Thursday, February 11, 2010

Games with Emotion

Videogames have a specific lens that we see through. As players, we usually think of games as entertainment, a kind of interactive play, but what happens when a game stops being fun? The games on this list will make you feel bad, they will question your thoughts on death, life and the world and they might even dredge up old feelings or nostalgia for days long past. These are masterpieces in their own right, and rarely have I felt worse and consequently more human after having played them. Almost all of the ten games are available online for free. Try them out and see what you make of them. You might not have fun, but they’ll make you feel differently about videogames and the emotional impact they can have.


Jason Rohrer’s Passage takes five minutes to finish, but it will stay with you forever. This game was a significant step forward in changing my perspective on videogames. I had been emotionally distanced from games before and this was the first time one had hit directly at home with my emotions. Love is powerful. And Passage is able to express this in a clear and distinct way.

As you walk, a number on the screen slowly rises. If you are alone your score goes up by one. If you are together it goes up by two. The numbers express something profound about the game’s mechanics. Certain passages are only traversable alone. If you are together, you then have to walk around the roadblock and try to continue on. It’s like a roadblock during a relationship. As well, the 2D horizon is blurred. Time has a funny way of making us think about life, whether in the future or past tense. As you play, the horizon makes you believe you might be able to see into the future. The origin becomes more and more blurred as you age.

My brother suggested that I play Passage. After, I sat at my desk asking him over and over, “Why did you make me play that?” There is a profoundly sad moment in Passage. I won’t ruin it for those who have yet to experience it. It is one of those things about the game that has stuck with me and has consequently made me stay away from it. Not in the way that I don’t want to experience the emotions again, but that if I do a repeat might lessen its impact. Play through the game once and think about it for a while.


Age is something that we’re all going to face and living in a retirement home, especially in the West, seems inevitable. With high living costs and an aging population, homes are being built everywhere. Residents aren’t neglected. They’re cared for and generally made to be comfortable during their stay. But my grandfather said, “Don’t you ever spend your retirement in a place like this.” And I’ve taken that to heart, and that’s why this game hurts so much.

There are a few moments in the game that resonated almost too deeply with me. The game is designed around needs. You need food to live, you need to use the washroom, you need to sleep and you need to talk. Interaction is probably the most important of the group. It’s one of those things that keep us human. When Charles speaks to Moira for the first time, he comments on the sound of the rustling trees and on how quiet the retirement home is. At first, she corrects Charles when he mistakes her name. The third time you speak with her, she doesn’t correct you. She acts like she’s given up on helping him to remember, and memory is something extremely human.

Charles asks about Moira’s dog. She says that he’s always asking about him, it makes me wonder if he always asks about his daughter too. And when his daughter comes to see him, he doesn’t remember how long he has been inside of the home. I don’t know what’s worse, the sense that Charles is losing time or having him suffer the indignity of wearing diapers. It’s a game to play but with some caution. It stirs one of our deepest fears out into the open.

And everything started to fall

Time moves fast.

We’ve all felt hurried through life. Whether it’s from work, school or just plain growing up, there’s an expectation in life that everyone has to grow up into an adult. I never want to grow up, who does? And playing this game made feel like my time was running out.

We are all sped along so fast in our society. Our childhoods are short and punctuated by our experiences in school, our teenage years are all based on choice and how we relate to others and our adult life is filled with the death of our loved ones and the slow degradation of our bodies. This game makes you think. How many hours have I wasted doing little insignificant things? In the end, nothing really matters because we’re all headed for the same end. And it doesn’t help with the subways here in Toronto, everyday we pass a cemetery, our daily reminder.

There’s a synopsis of the game’s intended purpose and message. The explanation is extensive and it reveals a lot about what the game tries to do. There are a few things it doesn’t mention. One, which I believe to be an important symbol, is the tree right at the end. It looks like it is reaching up towards the sky. Even though the person’s time has ceased, he still wants to continue on. The choices you make on Earth really determine what you think the afterlife will be like. Either way, he grows up and dies. Kind of depressing, isn’t it?

Everyday the same dream

Monotony is the working world. This game actually complements the one above, so play them both and it makes for a good comparison.

“Five more steps and you will be a new person,” if only it was that easy. Have you ever taken a minute just to reflect on life? When we’re all so busy running around trying to make sense of our existence, it is the little things that remind us why we exist. This is what Everyday the same dream wants to show us. I’m not going to say much about this game, except that I know the feeling it is trying to evoke. That day after day grind that is life should always be highlighted by even just a second of clarity. Reading a book, talking to someone special, eating chilli made just right, you’re supposed to feel that one second of pure sense, of awareness of the world around you. It’s hard to find that in this world. You just have to find someone or something to confide your emotions into.

The game is a commentary on how desensitized we are in the world. It comes from work, it comes from stress, it comes from just plain old living, but we always have to find that one little release. Fortunately, mine is writing and now you’re helping out in my secret dream away from school, essays and stuff like that. The ending of the game packs quite a punch. It made me stop and just stare. The implications are heavy. There’s always a balance that has to be found in work and in play. And that’s no way to find a release.


