As a young man, nothing made me feel more powerful than Deus Ex. I could become invulnerable to bullets, run like the wind, turn invisible, and of course blast enemies to bits. Furthermore I got to decide what to do with the world’s most powerful leaders and who was allowed to live. Later, I heard Deus Ex’s creator criticize games that indulge in adolescent power fantasies. And yet Deus Ex, my favorite game, fit that definition in my mind. Truth be told, I am a pretty privileged guy. I don’t need videogames to make me feel powerful. Thus I began to wonder: what does a videogame that isn’t a power fantasy look like?
My first experience with such a game came with To The Moon; specifically in the story of River.
“This isn’t her story.” Neil keeps telling me. “She’s not the client.” As the other half of my playable team, I have to listen to him. But it doesn’t change the fact I feel robbed. I should be learning more about River and her relationship with her husband, Johnny.
Johnny is the dying client in To The Moon. I control the two characters who are hired to alter Johnny’s memories, Dr. Eva Rosalyn and Dr. Neil Watts. The complexities of being married to River stole Johnny’s ambition to go to the moon. We’re taken through scenario after scenario where Johnny’s life seems squarely focused on River, instead of his dreams and ambitions.
The game never uses the “A word.” The most direct it ever gets is when the doctor recommends that you check out a book by Dr. Tony Attwood. And as you see River’s actions in this 2D RPG, it becomes increasingly obvious why she makes the unusual decisions she does: obsessing over origami rabbits, naming inanimate objects, being abnormally sensitive to seemingly unimportant things.
River’s story fascinates me because the story of people with Asperger’s Syndrome rarely gets told. To my knowledge, this is the first time this has happened in a videogame. River isn’t the only socially marginalized character to have her tale shared with the world in a videogame. This trend is growing.
In The Binding of Isaac, religious abuse takes center stage. Isaac’s mom tries to kill him. She thinks God told her to murder him because he’s full of sin. In turn, Isaac flees into a twisted series of basements to escape. To those who feel victim to religious abuse, The Binding of Isaac triumphs as a work of empowerment.
Isaac isn’t the only videogame to empower abuse victims. Papo & Yo followed a Brazilian boy into his surrealist adventure with his ‘Monster, who couldn’t get enough of the neon frogs that turn him into a violent berzerker. This symbolically confronted the reality of growing up with an abusive alcoholic father. The technological rough edges of the game almost seem intentional, pointing you back to the fundamental flaw of a co-dependent relationship. The game’s creator, Vander Caballero, has been very open about the fact that the game is about his broken relationship with his father.
In a very real sense, Papo & Yo empowers a victim of abuse, the game’s creator, by telling his story.
Earlier this year, the controversy around the Hitman: Absolution trailer reminded us that videogame misogyny is still a big problem. And more recently, the #1 reason why Twitter campaign revealed how often women are trivialized in this industry we love. Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story confronts such issues head-on.
Set thousands of years in the future, men still oppress women. An Artificial intelligence in an abandoned space ship helps you to discover the story of the Pale Bride: the young woman who refused to marry an emperor. As a direct result of her ‘rebellion’, her adoptive parents cut out her tongue to prevent her from speaking out against men. In a sense, the game illustrates what happened to Anita Sarkeesian a few months after the game’s release.
Games like To The Moon, The Binding of Isaac, Papo & Yo, and Analogue are just the tip of the iceberg. The cry for these kinds of games is on the rise but there are some obstacles in the way. I’m one of them. My demographic funds a large amount of the game industry. As a result, videogames are largely designed for straight WASPy males like myself. But there’s a long-term path around this.
It helps that my interests are changing. I’m more interested in stories told by people who are different: atheists, South Americans, lesbians, and yes, even Canadians. It’s said that becoming a good listener is one of the best paths to selflessness. I think my new favorite kind of listening is playing games that empower others.
It is “Messiah Week” at GameChurch, the week that we discuss games and their depictions of saviors and salvation. The games above, however, tell less cosmic and more personal tales of “salvation” but they are tales worth hearing. They do so by giving voice to those whom society has marginalized and as I mature, I am finding myself inclined to listen.