As gaming becomes embraced by a greater mainstream audience, developers are branching out in an effort to break free from the standard trappings of the industry. They want to show that games aren’t just about indulging in escapist fantasies, but that they can address serious issues in an adult manner, issues that significantly affect many people. Mostly this is expressed as a small segment of a title, like a character’s traumatic backstory or a pressing social issue in a strategy game or RPG. In other instances the message will be conveyed through metaphor and symbolism through a fantastic setting, similar to the works of Jack Vance and Robert A. Heinlein. Beneath Catherine‘s mind-bending, nightmarish puzzles was a depiction of one man’s relationship issues and problems with commitment. Papo & Yo‘s bond between an innocent child and a monster prone to violent outbursts showed the pain of life with a family member addicted to alcohol or drugs. Recently several independent developers have earned praise for more down-to-earth titles that bring the gravity of the subjects being discussed to the forefront. Cart Life looked at the daily struggles of low-income individuals trying to run their small businesses successfully while dealing with many external stressors that threatened their happiness and livelihoods. The Shivah is a character study about a rabbi having a severe crisis of faith. Dys4ia used a series of short, simple mini-games to represent the daily frustrations of a transgender woman. I recently played three independent titles that worked to further push this aspect of the medium, to show that games don’t necessarily have to be about mindless fun, that they can raise thought-provoking discussions about the truth and tribulations of the human experience.

Depression Quest (developed by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler, published by Hugs-Boson): I’m honestly having a difficult time thinking about how to properly describe this game, but I’ll give it my best effort. Depression Quest is a text-based interactive story where you control a character suffering from depression and trying to cope with the problems it’s causing in your life. This isn’t merely a clinical analysis of the disease, though. Nothing is sugar coated or glossed over; it presents a blunt look at how seriously depression can interfere with your life. As I played through I was struck by how many of the scenarios I’d encountered, having dealth with anxiety and depression for more than a decade: avoiding social interactions, listlessness that hinders you from doing even simple things, losing interest in things you once enjoyed, the fear you’re a burden on or disappointment to others, lying and offering evasive answers whenever you’re asked what’s wrong because you don’t think anyone else will understand, just wanting to hide away from the world. It really made me look back on all the times I’d let my mental problems hinder me or strain a relationship and wonder why I couldn’t have done something different. It plays similar to a choose-your-own-adventure by presenting scenarios where you have to pick one of several options about what you want to do. The possible responses vary in mood; some reflect a positive outgoing attitude, some more reserved, some demonstrating extreme melancholy and antisocial behavior. However, as your depression becomes worse, some of the more positive options are eliminated and you’re left with the morose outcomes, which if not rectified later on, will just lead to a more severe depression, a negative cycle many afflicted find themselves in.

The game also presents you with possible treatment options such as seeing a therapist, taking medication, or both if you think one alone won’t be enough. What really struck me was that as I played, I knew what the best decisions were to improve my character’s mental state, but when I personally faced those situations in the past, and even today, I let my fear and troubled emotions prevent me from doing what was rational or act out of panic without thinking, usually making things worse in the process. Even now that I’m aware of this, I can’t be certain it won’t happen again. While Depression Quest is free to play in-browser, it does offer a link to make donations to the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression, and I would encourage making a contribution. This is one of the best examples of games doing good, talking about a problem that carries a strong stigma and telling those afflicted with it that they’re not alone, that there are ways they can get help, even though it won’t necessarily be easy. Isaac Schankler’s somber, morose piano playing throughout the game provides a more tangible sense of desolation. For some people this game may hit too close to home, as it did for me, but getting through it can be an eye-opening experience. Ms. Quinn, Mr. Lindsey and Mr. Schankler, thank you.

