“Depressing” Games

A question I’d like to pose: do you think a game with a serious theme (i.e. the Holocaust, or the African-American civil rights movement) could be commercially successful in the US market?

Such a game would almost certainly go a long way towards silencing skeptics who say “games can’t be art.” More importantly, it would help young people understand the great injustices of the past. Reading a textbook is one thing, playing a prisoner in a concentration camp is quite another.

But would these games reach enough people? Would they be profitable? And how would you make them fun without blurring the social message?

It works for movies, but…

Movies like Schindler’s List seem to be evidence of a possible market for this kind of game. However, there’s a big difference between asking consumers to commit to a passive two to three-hour experience and a longer, much more interactive experience. Furthermore, while the age of the average gamer is rising every year, it’s still true that most adults above the age of 35 aren’t playing too many console games… and of course, a fair chunk of Schindler’s List’s audience was probably above the age of 35. That’s primarily a profit issue; educationally, a younger audience is great!

But *if* there is a large enough market for this type of game, what would be the pre-requisites for success? I’d imagine that a game would have to strike the perfect balance between providing the player with a near-constant sense of accomplishment (i.e. the “fun” of the game), while frequently (but not constantly) bombarding the player with negative imagery, interactions, etc. Tasteful-if-infrequent comic-relief would, I suspect, be crucial.

Some examples

A Holocaust game could take place in the Warsaw Ghetto. Starting activities might be as simple as obtaining food and hiding personal valuables, but might quickly graduate to activities related to the establishment of the Jewish resistance, and eventually, the Jewish uprising. Player activity could even end on a “high note” (i.e. a major victory during the uprising), though the closing sequences of the game should clearly reflect that in the end, the uprising was crushed. I imagine this game playing like a stealth-centric FPS.

A civil liberties game might work best as a simulation (i.e. Sim City-ish). The player would be tasked with coordinating non-violent protests, helping individuals who are unjustly jailed, courting friendly journalists, etc. Bad things (threats, beatings, property damage) would frequently happen to the population the player is trying to protect, as would less frequent “major setbacks” (i.e. a legal attack by a powerful politician). I believe there have been attempts at making a game like this, though I don’t believe any of those were serious commercial attempts with a clear social message. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

In conclusion…

Sorry, no conclusion today. I’m just curious to hear what you all think.  🙂

19 responses to ““Depressing” Games

  1. Great question.

    I believe this could be done, but I also believe it would be a very niche market, perhaps a Value title.

    Coming from a FPS developer background, I often find myself watching movies and analyzing how they could be done effectively as a successful FPS.

    A perfect example would be “The History Channel: Civil War” which Activision, Inc recently released as a Value title. I often receive emails from fans suggestion a new conflict or war that we should consider for our next title, and you’d be surprised how many suggestions come in for a Civil War game.

    I was very excited to hear this game was being developed due to the fact that I’m often found in that ‘niche’ market and love innovative or unique games. I found myself enjoying the experience of the game, not so much the game itself, but ended up playing all the way through [about 6 hours worth of game play] with no multiplayer.

    So I agree that this would be an interesting experiment in game development and I think it could be done very well as a Value title. I think the first thing you would need is a Protagonist, perhaps the head of an underground citizen revolution that smuggles families out of Germany controlled territories, gives them room and board, and helps covertly attempt to cripple the German War Machine through sabotage.

    The first few missions could be Splinter Cell-esque in the slums of a beat down, worn out, almost broken German invaded city. You could have main and side objectives, the main being something substantial in the terms of human life. Perhaps stopping a Nazi Firing Squad from executing innocent civilians. Just before they fire, you have to distract them by exploding a nearby ammo depot, or truck.

    This action attracts their attention to you, and the rest of the mission is an evade and flank sort of game play, where you have to avoid detection and eliminate the threat when you can do so in a stealthy manner. Meanwhile allows the citizens to escape.

    Later on it could become more straight forward FPS, perhaps when you are captured and you lead an uprising in the concentration camp you are being held.

    Throughout the game there would be cut scenes and mission transition segments depicting actual events that took place during the holocaust in whatever city, camp, or location you are currently or about to go to. The game play could focus around mini-heroic moments and uprising that happened during the holocaust that many do not know about or that have went forgotten, which may not have won the war, but seriously impacted the both physical and mental iron grip the Nazi’s held on Europe.

    This become much longer than a comment, I got excited and kept rambling. In short, I think it could be done, and I believe it could be done really well with the right team and budget, however I don’t think it could quite be a AAA title.

