I used to be a journalist, then I took an arrow in the knee… and started working on my first "newsgame". It was 7 years ago, and I was motivated by the feeling that journalism and video games had a lot to learn from each other.
On the one hand, journalism’s noble goal of turning the world into something understandable by everyone was very appealing to me. But we had trouble finding the best way to adapt to the digital age. My guess is we didn’t understand that a change of paradigm was at stake. Before the web, journalism was a matter of building linear discourses. We were thinking in a broadcast logic, from the issuer (the newspaper, TV or radio station) to the receivers (readers, viewers, listeners). But the Internet doesn’t work that way. It rather is an inherently interactive distribution channel. Therefore, we suddenly had to consider conveying news as a discussions rather than discourses.
On the other hand, I was fascinated by the self-explanatory nature of video games. Most of the time, you don’t really need tutorials to play a game – you understand it through experience. It is a naturally interactive media, with which players discuss to understand both what they are supposed to do and what the story being told is about. The first time you play Super Mario Bros, you are free to rush your Italian avatar straight into one of the pits that populate the level. Mario will die and you’ll have to start all over again, but thanks to this experience, you’ll update your knowledge of what you’re supposed to do. This is how discussions in games work: while interacting with an "operational reality", players gradually acquire an ever-sharper perception of the rules that shape the world.
The world of Super Mario Bros. is all about mushroom-eating plumbers, aggressive turtles and obese dragons. And indeed, a lot of people (me included) praise games with fantastic universes, as they often are used as a way to leave reality behind for a moment. Gaming in itself is a very real experience, but most games don’t say much about the world around us – at least not in a direct fashion.
As a journalist, I thought using games as a media to help people understand real news and facts might also be a good idea. I didn’t think they would be the perfect fit for all news stories, of course. Yet sometimes, for instance when we were trying to describe systems – that is to say, situations that involved many actors with interlocked interests – we, journalists, could find games useful.
To build such games, the primary journalistic work remained unchanged: you still had to dissect a subject, to expose its inner logics, to understand the causes and consequences at stake. The only difference laid in the way this work would be communicated. Instead of telling "what is", we had to create a machine that would show "what could be". Our models would be simplified, of course, but they would work according to rules similar to what we had analysed of the real world. We would then challenge players to reach a certain goal, and by doing that, they would acquire a deep understanding of the system itself. There seemed to be a lot of possibilities that could prove very rewarding both for the journalists to make and the audience to play.
After a few years of practice, it turns out my initial intuitions are confirmed. Yes, video games are a great tool to tell stories differently. Yes, interactivity is sometimes far more efficient than linearity, for instance to underline causal links, explain how systems work or involve an audience. And for those who wonder: yes, creating such games is super complicated.
Why ? Because interactivity demands a bigger effort than linearity. An article doesn’t ask for much: plug in your brain, read the text, try to understand it. That’s sometimes hard, especially on Monday mornings, but it’s also pretty straightforward. Games are more challenging in the sense that they won’t let anything happen without you. If you do not interact with them, you will not understand a single thing.
Journalists willing to produce good newsgames therefore face two challenges:
These two challenges are neither new nor really specific to newsgames design. But playing with information is restrictive. For example, a game with a focus on entertainment can afford to be received differently by different types of players. One may enjoy Call of Duty regardless of one’s stance on the pro-US militaristic values the game carries. A newsgame, on the contrary, has editorial responsibility on its content. Similarly, fun in “classic” videogames often relies on excessive, over-the-top situations, when a newsgame theoretically must always remain realistic.
Does this mean that "news" and "games" are difficult to reconcile? I don’t think so. We live in a world of systems, as emphasized by Eric Zimmerman. We can’t fully explain the world anymore without proposing simplified, easier to understand versions of it for people to explore. Today’s digital journalist got that, because more and ore of them grew up playing video games – they are used to system-driven narration and slowly import it in newsrooms.
Now, The Pixel Hunt isn’t a news organization. We produced a couple newsgames as commissioned works in the past, but that isn’t our main activity. We don’t have a large enough audience to monetize short, free games through advertising, and we’re not a big enough team to provide people with rich and diverse news coverage. Newsrooms such as the NYT’s or Le Monde’s have the infrastructure for that, not us. And in any case, I'm not sure I’d enjoy producing games in a hurry – yet haste is needed should you want to keep your newsgames relevant.
Then again, since its inception, The Pixel Hunt has been producing video games that share one thing in common: a more or less direct connection with the world around us. The latest project we work on with Figs, Bury me, my Love, is 100% in line with this dynamic. So if those aren’t newsgames, what are they?
