Video Games Shouldn't Be Afraid To Mean Something

You know why everyone's up in arms about Mass Effect 3's ending? Because it doesn't mean what they want it to. But whether you liked the ending, hated it or lobbied to have it changed, BioWare's sci-fi franchise does means something because it aims to be a metaphor. And I wish more games would do that.

Games do a bang-up job with power fantasies and they try to take you to imaginary places. But there's not enough urgency when it comes to saying something about human nature. You save people, planets and universes all the time in games but ideas about humans confront each other or cope with life's ups-and-downs remain frustratingly infrequent.

Let's talk about zombies for a minute. Colson Whitehead's Zone One came out last year and focuses on a New York City just beginning to rebuild after an apocalyptic outbreak of zombie plague devastates the world. Whitehead's novel lives in the small details, showing how soldiers find new ways to break up the boredom of killing zombies day after day and how the way people talk to each other changes. As the book goes on, you get a sense of just how hollowed-out people's lives are, even if they're deluding themselves otherwise.

When I finished Zone One, one of my first thoughts was that I hoped someone at working on The Last of Us was reading it. Post-apocalyptic similarities aside, Zone One stretches the space inside of its conceit to make the reader reflect back on the real world. While we still don't know much of what The Last of Us will offer, I'm still hoping the developers inject some kind of symbolism into the game's action.

Now The Last of Us isn't out yet but other recent games show how embedding larger themes doesn't necessarily have to mean you get a dull experience. Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake games may be bi, ham-fisted metaphors about light and darkness — executed through gameplay — but they still provide a point-of-view on creativity and the dual nature of humankind. Bastion talks about how we talk about deal with loss. What you do at the end of Supergiant's first release can tell you something about yourself and how you move on from tragedy. Journey's quiet triumph comes directly as a meditation on loneliness and companionship. All very different, all very enjoyable and all pretty good metaphors.

Going back to Mass Effect, the action/RPG series achieves meaning in multiple ways, from the way that its fictional universe was constructed and how it lets players steer a saga with decisions. The Mass Effect games can be read as a metaphor for cultures clashing and how individuals change inside the big moving socio-political systems we exist in. The fact that it's a big AAA corporate franchise doesn't preclude it from having metaphorical depth.

Games can be a product — and, yes, that's an ugly reality — AND have meaning. If you're spending 10, 20 or 100 hours inside a piece of fiction, whatever you take away from it and back into the real world can be incredibly powerful. Or the opposite can happen, where you find slices of well-observed behaviour That's the kind of ending I want from video games.


Comments

    *SPOILERS - LOTS OF EM*

    The problem players had (or, at least this player) wasn't the lack of meaning. It was a wonderful sci-fi, Philosophical ending, but as a game ending it was crap. The story was great; the ending was great, but the two did not MATCH.

    The meaning in ME was fine - in fact, yes it was good. But the end-game clashes with the story. It says that synthetics and organics can never get along, even though in my game I had brokered peace between the Geth and Quarians. The decision to destroy the reapers was bound up with having to destroy the Geth - which could have been interesting - but no mention was made of the peace and therefore the consequences of destroying the only FRIENDLY synthetic race. Also, why should I bother playing again if I have nothing invested in the future of Tuchanka or Thessia? What about the Collector Base from ME2 - what difference does that make apart from a slightly higher statistical likelihood that I'll get a slightly different cutscene?

    Once again - the ending is fine as a sci-fi ending, it just does not match the game I spent 100 hours playing.

    "does means something"?

    The ending was just a tacked on "twist" for the sake of one and a massive genre clash. It was a deeply personal character emotion based game which had a vast philosophical ambiguous thing stuck on the back of it.

    It would be like taking "Aliens" and sticking the end of "Matrix revolutions" on it

      because Aliens was a really character driven and emotional story...

    I so hate you artist types, sry its just you can place your artistic endings where the sun dos not shine ;) go back to finger painting. again i respect your opinion... But F$&k you

    (re: ME3) Evan clearly does NOT understand why people are mad.
    And that makes me mad.

    To take meaning from a story means there needs to be some form of consistency of themes.

    ME3 is about cultural conflict, and many other things. For 99.9% of the game it is about these things

    5 minutes from the end it introduces a dump truck's worth of Nihilism to the audience's face and cuts to black.

    No metaphor can be derived from a story that is in such diametric opposition to itself.

      Bastion, Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, these all have great metaphors and subtle meaning to them. Mass Effect 3 does too, barring the ending.

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