detail that would bore the average gamer.
That’s part 1 for now. Part 2 will take a look at Bioshock, World of Goo, Fallout and try to offer some thoughts on socially aware games in general!
If anyone’s interested, there’s a couple of very interesting editorials on Good Old Games featuring Lorne Lanning (Oddworld Inhabitants creative director) regarding the Oddworld games here and here. I also wrote an award winning review (!) of Abe’s Oddysee, here (the review by StalinsGhost obviously) if anyone’s interested. It bagged me a free game off Good Old Games, so it shouldn’t be bad.