Gone Home (developed and published by The Fullbright Company): When you’ve been away from home for a while, and upon returning you learn that things have drastically changed, how would you react? Kate Greenbriar experiences that when she comes back after a trip in Europe, arriving late only to find the house empty. As she reorients herself, she finds letters, documents, and journal entries from her sister Samantha which reveal that her family has gone through great turmoil she was unaware of. Gone Home is an ambitious, unconventional minimalist project that achieves a rare feat; it makes you care about characters that you never directly interact with or meet. Every new paper you find provides new insight into the domestic struggles the Greenbriars have been dealing with, from Elizabeth’s father Terry struggling to come up with a new idea for a novel while he feels he wastes his efforts writing consumer reviews, to her mother Kaitlin showing concern that her marriage is crumbling and her efforts to rekindle the spark she once felt, even, as it’s implied, considering an affair.

The central focus is on Samantha and the personal issues she’s been dealing with. Without spoiling too much, Sam isn’t simply going through a “rebellious teenager” phase, she’s also coming to terms with a sense of alienation and questioning her sexuality. These concerns are revealed through the journal entries you uncover where she expresses her conflicted emotions, her fears, her desires that she doubts will ever be realized. Her growth is also chronicled through writing and artwork she’s done over the years, showing how she went from an optimistic, cheerful child to a somber, depressed pre-teen to a young adult who can freely express herself, standing up to those who try to put her down but still unable to reconcile her true feelings. There are several moments where you fear that Sam may have done something drastic out of desperation, like when you hear a message on the answering machine from a woman crying while asking for Sam, finding a note that says Kate can use her room instead of the guest room because she won’t need it anymore, and discovering red stains in the bathtub, which thankfully are revealed to be from hair dye. As more information is revealed near the end, you’re left with a feeling of ambiguity; it seems as though every member of Kate’s family may get a happy ending, but there’s still some uncertainty that their problems may return, or even become worse, just like with most real families. I never thought a game that seriously violates the “show, don’t tell” rule would be able to create such a strong emotional response, but The Fullbright Company proved me wrong.

That’s not to say Gone Home is a perfect game. It misses a great opportunity by simply making Sam an unseen character. The impact of the narrative would have been much stronger if you had played as her, personally experiencing the issues she’s facing, and possibly having an opportunity to influence her outcomes. Though perhaps that last part would have gone against one of its underlying themes, that there are times we have no control over the paths our lives will take. There are also a few segments that seem out of place given the exploratory nature of the game. Occasionally you need to find a code or a key to access a new area, which, while they fit into the narrative to show how family members are desperate to keep anyone else from discovering their personal secrets, come off like they were only added to have some traditional gameplay elements. I honestly would have preferred if it just focused solely on travelling through the house and finding information without any extraneous hunting for combinations, because as you’ll see if you play it, the Greenbriar house surprisingly has a large number of rooms to explore. A nice touch of realism occurs where if you’re standing to close to a door or drawer when trying to open it, you’ll block it and need to move away so it fully opens. There isn’t much to say about the visual style, as it’s fairly simplistic to match the feeling of an average house, though a few areas have extra attention to detail like patterns in the furniture. The soundtrack is very ambient; most of the time the only present sound is the constant rain and thunder from the storm outside. A touching guitar piece plays whenever you find a journal entry from Sam, voiced by Sarah Grayson, who does an excellent job conveying her anxiety, sorrow, and joy without any of it feeling forced. The lack of conventional gameplay and repeatedly backtracking through an empty house may put off some people, but I highly recommend Gone Home for providing an experience few other games, even few other movies or television shows, can replicate.

The Novelist: (developed by Kent Hudson, published by Orthogonal Games): “Can you achieve your dreams without pushing away the people you love?” Veteran designer Kent Hudson asks this question in his first independent title focusing on frustrated novelist Dan Kaplan. Dan, his wife Linda and their young son Tommy have rented a beachside home along the Oregon coast for the summer so he can work on his new book, and also hopefully fix several problems he’s been having with his family. The Kaplans, though, are unaware that they’re not alone in the house. A mysterious entity resides there with them, watching their daily routines, listening to their problems, and subliminally offering Dan advice on what he can do to stay on track with his book as well as show his devotion as a husband and father. But even with supernatural guidance, trying to balance work and family effectively will prove challenging.

