‘Video games are meant to be fun’ is an all too common catch-cry. Accepted and amplified, the belief goes on to permeate the titles that enter the zeitgeist and win end-of-year awards: the Sekiros, the Controls, the Untitled Goose Games—the so-called spectacular. However, in stark contrast to that trend, significant numbers of developers are turning away from the extraordinary or at least using it as a lens through which to examine more human concerns.
To suggest that this trend is unique to gaming among media forms would be incorrect. In science-fiction literature, for example, this century has seen the emergence of a ‘mundane science fiction’ subgenre that rejects the trappings of technologies and scenarios all but impossible, including faster-than-light travel, aliens, and time travel. The tenets of the subgenre are encapsulated in the tongue-in-cheek Mundane Manifesto (reproduced here), with one of the goals being “A new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.” A concerted move away from the space opera of Star Wars may sound boring to some, but stories like Andy Weir’s The Martian, more topical and more real, are the outcome.
Such works shift the frame of reference and thus draw attention to factors that might otherwise be overlooked. An ancient battle between dark and light is jettisoned in favour of the need for survival and ingenuity. Rob Hart’s recent novel The Warehouse critiques contemporary capitalism by imagining a corporatist endpoint. One of the most memorable sequences of the book is a kind of literary montage showing how the system effectively reduces people to cogs. The sidelining of the spectacular allows the story to become more relatable and relevant.
In the world of gaming, Life is Strange and its recently concluded sequel are, perhaps, the best examples of this tendency in action, but it is equally evident in the likes of Shenmue III, NeoCab, Mosaic, Jalopy, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, and The Red Strings Club, not to mention the vast numbers of survival games. Players are able to perform superhuman feats in some of these games, but all of them focus more on everyday actions, such as driving, walking, surviving, or working. In drawing attention to these quotidian activities, the player is invited to view them from a new perspective, and they therefore take on unexpected significance. Mixing drinks to manipulate emotions raises questions about alcohol, completing arbitrary work milestones reveals the hollowness of a corporate life, and talking with strangers becomes a challenge of knowing what to share and what not to.
The rising tide of mundane games may be tied to a paradigm shift in ludoliterature. The age of Halo, Gears, and Uncharted—games with stories—seems to be waning, replaced by an era of games about stories, and proliferation of the mundane may be one of the ways that the medium echoes similar shifts in precursor media forms.
Pertinently, Victorian literature, as exemplified by the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, or Thomas Hardy, was largely concerned with society, which was settling into a new normal following the massive upheavals resulting from the Industrial Revolution. The modernist period that followed was more centred on individualism. As theorist Frederic Jameson writes in ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, “the modernist aesthetic is in some way organically linked to the conception of a unique self and private identity, a unique personality and individuality, which can be expected to generate its own unique vision of the world and to forge its own unique, unmistakable style.” The work of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot signified a sharp break from their predecessors through both highly wrought styles and a general inclination towards exploring the internal self. Mundanity, argues Chiara Briganti, is an integral part of that introspection: “there is no modernism without the everyday.”
To be clear, the preceding paragraph is not intended to argue that gaming is undergoing a fin de siècle-style shake-up that will result in a period of modernist navel-gazing. The tenets of postmodernism in its many forms are too deeply ingrained in the contemporary industry for that, particularly given the democratisation of development technologies and tools.
Gamification problematises mundane activities. Walking becomes more than walking, as is evidenced by all those walking simulators; walking becomes exploring—not just a space but also a story, teasing out details of the everyday by forcing the player to perform everyday actions. Such is the case in Gone Home, Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, What Remains of Edith Finch, and countless others. The settings may be fantastic, but the human stories told within them are not. Nevertheless, mundane gameplay and themes are contentious because they can seem unengaging. Ergo, the widespread disdain for walking simulators when their narratives fail to connect with an audience looking more for BioShock than Perception.
The most important point of all is that mundanity should not be included for the sake of itself. That statement should not be taken to apply to the swathes of survival games or random simulators wherein engaging in repetitive and arguably relaxing activities is the main point. In a narrative-focussed game, any action that the player must perform has to connect to meaning. Walking becomes a way of uncovering a story; talking becomes a way of uncovering character. In the most tedious examples, developers take the idea too literally and conflate mundane activities with spectacular actions, as is the case in Mosaic.
Gaming’s interest in the everyday is promising for the kinds of stories being told. The muscle-bound, rage-infused, princess-saving tales no longer capture the same attention as they used to. If gaming narratives are going through a paradigm shift, it is one powered by attention to the mundane and how ordinary things can be used to shine a light on humans and our societies.
Next week will bring the final storyplayer chapter of 2019, looking ahead to the most promising story-based games of 2020.