It’s tricky, the way we tell our video game stories. We say: I routed the Covenant, or I defeated Sephiroth, or I beat Mother Brain. We talk about Master Chief or Cloud or Samus, too, but not as the ones who actually performed these feats. With other media, we don’t claim as much credit. We never say: I blew the Alien Queen out of the airlock, or I married Mr. Darcy, or I am the one who knocks.
It’s tricky, too, just who we think we are in games. We are obviously not the characters we play, but we aren’t fully ourselves either. The pronouns don’t really bother us, though. We’ve become quite comfortable navigating these half-lives, one minute a bold, limber demigod and the next our shyer, fumbling selves. We’re happy to dominate some stiff AI and reap the accompanying achievement, and yet we’re increasingly aware of the limited set of verbs we have to express much of anything beyond shoot and loot. Games just love to ask, “What would you do?” and then cut you off before you can really answer.
We sometimes slip into third person (“my guy, he won’t move … wait … damn…”) when our ventriloquism fails. Or if we are corralled into doing something really objectionable (like, say, shooting all the people of color in the second half of BioShock Infinite), we are apt to blame the game itself. We say: The game asked me to sympathize with the oppressed and then made me shoot them in the face. And we are right to resent this. The BioShocks and their high-minded ilk like to play all clever and concerned about the genre they propagate, but the guilt they want to evoke is even faker than their level designs.
We’ve long identified with fictional characters in other media whose lives are a far cry from our own. But we don’t feel responsible for the characters themselves. Video games, however, can ask that we experience not only empathy but agency too. You don’t just feel with characters, you feel through them. You bind yourself to them and become temporarily responsible for their life onscreen. Whatever happens, you’re in it together.
A zombie is all meat, no mind. It’s the opposite of a ghost. (What’s a human being? A zombie plus a ghost.) While a world of ghosts can be terrifying and strange, it’s still a familiar one, informed by human events. Ghosts are usually stuck on some emotion or trauma, compulsively repeating the past. They seek expression, an audience, satisfaction. And the ghost-haunted world, by definition, posits the spirit as surviving the body, a view both hopeful and all too human.
Zombies, though, negate the human. They devour not only the living but the past, the future, all traces of human meaning. While ghost worlds suffer from too much significance, the zombie world represents the triumph of nihilism, the ultimate no-win situation. Once zombies exist, there is simply nothing left to win.
It’s thus no wonder that Telltale’s Walking Dead series works so well. In 2012, it was not at all clear that among the glut of zombie games, one that drew on seemingly outdated graphic adventures, eliminated most “gameplay” and focused on conversations, used an expressive, nonrealistic art style, and was released episodically would go on to become one of the most acclaimed of the year. But it is precisely in the context of a gutted zombie world that a game about human emotions, sympathetic characters, and hard choices resonates so powerfully. The stakes become impossibly high; it’s not just life or death, but the survival of any human values against the ceaseless tide of the undead.
The first season of The Walking Dead games brought this home primarily through the relationship between its two central characters, Lee and Clementine. But the newest episode, 400 Days, takes a much broader approach. You get five characters for about 15 minutes apiece. Each starts confidently in medias res and sketches characters and situations in a few deft strokes. The people you meet end up being both believable and varied, and the camera likes to linger on their faces. The teenagers are hardened and distrustful, more Carl from the TV series than sweet Clementine. The good-of-the-group leader who would normally be an asshole is surprisingly reasonable and sensitive. And the shifty perv, he might actually have your back.
400 Days works much like the first season, though it strips even more of the gamey elements out and keeps the focus on its best parts: the conversations. In most games, you can easily read the implied category of any conversational choice: the nice or cautious or callous option. The Walking Dead, though, seems interested in further obscuring its systems and making talk just seem like, well, talk. It certainly follows the consequences of that talk, but the game is not particularly judgmental. It leaves that to you. And given how believably written and acted it is, and how dire the situations are, you can’t help but judge yourself and regret your choices.
A handful of big decisions aside, you have little control over how things ultimately turn out, and some cried foul last year when they replayed the first season and seeming choices were revealed to be illusory. As if a zombie world were something that should be comfortably controlled and gamified. But The Walking Dead was never interested in winnable scenarios or fulfilling all our genre expectations. Even the zombies barely figure into your choices in 400 Days. They are less threat than event, something that happened to the world.
