Society Needs Scary Computer Games

From The Atlantic:

Computer games, like movies, music, and television, are part of our culture and often reflect our fears and worries—especially about the end of the world. And I’ve been playing them for years.

Nuclear War and Zombies

Computer games get a bad rap among those who do not play them. People associate them, at worst, with adolescent violence (despite lack of conclusive evidence for that theory) or, more benignly, with creepy nerds in Mom’s basement, yelling into their headsets and jabbing at keyboards while wiping Cheetos dust off their glasses.

Well, I am a happily married 62-year-old professional, and I play computer games. In fact, I have been playing them since the dawn of the personal-computing age. Yes, games are part of the escape from reality that my colleague Megan Garber wrote about in her cover story for the March issue of the magazine, but they’re also a perfectly reasonable hobby.

Still, you might ask why a grown man with a busy life—or, you know, any life—would waste precious hours in front of a screen. At the risk of handing a rationalization to students who have not finished their homework, I will say that I not only enjoy the process of playing but also find that games enhance my productivity rather than destroy it. I play computer games for the same reason I play golf: The engrossing requirement to complete a set of objectives clears my mind. When I return from the golf course or close the game program, my brain has been shaken and cleared like an old Etch A Sketch, and I’m ready to work again.

Even pointless games can be relaxing (especially if they’re visually pretty), such as the “loot and shoot” adventures in which you kill something and take its money or possessions, over and over again. And sometimes, you just want to roll your army over some hapless Roman commander or drag space bandits through an asteroid field. But my favorites are the games that have intricate plots, because many of them are cultural markers that reveal what fascinates us—and more important, what scares us.

Back in the 1980s, for example, Americans wrestled with fears about World War III. So did games. I have spent my entire career studying war and nuclear weapons, and for me, roaming around in a destroyed world is much like going to horror or disaster movies, or reading fairy tales (which are really scary if you think about most of them): It’s a way of processing fear.

Consider Trinity, a 1986 text-based game. (Early computers had no serious graphics capability, so these games instead required you to read quite a bit and then issue commands and solve puzzles.) In Trinity, nuclear war breaks out at the beginning of the game; the player escapes through a portal and must tumble backwards through time all the way to the Trinity nuclear test site in 1945 in order to sabotage the first atomic bomb, thus preventing the nuclear-arms race and the eventual war.

Thematically, this was not exactly a game for children. Nor were the many games that followed it, including the 1988 classic Wasteland, in which the player must lead a team of Desert Rangers through the ruins of the Southwest to discover the source of a new threat that could finish the job of annihilating humanity. These games followed a spate of Cold War movies and music shot through with nuclear anxieties, such as WarGamesRed DawnThe Day After, and Testament; you could play Trinity or Wasteland while listening to “99 Luftballons,” by Nena, or “It’s a Mistake,” by Men at Work, and spend a cozy afternoon traipsing through Armageddon. (Nuclear war is back: One game studio just released a highly detailed nuclear-conflict simulator, but I haven’t played it. Yet.)

As the nuclear threat receded and threats to our health, such as AIDS, began to dominate our fears, pop culture—including games—spoke to those fears. Biohazards became a dominant theme in gaming, with mad scientists and big corporations mucking about with our DNA, weird pathogens, doors to alternate dimensions, or even the gates to hell itself, all in the name of profit, while unleashing freaks and mutants on the rest of us.

The granddaddy of the biohazard-genre games, Resident Evil, was released in 1996 and led to several more games and movies; the first motion picture in the franchise debuted in 2002 and was followed by five more sequels and then a 2021 reboot. Last month, HBO premiered a new series, The Last of Us, based on a highly regarded game of the same name. It is set in a world where a fungus has turned most people into crazed zombies, and so far, like the game, it’s a hit.

. . . .

It is natural to be fascinated by the ramifications of global catastrophe, but the best games present the player with difficult moral choices and awful, sometimes unavoidable dilemmas. 

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to F. for the tip.

11 thoughts on “Society Needs Scary Computer Games”

  1. One gaming franchise not mentioned in the OP is FALLOUT…

    …which has been very successful by its alternate universe setting based on 1950’s futurism and SF movies blended with a large dose of black humor.

    Amazon has been filming a video series based on the series. The release date hasn’t been announced but it is expected late this year, early next.

    The same creators had an earlier more “realistic” series called WASTELAND which is still ongoing. Both games are now part of Microsoft’s GAME PASS catalog so WASTELAND may come to video at some point, like FALLOUT, HALO, and GEARS OF WAR.

    Newer story-driven video games have proven to be successful when properly adapted so the trend is likely to continue. In fact, NETFLIX is not only doing GEARs but also the brilliant BioShock. That should be seriously scary.

    • Are you … optimistic about Netflix adaptations of these games? They’ve so far screwed up “reboots” of classic 80s cartoons, and beloved anime franchises.

      As far as the OP goes, I will never get why people think video games are such an odd pastime. What is supposed to be superior about watching grown men play children’s games (sports) or “real housewives” sniping at each other (I think that’s the one that has the meme of a crying woman pointing at a cat for some reason). The only difference is that fans are alleged to watch these shows in their living rooms rather than basements.

      Point is, humans weren’t meant to be all work and no play (hence the Sabbath, one supposes). And to the OP’s point about the times spawning different types of video games, I am now pondering what sort of games we’re going to get on the horizon. Dirty Harry (thanks Soros prosecutors) mixed in with Twelve Monkeys / Outbreak will be my bet. And for careless scientists reaping extraordinary consequences, a “Half-Life” adaptation might serve just as well.

      • For the Netflix adaptaions:
        1- They can’t pssibly be worse than APPLE’S Foundation. (They just canned the heads of APPLE TV. So somebody noticed their approach doesn’t work.)