Gravitation puts you into the shoes of a dad. What we experienced as kids really helps determine how we feel about this game. Kids want attention, they need role models to show them right from wrong and you need love. You also have to look at this game from another perspective. Being an adult is hard.

When I first played, I tried to strike a balance between work and play. In the real world, you have to work in order to have money, and you need money to make sure your family doesn’t starve. In Gravitation if you play through the mindset of a videogamer you will alienate your daughter. Soon the ice becomes too thick to melt and she disappears. While we were out collecting all those stars, she lost not only her father but her childhood. Seeing that little red ball lying there, I can’t really describe it. It’s a part of life, but you wish it wasn’t.

You can stay and play with her forever, and that’s exactly what I did when I came back to Gravitation. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s technically an option in game, but it’s not something feasible in real life. Everyone has to work and they run the risk of alienating those they care about. The difference is that in this game you are given choice. There’s no consequence to just playing and watching her heart grow and grow.

But that’s not life.

When God came to the Cave

Packing for a trip is always a solemn occasion. You’re going away from home and comfort to live somewhere else. Your family and friends will all be left behind. You feel sad because you’re going away, but excited knowing that you’re about to experience something different, something great. When God came to the Cave prepares you for another kind of journey and it explores how we reconcile with it.

You collect parts to construct the form of a man. I won’t give away the ending, but it might leave a few people puzzled. Your person can be deconstructed into several parts: your body, your mind, your soul and your memories. You have family, relationships, emotions, friends and thought; these are parts that make a person whole. By constructing the figure you are preparing him to move on out of the cave and onto the afterlife. The little sprite that you play as could be the last bit of consciousness he has or his soul looking for a body to live within. I just find it sad that you have to be prepared by what seems like a fatherly figure throughout the game. There’s a sense of loss as though someone has died or is dying and being prepared to move on.

You can look at this game in two ways. The journey you take prepares this person for the afterlife or the journey has helped give you a sense of identity of who you are. This is just a reading and if anyone else has another feel free to comment. Cactus’s games are always fun to deconstruct and they always need a lot of analysis.


I never had fish back when I was a kid. They die too quickly, and I guess I have to thank my parents for that. I’m not sure how I dealt with death back when I was a kid. I was one of those odd ones who never saw Bambi and never realized that I mortal until about age eight. Though, I’ve always had videogames and watched characters die over and over again just to rise up and keep on trying. In hindsight, it seems a little cruel to present mortality in that way. Death in videogames is always presented as a kind of surpass able obstacle, it’s something that we can always overcome. Fathom shows us what death is in the real world.

In the game you play as a character with a helmet, a shotgun and a vest. He’s rather endearing for the little time that we spend with him. He reminds us of the character figures that we played as kids. Unfortunately for him, the final boss is just too hard. He falls down and ends up underwater.

Falling into the water is symbolic of his loss of self. As he goes deeper into the water, it becomes darker and he needs to use the flashlight to see. As he collects fish, his point score increases, showing that he is still on the mission. Play the game, I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone.

Seven Minutes

Nihilistic is one way to describe Seven Minutes, insane is another. We’ve all felt like things aren’t going well or that times are too hard. Work is difficult, relationships are tough, time is counting down, but how often are we pressured into fixing any of these problem?

It’s interesting that when you touch the flame, the head tells you that your exploration will lead to your death. We don’t chose to be born and we don’t chose to be mortal, and his voice is the symbolic representation of our mortality.

Seven Minutes gives you seven minutes to make your way through a complex maze of platforming. It’s nihilistic in the sense that almost every misstep that you take leads you closer to your death It’s a game that has to be played a few times to be fully understood. And then you’ll look at life like it’s just a big videogame with only one outcome.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is one of those games that’s impossible to talk about. It’s written in such a way that its content is far more profound than almost any other narrative available in the medium. It can be best described as a post-modern work that uses the medium to deliver more of a narrative than a videogame experience. And you really can’t define Dear Esther as a kind of play.

Unless you have Steam and a copy of Half-Life 2 you might be able to download this game, but check this out: The link goes to a downloadable version of the game’s script. It’s worth taking a look at.

The game is an article in and of itself. You can look forward to something about it in the near future.


Where is mystifyingly beautiful.

You might be in awe for the first few minutes of the game, but you’ll soon find yourself obscured in the game’s purpose. Most games centre on the idea of the goal. You might think that the balloon is your intended goal or target, you might be right or you could be wrong.

When I first played Where, I began to question if I was really playing. The game’s changing aesthetic gives you the ability to cycle through four unique settings. Each one evokes a different kind of feeling. One is white and sparse. It feels open and yet closed off as the walls surround you. Two is blue and cold. It reminds me of those days when the snow just drifts down from the sky. I ever started to feel cold when listening to the music. Three is red and warm. It looks, sounds, and feels like a romantic place. Its atmosphere is calm and just lovely. Four is black and open. You can see the stars. Living in the city, I miss them and it gives a good feeling of nostalgia. Each setting has a similar emotion attached to them, longing.

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