Letter From The Editor – Some Dragons You Can’t Slay

From blue skies, through gritty realism to arty ponderousness, video games have grown to reflect upon more and more complex emotional landscapes. Titles like Shadow of the Colossus and Journey helped open the medium to play that didn’t have to be stuffed with heart pounding, visceral excitement. Moments of calm, time to stop and look around, not to consider your next move but just to ‘be’ within the environment are now a part of the language of gameplay. Even titles that trade almost exclusively in violence as entertainment now offer up the most exquisite moments of uplifting wonder at the beauty of the world. Susan’s recent words regarding her experience with Red Dead Redemption express the point so beautifully.

Tentative steps are being taken towards covering serious subjects. Can games be more than fun? Does ‘fun’ necessarily equate to a jolly experience? It’s certainly not the case with books, TV or movies. We all love a weepy. There are whole sections of bookstores dedicated to decidedly morbid tales of abuse and tragedy.

The first time I really felt outside of the comfort zone of bouncy, jolly, violent, horror, gory collect ’em all button-based bafoonery was the mall scene in Heavy Rain. As the boy in the green T-shirt with the red balloon disappeared into a sea of people and I couldn’t find him, the sense of cold panic in the pit of my stomach, gave way to a feeling of betrayal. Developer, Quantic Dreams had promised me a game and games were fun. This wasn’t scary, this wasn’t exciting, this was me experiencing the worst of all possible scenarios, something I’d never experienced in real life and hoped I never would. Hmm… that is an entirely suitable experience for a videogame, actually. Once that had happened I waited with baited breath for the next entirely new emotional experience in videogames. I had a few muted moments here and there but it wasn’t until Dear Esther that something really new happened.

You always know when a completely new emotional moment happens in gaming because you bloody hate it, just like with little Jason and his red balloon. When I met the creators of Dear Esther it was instantly clear to me that they had no clue if anyone was going to get or care what they were doing. I’ve never, in my life, met a team of such unassuming game developers. Maybe it was that openness and ingenious attitude that made a game like Dear Esther possible. I spent the first half of the game infuriated, thinking that if I didn’t get to shoot someone in the face in the next five minutes I was going to go mental. I spent the second half absolutely transfixed by the story of a man’s experience with a fatal car crash incident and his sense of loss and guilt. Was it fun? No. But as my indoctrinated homicidal tendencies melted away they were replaced by a genuine fascination with a meandering story, in no rush to tell itself and with nothing to do but wander towards an inevitability.

Just as they have done before, Irrational Games and Ken Levine have brought what is new, and therefore difficult and detestable to a mainstream title. Where before they ushered in an era of moral choice, they now champion serious topics that aren’t fun, that hold no humour or jolliness and present that to an enormously wide audience. They don’t make the rancid racism featured in Bioshock Infinite palatable. How could you? Some things aren’t fun but that does not mean they have no place in video games.

And so to That Dragon, Cancer. An adventure game telling of a couple’s experience raising their son, a 4-year-old currently fighting his third year of terminal cancer, made by the boy’s father. The game is still in the making, you can support it through the website. I haven’t yet played it but I’m willing. I can open myself to that because I am a gamer and gamers want to experience new things in games. I also had cancer as a child of Joel’s age and there was not much hope. I was fortunate to survive. I often wonder what that time must have been like for my parents. I had cancer again aged 19 and that at least allowed me some adult understanding of what the disease is like to live with. Let’s face it though, we’ve all lived with it in some respect or other. It’s an experience that my parents have found difficult to describe but it’s not exempt from discussion nor is it from art nor from the medium of videogames, in fact it’s ripe for it. That Dragon, Cancer is a game about hope and grace. There is room in gaming to experience hope and grace.

Kirsten Kearney







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