  2. Not only that i see little commercial potential in it, I think it is wrong to take a “serious” theme of that nature and convert it into entertainment. It can work for a movie, not for an experience in which the player takes an active stand. GTA of a poor kid trying to own the getto? sick.

  3. Depressed Other

    Aren’t “depressing” games just a matter of perspective?

    If you are the “other” – be it arab, zombie or alien – just about every game’s a Schindler’s List.

    Are to put it another way, aren’t the games we have already depressing enough?
    I know I’m depressed everytime I go to the game store.

  4. I think the trick is to do it in a why that celebrates the heroic / brave aspects of a conflict / subject, not to just over saturate it with ‘depressed’ imagery.

    To give it a story, a heart, and characters you can relate to, to better historically depict, teach, and bring to light some of the more positive stories and people who made a difference to the benefit of all in any certain conflict or scenario.

    For example in WWII games, we try to celebrate the heroic sacrifice of the soldiers who fought for us, not glorify the tyranny or genocide of the Nazi party. I think any subject can be done well, if done right and done tactfully yet still be informative, and fun.

  5. My use of the word “depressing” was intended to be tongue-in-cheek; thus the use of quotes. 🙂

  6. I’m glad you added that the game would remind you that all resistance was doomed to end in failure.

    It would be a horrible lesson to teach kids that they could have affected the historical outcome of tragic events if only they had been there.

    One thing that all “game designers” keep doing is getting wrapped up in their myopic view of what a game is supposed to be: entertainment. Or challenge.

    We simply have to broaden our scope of games to include interactive activities; or to stop dealing in terms of games, and to start dealing with interactive activities. Then anything is possible.


  7. As I’ve said on GamePolitics:

    In fact a “Holocaust game” might work, ON CONDITION THAT :

    – The survivors from, and families of vcitims of, the Holocaust, are fully aware of the project and support it
    – There is absolutely no ambiguity about the message and the purpose of the game. Which means : no catchy ads, no double message, no scandal “à la Rockstar”, no attempt to stir up any controversy
    – The word “game” is, in fact avoided. So as the expression of “Holocaust game”. No political correctness here, but although it’s “technically” a video game, the word “game” is associated to fun and entertainment. And as I said, any ambiguity is to avoid in this case.

  8. One more thing : I don’t know if in the US you had any controversy about Roberto Benigni’s movie “La Vita e Bella”, but here in France, there’s been a violent controversy.

    For those who don’t know the movie, here’s the plot according to IMDB ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/ ) : during World War 2, “a Jewish man has a wonderful romance with the help of his humour, but must use that same quality to protect his son in a Nazi death camp”. Some people were really outraged that a movie “tried to make laugh around Holocaust”. Other people defended Benigni’s courage. But I’d like to share with you a quote of a critic who didn’t like the movie, but didn’t condemn Benigni’s intentions :

    “You have the absolute right to make a comedy around holocaust. The right you don’t have is to fail.”

    So I think it’s the same problem for “serious games” about such a “serious theme” as Holocaust, or Civil Rights Movement… or Columbine School Shooting : do what you want, create what you want as long as you don’t fail (it’s the same thing for movies, actually). Indeed, this is, in my opinion, the only question that’s worth asking about another “serious game” such as Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Its creator had the right to create this game, but did he fail or not ?

    Another question is : what does it mean to “fail”, anyway ? And I’m not sure I have a definitive answer to this question. Sorry…

  9. I think there are two separate issues here. The first is about art and I feel games will get their recognition over time. When that happens people will look back to all the great predecessors from Myst to Pong.

    As for teaching kids about history through video games, I think the subject matter is very important. Atrocities and great injustices will simply put too many constraints on the game. Can you really make a non-linear type of game about being in a concentration camp?

    The lighter the subject matter the better for the game’s entertainment value, and perhaps education value. For example, Sid Meier’s Pirates! was a fun little game that stuck its toes into the Caribbean/New World colonization. It wasn’t heavy but it could open the doors for those who before never had exposure to this type of history. Kid stops playing and goes on Wiki to read about Black Beard…

    I remember the first time I learned of Dia De Los Muertos was from Lucasarts’ Grimm Fandango. Now there was a beautiful game!

  10. Infocom’s “Trinity” was kind of depressing, bopping around various points in the history of atomic weaponry. Great game though.