To answer this question, I’ll have to tell you a bit about The Pixel Hunt’s business model first. As a studio, we sometimes work for news organisations such as Le Monde or Libération, but our main clients are TV production companies. They contact us because they shot a documentary film and want to couple it with “a little something on the web”. They provide us with a lot of info on their documentary’s topic, and we design a game together. More often than not, the documentary and the game are aired simultaneously by one of France’s public network channels (mainly France Télévisions or Arte). Everyone may then watch the film and play the game for free, and even though they are often fairly independent, you get an even richer immersion in the topic if you do both.
So you may be tempted to say that we make documentary games. And you might find me annoyingly picky on semantics, but I beg to differ.
The problem with the name “documentary games” is that it directly refers to the documentary film, a linear storytelling form. Most of the time, a documentary is a “non-fiction” in which the author nonetheless subjectively describes a situation. It is built as a demonstration, as a way to take you from point A to point B. I am a big fan of documentary films, but I don’t think video games are suited for this endeavour – at least not with a similar method. Linear media and games just don’t work the same way. A game that wants to have a take on the real world should use the very essence of games to do so – not mimic films.
It’s funny that I found several quotes of game designers that helped me clarify my thoughts in… a documentary, Game Loading. I was happy to hear Nina Freeman (game designer of Cibele) call for more diversity in games stories – because there’s no topic games can’t talk about. I related to Ryan Green (author of That Dragon, Cancer) when he stated that designing a game about a real-world event made him see reality as a set of systems and mechanics. I shared Richard Hofmeier’s joy when he noticed that people making YouTube Let’s Plays about his Cart Life slowly evolved from mockery to empathy in the course of a playthrough. I saluted Christine Love when she explained that the most important part of her work as a game designer is to try to get people to see things from another perspective. I sided with Davey Wreden (co-author of The Stanley Parable) and his claim that facing complex, unusual scenarios in virtual environments helps us be stronger in the “real” world.
These testimonies helped me build a definition of the kind of games we, at TPH, want to make. I tried to phrase it through a series of rules they abide by.
I propose the term “Reality-inspired games” to describe this genre. And even though they aren’t new (think The Oregon Trail), I’m under the impression that in recent years, we have seen more and more of those. Here is a small, subjective selection of recent titles that, to me, fit in this family.
Papers, Please - a game in which you play the role of an immigration officer in a clearly soviet-union-inspired world.
Firewatch - a game in which you play as Henry, a guy whose work is to watch a US national park for wildfires.
The Beginner's Guide - a game in which someone has you playtesting a series of short games allegedly created by a mysterious artist he seems to be found of.
That Dragon, Cancer - a game about a child diagnosed with a brain tumor and the way he and his family cope with it.
Cibele - a game about falling in love with someone while playing a MMO in the late 2000’s.
Cart Life - a game about trying to make ends meet while living off petty jobs.
Her Story - a criminal investigation where you try to understand what happened by parsing videos of interviews of the prime suspect, the victim’s wife.
This war of mine - a war game in which you, for once play not as a soldier but rather as a group of civilians trying to survive.
For me, all those titles and many others qualify as “Reality inspired games” because they follow the above-mentioned set of rules. I’ll now try to explain how.
Have you ever heard the claim that reality is boring? Video games lovers often say that to explain why they love virtual worlds – and incidentally why the real world doesn’t make a good basis for a compelling game narrative. For nearly 50 years now, we’ve been fighting lots of trolls, rescuing plenty of princesses, piloting space crafts and recovering from heavy fire by crouching behind walls. And to be clear, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with that – in fact, I enjoy it very much. I understand that video games rapidly structured as an industry with a focus on entertainment. We may want to play to escape from our everyday routine, to empty our heads a bit, and those are perfectly fine motivations. Simply, there’s no reason they would be the only ones.
There is indeed no unalterable rule that forbids games to refer to reality. I mean, look at comics. In the 60s (at least in France), they were vastly regarded as a form of literature that could only allow for fictional stories and superheroes. A media mainly dedicated to kids and teenagers, because it was inherently unable to tackle "serious" subjects. Then guys like Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco decided it was.
To be honest, after more than 2 decades of avid gaming, I almost completely stopped playing video games some years ago because. I reckon this is personal, but I simply was not able to find titles that appealed to me anymore. The recent wave of what I call reality inspired games completely renewed my interest in the media – I even created The Pixel Hunt in order to make more of those. It’s not that I’ve definitely lost my love for fantasy universes, more that after eating magic mushrooms for years, tasting a reality sandwich for the first time is a delight.
Then again, I’m not saying that reality inspired games necessarily have to make heavy-handed references to reality. For instance, if Firewatch clearly states that it takes place in Wyoming in 1979 (the story even referring to geopolitical issues of that time), Papers, Please does not directly mention the Soviet Union or the Socialist Republics of the eighties. On the contrary, the game is supposed to occur in the fictional land of Arstotzka. It is the game’s general aesthetics that suggest a familiar historical context, giving its gameplay a deeper meaning. These remarks apply to places, but also to people, events... My point is, making a direct reference to the real world doesn’t imply being 100% historically accurate. The important part is for the player to perceive and understand that reference.