What The Walking Dead does care about is how you feel about that world, about those you meet, about yourself and your choices among them. This is why though each episode is quite watchable for non-players, you actually have to make the choices yourself and take responsibility for them to really experience the game. Without your own humanity at play, you might as well just be watching the AMC series.
400 Days complicates all of this further with its clipped, divided structure. On what basis are you to make choices for characters you’ve known for less than 15 minutes? Do you act as you would in that situation? It might work for the first character, but it quickly becomes unsatisfying with the rest. You want to preserve their differences, not merely treat them as variations on a theme of you. When you try to imagine what each character might then do, you are forced to fill in gaps. There is simply not enough information, and so you end up playing tacit coauthor. These creative acts, true, are happening as much in your head as onscreen, but this is a testament to its ability to get inside you, not to its formal lack as a proper game.
Some have already complained that we spend so little time with the characters of 400 Days that the narratives are unsatisfying. While it’s true that each is little more than a vignette, I’m not sure the game wants to satisfy in that way. The whole thing is so lean and purposeful that the multiplicity and brevity seem to be the point. What it means to dip in and out of lives, these little pockets of humanity in a world without, is still being defined for video games. The potential to experience and enact the diverse lives of others is so promising, though, that I can only laud 400 Days for both its audacity and its willingness to leave us so unsatisfied.
For those seeking a more traditional experience with interactive fiction, Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! will do. The game is actually a mobile adaptation of his choose-your-own-adventure style series from the ’80s, and it retains the kind of serviceable fantasy prose that draws little attention to itself and above all prizes briskness, clarity, and names like Chalanna the Reformer. Which is to say: It’s both better than most video game writing and unlikely to set this or any world on fire.
The text is augmented with charming illustrations of hideous creatures, light environmental sound effects, and a gorgeous 3-D relief map. Battles are one-off, never random, and demand that the player anticipate enemy actions based on textual descriptions. It works better than you’d think, as does the slightly goofy three-letter magic system, which actually requires flipping through an onscreen book to find the spells you want (a respectable unwieldiness — magic shouldn’t be too easy).
Playing it, though, usually goes something like this: You come to a fork in the woods. Go left or go right? You come to a mountain pass. Take the high path or the low path? You meet a stranger, are you cautious or rash? Polite, practical, or gruff? There are of course a few more words and the details do change, but this covers about 90 percent of the choices. And the results of your choices? Most of it comes down to trial and error and blind luck, and none of it is binding. You can rewind the game to any previous point on the map, so none of your choices actually matter. Explore all you want, every road not taken. Except that if you can so easily explore each road not taken, it kinda saps the whole “not taken” bit of its mystery and power. There is only exhausting the possibilities and optimizing the outcomes, and never any regret. Go left or right? The game’s most basic binary doesn’t even matter.
This preserves the book experience, no doubt, but such slavish fidelity breaks it as an adventure. What investment can you have when every choice can be immediately reversed? What use is your agency? Sorcery!’s second-person address doesn’t point to either “you” the player or “you” the bland fantasy dude. You’re both just a flickering potentiality that needn’t commit.
This first chapter of Sorcery! does appear to do much of what it sets out to do. But what it sets out to do — translating and garnishing a gamey 30-year-old book for mobile devices — is misguided. Perhaps it still works as a book (I won’t be reading it to find out), but among modern interactive fictions, it’s an anachronism. Not without its charms, but deeply conservative and insular. Even on iPad, it remains sealed off, lacking any true entry point for a would-be player or any resonance with the world at large. It can only speak to itself, its genre, its conventions. And we’ve heard it all before.
Depression Quest is an “interactive (non)fiction about living with depression,” and it’s unlikely you’ve ever played anything quite like it. Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler designed it to help those who are not depressed understand what it’s like, and to let those who are know they are not alone. As someone who has been depressed before, the game strikes me as both deeply true and as one of the most vital interactive (non)fictions you can play right now.
Depression Quest addresses a fairly nondescript “you” in well-written but muted prose. It manages to tread a fine line between the specific and the general, opening itself to a variety of players but providing enough details to ground the daily struggles. The experience of depression is often elusive and difficult to articulate, and the game’s vague sentences accumulate to give the player a feel not for what depression is, but for what it is like.
