The overlap in intended audience between Empire and The Hunger Games Adventures is probably vanishingly small. Both are found on Facebook but, in tone and in content, aim themselves completely different ways. It seems unlikely that very many players would approach both for long enough to realise that the two are, in every way that counts, the same game.
The former is a semi-autobiographical game following the life story of Jay-Z, from poor kid in the projects to successful rapper to wealthy mogul with a wide array of profitable investments. The latter is a book and movie tie-in, bringing a dystopian future out from the pages of YA literature and out onto the screen. One is about creating an empire; the other is about tearing one down. And yet, despite their stated differences, the two play out in extraordinarily similar ways.
It’s not just a matter of mechanics, though those are interchangeable. Both games operate on the familiar-to-Facebook premise that you spend a certain amount of energy to execute each action you take, and — surprise — energy replenishment can be purchased for a nominal fee if you don’t feel like waiting for it to regenerate. Both give you sequential missions to move through the story, with each mission involving a certain number of turns talking to NPCs and completing fetch quests. Both offer an array of character customisations, available either through earned in-game currency or via real-cash Facebook credits.
On top of the microtransaction-friendly mechanics, in each game, lies the skin of a story. One takes place in a primarily black, poor neighbourhood of Brooklyn. The other takes place in a heavily white, rural, Appalachian-inspired future. The two environments are as disparate as possible and yet in many ways, present exactly the same challenge: daily survival, and a rise beyond it, as a member of an underprivileged class.
Sadly, however, the most glaring similarity between the two games is this: they are terrible at telling their stories.
Neither Empire nor The Hunger Games Adventures can put the player character into a compelling position. We are not Jay-Z; we are not Katniss Everdeen. We are not the singular hero on whom the story is modelled, and we can never climb our way to a satisfying climax. We are a side character, modelled after our own real-world person and clumsily inserted into someone else’s story.
Games on Facebook are, by necessity, always about you. They are about your avatar, and more importantly they are about your purchases, your score, your accumulated items, your achievements, and your friends. And, in order to succeed, the game needs the player to be exploiting that very “self”.
They need you to be you. They need you to be telling your friends. They need you posting to your wall, bringing in new blood, and wanting upgrades. They need to you to want to come back, to feel comfortable, to feel participatory.
But the best and most challenging art, art that would make a player truly aware of how socioeconomic factors and race truly influenced Shawn Carter’s life, isn’t comfortable. A meaningful story about Katniss’s complex relationship to violence and survival isn’t something you can easily level up and share in incremental stages with your buddies.
The games that tell stories about a single character, by necessity and by definition, focus on a single character. The Hunger Games, as books and as a film, draw our attention because we follow Katniss and the people that matter to her. The real-life biography of Jay-Z is interesting because of his unlikely rise to a position of fame and fortune. Dropping us into a world in the role of nameless sidekick could be interesting if the games were about the worlds, but they aren’t. Both Empire and The Hunger Games Adventures are built and sold on the premise of following in an icon’s pre-established footsteps.
There are ways that a game could tell a compelling, meaningful story about the world in which The Hunger Games takes place, but Facebook isn’t it. A modular, fragmented social experience designed to keep drawing in more players over time isn’t it.
Our narrative game franchises, the games that tell the deepest, richest stories, don’t always succeed as well as they’d like. But an Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, or Mass Effect still puts us in control of the most interesting character on the screen, the character whose story the game is designed to tell. And in many ways, we give ourselves over to the character as we play. If Commander Shepard visited Ilos, I visited Ilos. If Ezio explored Constantinople, I explored Constantinople. If Nathan Drake mowed down a hundred mooks today, I mowed down a hundred mooks today.
But on Facebook, we never truly inhabit another skin; we never look into another soul. We pile clothes and colours on top of ourselves and play dress-up for a while, with no true hard work required. The games aren’t terrible because they’re browser-based or low-tech; plenty of successful games are technically undemanding. They’re terrible because in the midst of the most personalised, self-centered corner of the world we inhabit, we are nominally pretending to be someone else. That’s just not a combination that works.