More Games Should Make Us Uncomfortable

Great art can leave us with unresolved — even conflicting — feelings, and that’s okay

Emily Shiel
Jul 16, 2020 · 6 min read

I recently uploaded a video analysis exploring the moral ambiguities and motivations behind the characters in The Last Of Us: Part II. It’s a piece I’m really proud of and was surprised to upload, as not many games have triggered such an immediate impulse in me to share my thoughts so quickly after completion.

This game has sparked a plethora of debate amongst audiences and has been analysed from so many different angles, it’s almost hard to keep up with the amount of discussion. I’m of the mindset that any piece of media that evokes such passionate responses, whether positive or negative, and is discussed for this long after its release, is objectively a well-made work of art.

The Last of Us: Part II, regardless of whether or not it was well received by everyone, has done its job. It didn’t choose to be safe or tied up in a bow and instead pushed players to ask themselves if the people they’ve been rooting for are justified in their actions. We so rarely see this in video games, particularly as so many of the stories we live out are dependant on us feeling like the hero.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ‘run and gun’ as much as the next person and have plenty of comfort games on the back burner for my off days. I take pride in being able to say I defeated the final boss with gusto and got to ride off into the sunset with my unattainably attractive wife by my side. It’s polished and gratifying and majority of the time we get the ending we’ve been hoping for, but the reality is it’s not real.

We’re naturally more drawn to stories that make us think. It’s why shows like Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale are some of the highest rated and most spoken about in pop culture. Audiences complain when an ending feels too cheesy or on the nose, but are simultaneously upset when a narrative is overtly truthful with them. So often, we have pre-determined ideals of what these stories are going to look like and it’s so reductive to its overall potential.

Revenge is, a lot of the time, our motivation as players. Take any game out of the Far Cry series for example; there’s literally a line in Far Cry 3 that tells the player “whoever did this deserves to die”, acting as an incentive for us to fight. Games like Assassin’s Creed II are dependent on the premise that avenging the family that’s been taken from you too soon will be a driving force for you on your quest and will eventually form you into a more refined assassin. There’s a great video by Johnny Chiodini, a former contributor at Eurogamer, that dives into a similar concept discussing how grief is also used as a motivator in the games we play.

Vass Montenegro, the main antagonist from Far Cry 3. Source: WallUp.

I’m not at all negating the value and gratification that those games bring, they’re a necessary and often enjoyable part of the medium. A lot of us tend to use gaming as a form of escapism, so it’s understandable that players would be drawn to more linearly structured and ultimately satisfying forms of narrative. We don’t always want to look at the harsh realities through the lens of whatever protagonist we’re playing as because quite honestly, it doesn’t feel good. Games that elicit these thoughts however, are powerful when executed correctly. It’s the moments in gameplay that make me think ‘I don’t want to do this’ that I remember the most.

Audiences complain when an ending feels too cheesy or on the nose, but are simultaneously upset when a narrative is overtly truthful with them.

Maybe it’s part of a deeper sense of entitlement we feel as gamers. We accept that we’ve paid money for a product and are now willing and active participants in how the story plays out. We feel that because we are the ‘owners’ of this game that we’re somehow owed something by the people that have made it. It raises an interesting debate on player agency and how much of a say we should have over the direction of a narrative, but that is all very relative to each specific game.

An article by Karl Otty, which goes into detail on the ‘unsatisfying’ endings to games like Firewatch, really explains this point further and I’d highly recommend giving it a read. It’s a disservice to characters of any linear storyline to go in the direction you want them to and isn’t authentic to how they would react in a real life situation. We can feel hard done by as players when we don’t get the ending or climactic moment we thought we would, but the story was never about us in the first place.

Firewatch. Source: Polygon.

The subsequent vitriol aimed at game developers from players who don’t agree with the writing is so telling of how real these stories feel to us. There is obviously never a reason for such egregious behaviour and we should be striving to communicate in a way that is balanced and respectful, no matter how emotionally invested we are.

The conversations that The Last of Us: Part II has evoked felt like a turning point for me. Titles before it have achieved similar outcomes in discussing the concepts of morality and what we expect of games, but none that personally come to mind which approach storytelling in such a brutal and scrupulous fashion.

This discourse is such a vital part to furthering our understanding of media in a broader sense. We become more open to different perspectives and opinions from those who have different lived experiences than us and learn to accept that we may not always be right or wrong. We learn to listen to each other and step out of the ideals that we’re used to seeing so regularly. Representing characters that depict realistic and complex human behaviour is so incredibly difficult to pull off, but I commend the studios that are willing to take that risk.

The conversations that The Last of Us: Part II has evoked felt like a turning point for me.

It so often feels like our culture is vehemently focused on proving that someone is in the wrong before having a well rounded conversation. There is so little room to grow in this regard without being subject to harassment or constant reminders of past mistakes. It’s entirely plausible that we are allowed to hold conflicting opinions within ourselves and it’s even more possible that it doesn’t make us bad people. It’s where those opinions become harmful and people don’t learn from these mistakes where the problem lies and when teaching moments are necessary.

If game developers are putting this much trust in their audiences to be challenged and pick apart nuances, we should be giving them the same courtesy. I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next!


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