The most prominent game element that reinforces this comes in the choices offered. As you negotiate daily life (a boring job, a patient partner, constant social anxiety), you are given a range of options. One choice, though, which always appears to be the most sensible and healthy, is always marked out. You can see what you should do, but you can’t actually do it. As you play, becoming more depressed crosses out even more choices, severely limiting your range of actions. While you can try to navigate a middle ground of moderate depression, the game never allows you to unlock complete “healthiness” and its full range of choices. The quest is, after all, not to beat depression but to learn to live with it.
So much of Depression Quest was familiar to me. The way days blend together and disappear. In the game, it is suddenly Sunday; then Wednesday. There is little world continuity. What connects your days is the depression itself, that state of being. Those people who don’t understand it, like the game’s well-meaning mother, tend to make things worse with their positive, go-getter advice. Like the protagonist, you begin to wonder if they’re right and risk becoming someone who denies the reality of your own depression. You always wonder how much of it is your circumstances and how much is just you.
Depression Quest is a game I’d recommend playing once. Or if you want to try a different approach the second time, at least not gaming it overmuch with your browser’s back button. You can use the status description of your depressed state and the often too-clearly ordered choices to try to achieve the least-depressed outcome, but much of the experience will be lost. I will say, though, that one thing that impressed me most upon replay was realizing how well the game modeled the terrifying logic of depression, in which small early choices (like hiding in bed one night) can lead to a downward spiral that’s nearly impossible to pull out of for weeks or months on end.
Depression Quest is a challenge to both the social stigma of depression and to the limited scope we assume about video games. It’s not just a work of empathy and subversion, but a work of empathy as subversion; to experience the limited agency of depression is to reconsider game mechanics that had always seemed so straightforward. Suddenly the meaningless “choices” of Sorcery! and all those game motions we so dutifully go through begin to reveal a more insidious character. If game mechanics can begin to express something as elusive and human as depression, if they can draw us into deeper sympathy with others, then why are so many games content to have us mindlessly repeat ourselves?
The question that hangs over all of this talk about our video game half-lives is simple: Who do we get to be? Which subjectivities do we get to inhabit? And yet a survey of the field proves the options extremely limited. Many of the critics of Anita Sarkeesian’s excellent and necessary Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series don’t seem to understand why playable female characters matter. They matter because there is no substitute for subjectivity. No amount of strong, smart, funny, brave, realistic female characters will ever be enough if none of them are playable. We don’t come to games just to look for positive representations and role models; we come to explore and feel and act through video game characters.
It matters who these characters are. Stubbly, brown-haired white men are not enough. All the charming Nintendo brothers are not enough. Samus Aran and Lara Croft are not enough. Having playable characters of various genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, body sizes, ages, and backgrounds is not only about equality and fair representation. It’s about seeing the clear and obvious value in diverse experiences of the world and recognizing how games as a medium are primed to explore them better than just about anything going.
Actually, this can sound like advocacy for mere player customization, for a range of options within each game. That wouldn’t be enough either, or even a good idea for some games. Instead, we need more video games that force players to take up lives that are unlike their own. This means convincing men (yes, primarily men) of the value of playing characters that do not simply reflect their own values back at them. Most men have no problem playing as a murderous sociopath. But playing as a woman? Perhaps they should ask women what it’s like to play video games as another gender. They might know something about that.
The mobile games space may still be dominated by apoplectic birds and kids in candy shops, but that’s changing. Games like 400 Days and Depression Quest show that both studio titles and those made with an accessible hypertext program like Twine can offer our tablets rich new modes of being. The more of these we play, the more we say “I” when speaking about our diverse characters onscreen, the harder it becomes to deny the experiences of others. When you deny someone their subjectivity, you don’t just objectify them. You zombify them. What else is a zombie but a person who has lost their subjectivity, their experience of the world? Who is nothing but meat. A threat, a horror, something to shoot in the face.
But every time a game explores another subjectivity, both the medium and the player expand. I had never played as an abused child until The Binding of Isaac. I had never played as a transgender woman in transition until Dys4ia. I had never played as a person struggling with depression, even though I’d actually been one, until Depression Quest. Each of them spoke to me in the unique language of video games, evoking empathy through agency, and more are coming out every day. We will soon say: I escaped my abusive parent, or I experienced the frustrations and hopes of hormone replacement therapy, or I survived depression (and still fight it every day). This is what it’s like. You are not alone.