Published On: Sun, Mar 4th, 2012

The Most Interesting & Thought-Provoking Experiences in Video Gaming

I came up with the idea for this piece whilst playing the new title Dear Esther (which features within if you don’t know what it is). Dear Esther’s appeal to me stemmed from my excitement to play something that qualified more as an interactive experience than a classic ‘game’. I wondered to myself, how many titles have managed to evoke strong feelings in me and make me think about the world around me? Gaming gets hard rap for being mindless, ultimately pointless fun, but it can be beautiful when it has a real message underneath. So, without further ado, here is my laundry list:

The Stanley Parable
This is the story of a man named Stanley

The Stanley Parable is fairly simplistic. It doesn’t have fancy graphics, it’s rough around the edges, but it has a powerful message, and it’s all thanks to the narration. Unfortunately if I write too much here it will probably ruin the experience, so I urge you to play it – because it’s free! All you need to know is that there are multiple ways of progressing through the game, and it’s probably the most surprising and interesting experience I had gaming this year. Now let the narrator’s dulcet tones wash over you if you’re not convinced:
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The mod can be downloaded here for free, although it requires a Steam account to play:
http://www.moddb.com/mods/the-stanley-parable

Façade
Did I just ruin your marriage by disagreeing with your taste in painting?

Façade is probably the most unique game on this list, because it allows you to interact with it by typing anything you want. Oh, and it just so happens you’ve just been invited to a dinner party by a couple whose marriage is dying and who are competing for your attention. Fancy trying to defuse the situations it throws at you by being diplomatic? Or would you rather just pour petrol on the fire and watch everything burn?  Watching my digital friend’s face drop as I swore at him, and having him kick me out of the door is one of the most hilariously surprising things that has ever happened to me in a game.  Trying to do justice to the sheer amount of work recording lines, programming responses and doing the facial expressions is extremely difficult, so here’s the trailer:
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And to download the game for free, visit here:
http://www.interactivestory.net/

BioShock
Would you kindly?

A rare example of a big, commercial thinking man’s game; BioShock is beautiful, captivating, paralysingly frightening and probably the most successful game ever at telling you a story simply by showing you your surroundings. The game opens with you on a plane, staring at a family photo and blissfully unaware of…*BANG*…that incoming crash. As you tumble into the sea, the engine pings past your head and a wing nearly shaves your leg clean off. Your body leaps into action, breaking the surface only to see a furnace of burning metal around you, but also…a strange black monolith protruding from the sea. As menacing as it looks, it’s clearly your own escape route, so you haul yourself over to its entrance. Its black doors swing open to reveal  an almost perfectly preserved underwater 1950’s paradise gone wrong. This underwater city ‘Rapture’ is a disaster tale of pure capitalism untainted by law, as science and crime go trampling over basic human rights; now a place of madness, it’s your mission to make sense of what’s really going on.

See the spine-tinglingly amazing opening that I tried to just describe to you (HD full-screening recommended :P) :
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Available to buy on Steam (a free demo is also available) :
http://store.steampowered.com/app/7670/?snr=1_7_suggest__13

To The Moon
Johnny’s last wish is, of course… to go to the moon.

This is a game where the whole framework of graphics, engine and gameplay mechanics is really just a vessel for the storytelling. In fact, calling it a game isn’t really fair. This is about as close to an interactive story you’ll get, since everyone’s experience with the game will be largely the same. But boy is it one hell of a story. In ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ style, you find yourself looking through and altering a dying man’s memories in order to fulfil his last wish – to go to the moon. Exploring his complex past will reveal his motives, passions and trials throughout his life, and eventually probably bring you to ultra-manly teariness.  Seriously, this game deserves an award just for being the only game to ever make me cry. Thankfully, the banter between the two main characters prevents it from becoming too heavy, and provides the game with a nice sense of humour. And to top it all off, there is a beautiful soundtrack that will masterfully evoke the right emotional responses in you just when it wants.

Trailer:
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Site where you can buy the game or play the demo:
http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/#description

Radiator
Life is weird, isn’t it?

Radiator is a very off-the-wall experience. Referred to as a ‘Semi-episodic experimental single player mod’ by the creator, it’s not an easily explained concept. Basically in the mod so far, there are two ‘scenes’ or ‘episodes’ that are entirely independent of each other. They tend towards being highly poetic and metaphorical, and use their 20 minute play time to use game mechanics to help convey the simple experience. The first episode will have you staring at stars on a romantic date, and the second will have you in marriage counselling for a homosexual couple. It’s very introspective, and requires the person playing it to want to get something out of the experience by observing all the little details. Radiator is probably the deepest game I have ever played, and it speaks volumes if you’re willing to listen.

A playthrough of the first episode is below, but I obviously recommend you play it instead if you can:
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Mod page:
http://www.moddb.com/mods/radiator

Dear Esther
We cleave, we are flight and suspended, these wretched painkillers, this form inconstant. I will take flight.

Sounds heavy doesn’t it? That’s because this game is about life, death, poetry, beauty and illness. It’s also decidedly the most pretentious of all these experiences, since there are no game mechanics other than walking, observing and listening. Occasionally randomly generated narration will occur, and the narrator’s soothing tones will help you understand more and more about this mysterious island you are on. The writing often qualifies as poetry, and poetry that almost everyone should be able to appreciate. The graphics do a simply stellar job of inflicting you with dread and melancholy, and sometimes even wonder (particularly during the underground caves); and the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever heard for exactly the same reasons. There are no two ways about it, Dear Esther is surely the best example of video games as an art form so far; so if you want to see why games should be starting to get a more serious reputation, dang well play this.

Trailer:
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Game on Steam:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/203810/

Dear Esther Soundtrack on Spotify:
Jessica Curry – Dear Esther (Original Soundtrack)

Braid
Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.
This happened because Tim made a mistake.

Braid is a deconstruction of traditional games; mocking Mario especially so with its faux-goombas, castles and Princess. Its creator, Tim Blow, is passionate about revolutionising the game industry and shaking things up. Braid is a big start in this direction with its ambiguous story-telling, and strangely, the removal of death as a punishment in a platformer. Braid is foremost a puzzle game, as it is your task to collect all the puzzle pieces so you can form the picture for each level; what makes it most interesting is that you can rewind and fast-forward time at will. Suddenly death is simply an obstacle to reverse out of like a dead-end in a maze. In the first level things seem simple, but in each of the six levels, more and more time-travelling quirks are revealed. One level will have objects immune to your time powers, and another will have walking left or right control how time progresses. These mechanics are usually a metaphor for the story being told, and can be read into. When you eventually reach the end (no mean feat) you are met with one of the weirdest endings out, a tale of how perspective changes everything.

Trailer:

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Game on Steam (a free demo is also available) :
http://store.steampowered.com/app/26800/

 

And now we reach the end of our journey. For sure there are more examples out there that I will have missed, and I will continue to explore the thoughtful side of gaming so I can find these. But for now I hope I have proven that games are an amazing platform for evocative and thoughtful experiences, and in many eyes, art. Here’s hoping that the future holds even more of these.

About the Author

- A Mechanical Engineering student hoping to fill the creative writing gap a scientific degree leaves behind. And hopefully people will actually enjoy listening to these opinions!

  • polian

    Great article I too have had great experiences with these kinds of games. One small mistake you made is the creator of Braid is John Blow, not Tim. Anyway, I hope more of these types of games will be made because the big AAA games that are most popular these days just don’t really appeal to me much anymore. If you are interested in other articles that explore this side of gaming feel free to check out my site and let me know what you think! http://www.polian-studios.com