        2- MS IP licenses come with strings and creator input. The manga/anime adaptations didn’t. Netflix does honor those clauses.

        3- It comes down to who is doing the adaptation: some producers respect the source, some don’t. Netflix did right by Castlevania and DRAGON AGE. Less so by COWBOY BEBOP despite their claimed attempt to be faithful. Much like Disney is discovering, cheaping out on the writers never ends well. Not at Lucasfilm, not at Marvel, not at Pixar. Writing for mass media isn’t trivial.

        In the end it comes down to the IP owner being careful who and how they deal with the video rights. A lesson for everybody, not just game developers.

        • Don’t settle on Apple’s Foundation as a standard. The show-runner said the full story would be spread over 89 episodes. There is potential for much worse.

          • I don’t doubt it.
            Making a throwaway spear carrier the Mary Sue central protagonist of a generational saga indicates a total lack of understanding of the material. It also opens the door to hundreds of worse moves.

        • I didn’t know about MS having strings attached. Smart of them. I’m going to bet that anime/manga creators are going to do that going forward. As I understand it, in Japan they see the anime as advertising for the manga. An idea Marvel should have paid attention to. When the MCU was hot, instead of offering up continuing adventures of Thor or Tony Stark in comic book form, they just turned them into women or teenage girls. It made no sense, and it disconnected the comics from the movies for the audience. And it shows.

          If the studio execs come to finally value great writers, that will be a boon. You can only lose so much money, and damage so many brands.

          • The reason HALO took so long to bring to video is the studio money types weren’t interested in doing it right once they saw the cost. Without MS strings we would’ve gotten another STARSHIP TROOPERS mess.

            As to Marvel the studio is going down the same path as the comics; taking to video the exact same ideas that failed in the comics. And finding that even with the self-styled zombies showing up, the movies are underperforming. For bad writing.

            For Marvel, the formula has always been to find B-list talent and sign them cheap long term and hope they grow big. Early on it worked. Lately, not so much. The B-listers are performing like B-listers.

            Meanwhile, on the writing side the B-list approach is yielding muddy C-list product that ranges from watchable down to cringe.

            The hollywood media still thinks one-note Feige is a genius but that patina is wearing off. The one thing all their recent theatrical releases (and most of their streaming shows) lack is focus. They throw so much and focus on the green screen lightshow so much the point of the story is lost.

            The one thing that gives me hope about DC is that James Gunn (who is primarily a writer–that’s where he started) emphasized up front that the story will be key under his regime. No finished script, no filming. And he backed it up by listing the stories his movies will be inspired by. And they are good stories, too. (Fingers and assorted limbs crossed.)

            Of course, the Snyder era was also story driven but the money men got in the way with their dream of Disney billions, forgetting that the Snyder movies all made money. And made sense, to boot.

            The money guys may yet blow it.

      • As to gaming, a big part of the problem is, as usual, the media.
        They’re still stuck with the idea that gaming is 70’s vintage arcade games. They don’t understand that most modern franchises are built on *story* and immersion, and are often interactive novels at heart, be they rpgs like MASS EFFECT or shooters like HALO, or GEARS. Look at pretty much every successful game of this century and you’ll find they’re rooted in story.

        The media types’ brains will explode if faced with A PLAGUE TALE or REQUIEM or THE LONG DARK or PENTIMENT. Even the cookie cutter SONY action games are built on story. Some, like THE LAST OF US are pretty good stories as HBO is proving.

        Writing is critical to modern games, as Sony’s FORSPOKEN just proved again. A bog standard SONY game it is getting ripped over the bad writing and awful dialog.

        These days Story is important even in sandbox “have it your way” games. IGN recently did a video on how the initially maligned FALLOUT 76 has carved out a large unexpected player base of tens of millions by providing an environment where people can playout their own stories, even stories the developers never envisioned.

        As you point out, gaming has always been intrinsic to the human condition (in fact, even chimps game). Video games are merely the latest evolution of something that is going to continue indefinitely as an active extension of the storytelling in books and movies, no less important. And these days, way more profitable. 😀

        • For me story was always important. I forgave bugs, but only if the story was good. The more re-playable, the better. Too bad for Sony they couldn’t figure that out before annoying their customers.

          Back in the day BioWare / Obsidian offered toolsets and let customers make their own mods and DLCs. Some of them were even sponsored for sale. Fun times, and a stroll through the Neverwinter Nights hall of fame vault shows me I missed a few, e.g., Pools of Radiance Remastered. Fan mods are my favorite kind of fan fiction. Smart gaming companies grew their fan base by letting players engage with the story.

          With all the talk about AI art, it occurs to me that the kind of mods for clothes, setting, characters that video game fans create could be turned adapted for book covers and concept art. Would authors like a Dragon Age-style Character Creator + wardrobe and setting creator? Probably. Especially if characters can be moved around and posed realistically. Barring copyright issues, of course — I once used a mod to make the Dragon Age Origins characters wear outfits similar to what Kahlan, Cara and Denna wore in “Legend of the Seeker.”

          I want there to be great adaptations of games, but certain companies are going to have to work hard to earn trust.

          • Mods are a great way to let people make games their own.
            Bethesda not only lets PC players mod the game, they also allow XBOX players to access free mods for Skyrim and Fallout 4. (Sony denied them.) I gave it a try–nothing special–and it worked fine for me. Some mods are just inspired.

            What I’m looking forward to is ML-Driven NPCs you can actually converse with, not just overhear them talking to each other. Maybe FABLE or AVOWED.

            As to “AI” graphics use for covers, that’s one unavoidable use. Another, more useful one for Indies, will be line art chapter headings. Simple and easy to do.

Comments are closed.