Video games are multimedia objects. They combine image, sound and animation, in an interactive, often non-linear fashion. Of course, using standard storytelling technics in games isn’t forbidden, and some of the above-mentioned examples do it pretty well. Cibele or That Dragon, Cancer, for instance, are endowed with stories that only slightly vary with player action. And that’s fine: making a game doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning linear narratives completely.
But model-based narration is something unique to games – and a very powerful (if unusual) way to tell a story. Take Papers, Please’s scoring system, for instance. It is set to determine your income based on the number of mistakes you do. By doing so, it puts you under a lot of pressure – a direct reference to the struggle life under authoritarian socialist regimes could be. The game systemically urges you to dehumanize - it does it through its rules. The authors of Cart Life or This War of Mine use similar strategies to convey their messages. Her Story’s fragmented videos encourage us to adopt the attitude of a true detective, crawling in a database, noting details here and there, confronting assumptions, building and testing theories… Firewatch – a game about mediocrity and loneliness - helps you relate to its main character by forcing you into solitude, because it only allows you to have social interaction with a supervisor who will, for the entire game, stay a radio transmission away.
In my opinion, building such models is a truly fascinating moment for game designers. They have to decide which rules to use, which interactive mechanics to employ, which objectives to set in order to provide the player with a convincing representation of the reality they want to talk about. This is very close to writing a vivid description in naturalist literature or shooting an involving documentary scene - only using a grammar unique to video games.
The constraints that apply to that type of game design are different from those that arise when you make a heroic fantasy MMO, a space shooter or any other “entertainment-centric” game. It’s about focusing less on “what will be fun for the player to do?” and more on “what will be unfamiliar enough to be interesting but realistic enough to remain plausible?”
That’s the reason why, for instance, the Assassins Creed series does not qualify as reality-inspired games for me. Despite their historically credible backgrounds and characters, the gameplay mechanics they use (the whole Animus thing, the jumping off roofs, the relentless killing…) are simply too far away from our everyday life. As a game designer myself, I think that the obligation to build a game on credible models may, like any other constraint, foster creativity.
One question has been vivid amongst video game developers for ages: what is the most effective technique to really immerse players in the game world? Some argue in favour of the “silent protagonist” or defend the first person point of view. An invisible hero, they argue, is one that doesn’t stand between the player and the quest to be accomplished. Others, however, would rather endow their main character with a strong personality, because hey, if the hero is cool, players will be keen to help, won’t they?
One way or the other, most of the times, the hero and the player are not on an equal footing. The hero knows how to jump and run tirelessly, he’s able to carry tons of ammo, he drives like a Nascar pilot... He is everything the player isn’t.
This isn’t true in reality-inspired games, though, and it probably is one of their strongest assets. Because stripped from any superpower, heroes become simple characters – immeasurably closer to us average Joes. We may feel more connected to them since they’re simply not better than us. We could be them. We are not – I don’t have a child with brain cancer, I never sent sexy pics of me in a bra to a guy I met in a MMORPG, I won’t sleep under a bridge tonight. But I COULD be, if I was living another life in our common reality. What would that other life feel like? The closest I can get to understanding it is by manipulating the model the game offers me.
Some games such as The Beginner's Guide even go a step further. This title converts you into one of the game’s protagonists, and therefore strips you from your “rights” as a player. From the beginning on, the narrator breaks the fourth wall and challenges you: you are there to have a discussion with him about the title you’re currently playing. You will play through a series of levels, but he is the one who is going to give you context, to tell you exactly what to think. This quickly feels uncomfortable, because sharing the narrator’s delusional enthusiasm and his convoluted interpretations should not be an obligation. You’d want to manipulate the game by yourself, but he doesn’t seem to be ready to allow it. And indeed, as the story unfolds, you’ll discover he’s not the kind of guy who makes great case of other people’s will. This odd friction that feels annoyingly real is what makes The Beginner's Guide such a thrilling experience.
To play is to pretend. Of course, you might go bankrupt in a casino or be run over by a car while playing Pokemon GO (well, who still plays Pokemon Go, right?), but most of the time, the things you do in a game don’t have any impact on your real life. And because you know the difference between games and reality, you can enjoy shooting choppers in GTA or betraying your little brother in a game of Settlers of Catan while remaining a perfect gentleman IRL. This is indeed part of the fun in games.
But reality-inspired games aren’t about experiencing fantastic adventures or transgressing the rules of society life. They rather enable you to practice curiosity and empathy. They help you understand how other humans feel by putting you in a model of their shoes. Their virtual nature makes them harmless, but their lessons are nonetheless precious.