  11. First, I’d have to ask – why do a game set in such a setting, if the ending were already predetermined as failure?
    The subject matter of the game is irrelevant – it could be a concentration camp, death row, or a terminal illness ward – if I end up not surviving, why would I want to “play” through it? And how do you keep from trivializing such an environment?

    This sort of downer works well in books or films, because they are passive mediums – you are being told a story and are not a participant.
    As an active “mover” or participant in the game world (a world I supposedly can influence), why would I want to play to fail, lose or have my actions count for naught?

    I’m not sure the term “game” should apply to this type of endeavor. Interactive Entertainment, perhaps.
    A game implies that there be some sort of triumph for the participant

  12. If you step back and think about it, most WW2 games (Call of Duty, Company of Heroes) are already quite educational. Most of these games are based on real events, real battles, real guns, so you’re definitely learning history whether you like it or not. So I think when you ask the question “can it be educational?” you have to be a bit more specific.

    Furthermore, is it necessarily a requirement that a game has to be fun? Maybe some genius designer can do it, but I don’t see how a game can evoke sadness and fun at the same time. You can have sad moments like say, a character dying, but revolving the game around a depressing concept and then injecting “fun” into it is destined to fail. But I say screw fun. Expand the definition of games to interactive experiences. You don’t enjoy watching Schindler’s List, it’s not something you particularly like doing, but you do it because it touches us deeply.

    Essentially, film and other media successfully appeal to other human emotions, why can’t games? Once we break free from “fun” the classic design mechanisms can also be cast off and replaced by things we haven’t seen. Unfortunately the first few instances of these kind of experiences are going to be commercial bombs. That’s just the way it is. Those first games (as long as they’re good) will create the audience which will then eventually be able to sustain the niche.

    Now it’s time to insert the usual whining about creative stagnation and risk-averse publishers.

  13. I don’t think that is necessary to establish video games as an art form.

    The other week, I was watching Mona Lisa Smiles (with my wife), and Julie Roberts character made the statement
    “Who determines when something is art?” or something like that.

    I looked up the word on Websters site and it gave this definition
    “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”.

    Of course the word aesthetic is a qualifier of sorts, one of its meanings is
    “pleasing in appearance “. But then, who determines what is “pleasing in appearance”?

    I think by that very defintion that video games are an artform. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
    after all.


    Didn’t someone make a game about escaping from a POW camp?

    I thought Medal of Honor or one of the other WWII FPS’s included scenes of Concentration camps.

  14. David, yes there was, called… wait for it… Prisoner of War!

  15. Yes I do think that a game along the lines of Schindler’s list can exist. But it would have to be designed well and handled with some tact. The message in the game would have to be glaringly obvious.

    At this point in time specifically I think that having a game made about the holocaust would be a good thing. World War 2 games are very common right now and nearly all of them have been glamorizing the combat that took place but completely leaving out why the war took place at all. The message has been left behind to allow for more shootem up type of action. Having a game show that World War 2 was not a romantic tale of good triumphing over evil and instead show that horrible atrocities took place would probably be healthy for people to experience.

    Because of the message that would have to accompany a game like this I don’t know if you would want to take it from the point of a resistance movement because from a historical stand point that is a completely loosing battle. The more you succeed in the game play the more it is going to seem like this could have been stopped and the less the message is going to come across.

    I have thought about making a game very very close to Schindler’s list in the past, where you are a soldier enlisted and stationed at a prison camp and your goals were to save as many lives as you can. The goals would be sneaking in food, sneaking out prisoners, keeping your cover so you can save more people later, and just trying to relieve the prisoners from as much suffering as you possibly can. Along the path of the story though there would have to be lots of hard decisions to make, there would be times that you would have to sacrifice a few to save the many, but I think that is important to this type of game because the point would not be to have “fun” but to experience it and learn from it.

    I think that games that tackle controversial topics like this are completely necessary for growth in the industry and to allow game to be taken more seriously by the mass media

  16. Games != Movies. Games are not novels, either. Stop comparing them as if they were the same thing. “Schindler’s List” works as a linear, non-interactive tale. It’s entirely possible to tack a linear, non-interactive tale on top of some gameplay and present it as “Schindler’s List: The Game,” that would be a step back for the industry, not forward.

  17. I think balancing the “fun” would really be a problem. Once you add in any sort of explicit game aspect like accomplishments, it really conflicts with the seriousness and depression that the game wants to convey.

    It could be done where you assume the role of someone in the holocaust, and are guided through the experience – more like an interactive story.

  18. Hmmm…Oregon Trail, anyone?

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