The Novelist already sets itself apart by taking a fairly overused plot, a writer having personal and professional problems temporarily moving to another house only to find it’s haunted, and subverts it by making the entity benevolent rather than malicious. However, the central focus is not on the actions of the spirit, but instead on the dynamics of the Kaplan family. Dan is clearly desperate to get a new book written so that he can continue to pursue his desire of being a successful author, but is plagued by writer’s block, thoughts that he should give up and find a stable steady job rather than face failure, and the fear that he’s alienating his family. Linda has even greater concerns about the stability of their marriage, hoping that the time in the summer house will give them a chance to rekindle their romance, or if it’s just delaying the inevitable. We don’t learn much about Tommy’s problems directly from him, mostly gathering information about him missing his friends, worrying about his father, and struggling with a learning disability through conversations with his parents, letters and his drawings. The issues each of the Kaplans face are primarily uncovered by reading personal letters, journal entries, or looking into their memories. Their interactions are pleasant, but it becomes apparent that many times they’re putting on an act, only voicing their concerns when they’re alone. Performances by David Pinion and Kelilyn McKeever truly sell the conflicts Dan and Linda face with their emotional delivery, subdued instead of overly exaggerated, reserving extreme joy or distress only for the appropriate occasions. I found the spirit the player controls to also have some interesting qualities despite it never speaking or even appearing. There’s a great mystery surrounding it; we never know what it is or why it’s trying to help the Kaplans. It may be the soul of one of the house’s former residents, a domovoi, or possibly the writer of Dan’s life.

The game is divided into chapters where you learn about the current issues facing the Kaplans, learn about each of their individual wants, and recommend to Dan what you think the best choice is. However, you can only help two family members in each chapter, and one of them must be a compromise which doesn’t fully realize their goal. Whoever’s left out will end up disappointed and possibly depressed. The central problem, then, is determining whose priorities are more important. In some situations the choice is obvious, like when Linda’s grandmother dies Dan should accompany her to the funeral for support, but then who should get the compromise; letting Dan attend a bookstore meeting to promote his new work, or taking Tommy to a theme park? Other times there are no easy answers such as figuring out how they should spend their evenings: Dan working alone in his study, having dinner with the family each night, or helping Tommy with his reading exercises. There’s no way to make everyone happy, reflecting the issues most families have in similar situations. Linda even asks near the end why everything can’t be simple just for once, and I was sympathizing with her predicament. Peering into their memories to find more information about their current want will provide some recollection of the choices you made and how it affected them. Though the results of your actions are only expressed through writing and still images, the dialogue and body language truly make you empathize with them. I genuinely felt bad every time I had to let one of them down.

Since The Novelist is heavily narrative driven, the gameplay is rather simple and limited in your actions. Much like a graphic adventure game, your central focus as the spirit is to find the necessary objects that will progress the plot. The ability to read thoughts and enter memories does offer an interesting new dynamic, though there is a bit of a problem in using this ability in how close you have to be to activate it. It’s very finicky in determining what position is appropriate, and there were several times that I tried to look into their thoughts to see what they wanted only to find that I’d accidentally moved too close and went into their memories instead. If you want a more traditional gaming experience, there’s a stealth mode option where you have to avoid being seen by the Kaplans in order to properly help them. This is done by hiding in light fixtures, which you can jump between to reach areas quickly without being spotted. I was confused about why, despite being a ghost of some kind, you can’t pass through closed doors, so when Dan shut the doors to his office I had to wait for a few minutes until they opened again so I could finish investigating for that chapter. There isn’t really much to say about the graphics; the simple cel-shaded style gives the house a vibrant pop, but being restricted to one location means the visuals become repetitive very quickly, and character models are incredibly blocky. The haunting piano scores (no pun intended) add considerable depth to the atmosphere, perfectly complimenting the internal turmoil the Kaplans feel. The Novelist isn’t a conventional game, but it’s a stellar look at what games can do when effort is put into them, when developers look outside the standard genres in order to address truly mature, thought-provoking concepts. It’s flawed, but brilliant.

The Novelist was without a doubt my favorite entry of these three. However, I still suggest each of these games should be played to see just how much further the medium can evolve, to show how games can engage on a higher emotional and intellectual experience.

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