I often use the very odd Cobra Club as an example to illustrate this. In this game by Robert Yang, you have to take elaborated pictures of your erect penis before sending them to random strangers via a messaging service. To be honest, I don’t think curiosity would have driven me to share anonymous dick pics for real just for the sake of understanding how it feels like. Among the many reasons why not to, I’m not comfortable with my wiener becoming famous around the world without me even knowing it. Yet playing this game gave me a very interesting glimpse at what this activity really is about – the pride, the creativity, the delicious shiver of fear when you click the “send” button… And it did it with a pinch of burlesque, immediately defusing any sense of awkwardness. In the end, even though I did not become a member of the club in real life, I feel more open-minded thanks to this unsettling, if 100% virtual, experience.
When Richard Hofmeier released Cart Life, he faced a lot of criticism, including people blaming him for what they thought was "class tourism". For them, he wasn’t entitled to make a game out of people’s lives, because it was disrespectful and because he himself wasn’t an homeless man struggling to survive. To me, there are several reasons why this critique is unfounded. First, it sends a wrong message about what video games are – as if they were inherently trivial and unable to hold any serious discourse. But it also implies a very short-sighted vision of what creation is about. Zola wasn’t part of the proletariat, Shakespeare wasn’t a Danish king… and for what I know J.K Rowling isn’t a wizard. Does this mean their books are worthless? But above all, people who oppose such arguments to reality-inspired games misunderstand the very essence of those experiments.
Games do not pretend to actually be reality. You can’t get sick for real in a game, or really lose your house or actually die from starvation. When you play, even when you’re in a very strong cognitive flow, you never totally forget the artificiality of it. This distance is the reason why you actually may learn things from it: you open because you feel safe enough. This doesn’t mean it can’t be intense, but it’s definitely no “class tourism”. It’s something much more intimate, it’s about accepting to drop one’s defences and have a direct experience of the – sometimes harsh – reality other people experience.
In his excellent A Theory of Fun for Game Designers, Raph Koster states that games essentially are learning devices. If young felines are compelled to spend most of their time pretending to fight with each other, he explains, that’s because it trains them for hunting. We’re not that different from tigers (even though I’m personally more of the couch cat type). When playing a video game, we constantly learn and adapt to the rules in order to get better. Koster even stresses that the pleasure we feel when playing comes from the chemicals our brain releases to rewards us for learning – and encourage us to keep up the good work.
Reality-inspired games seem to twist and bend this rule a little, because they tell us about things we might at first not feel the urge to learn about. Do I really need – or want – to experience what it feels like to have a kid with a brain tumor, like in That Dragon, Cancer? Do I have an inherent desire to grasp why I might be forced to steal food from an harmless old couple, like in This War of Mine? I’d probably rather align square blocks in Tetris or pick up magic mushrooms with Mario.
Yet, playing depressing Reality-inspired games also is enjoyable in its own way. That’s because once again, we feel we’re learning something: we get more empathetic. Of course, one could argue living those traumatic experiences through games is a good way to train us for the day they’ll actually happen – while hoping they won’t. And maybe that’s part of the point. But I also believe humans inherently seek to enlarge the scope of their emotions and their knowledge of other’s lives and feelings. Doing so takes courage and energy – who never crash-landed on the couch after a hard day’s work to binge-watch brainless TV shows instead of the latest documentary about the war in Syria? Living an experience that you expect to badly shake your feelings is tough. And indeed, reality-inspired games sometimes are tough: they offer you introspection, not evasion. Some people would call them boring (and sometimes they probably are), but I guess their main problem rather is that they are a bit frightening. However, the promise to live an unsettling experience inside the virtual safe space of a game, knowing that you risk nothing more than an enhancement of your humanity, seems to appeal to an audience.
In conclusion, let’s go back to our project, Bury me, my Love. Nour and Majd, our two main characters, do not really exist. Yet, they are directly inspired by lots of Syrians whose lives have radically been redefined by the civil war in their country. The consequence of that, for them, is a separation: Nour leaves for Europe but Majd stays in Homs in order to support his family. They only have their smartphones to stay in touch.
The game is directly inspired by an article on Lemonde.fr, and more broadly by the way migrants use communication apps such as WhatsApp to chat with their families, ask for advice and seek information during their perilous journey. We want to build a model of this reality and let our audience understand through play what those people experience. We hope that playing this game will make you ponder, and relate, and that it will stick with you for a while after you finish it.
Is it disrespectful or pretentious to make a game on such a tragic issue? I don’t think so, and neither does Dana, the Syrian refugee now living in Germany who helps us write it. After all, if reality may inspire games, it may work the other way around too…
If you want to keep in touch with the project, there's a FB page for that: https://www.facebook.com/BuryMeMyLove