There was once a time when playing games amounted to pushing forward on a control pad, jumping/punching the enemies in front of you and rescuing a princess trapped in a castle/dungeon/race track/arcade/wherever. They were simple, effective and challenging enough that the gameplay alone made the experience worth it, because the technology wasn’t there yet to provide much else.
Nowadays games have become something more. Nuanced characters, elaborate worlds and deep storytelling have replaced “beat the level,” and players require more substance and style than the earlier games could provide. Every now and then game designers decide to take things a step further, incorporating deeper themes and ideas into the mythologies of their games, sometimes drawing them from the mythologies of cultures and storytelling traditions the world over.
The 8 games below are examples of experiences that have deeper meanings and traditions under their surfaces and that just might have more of an impact on you.
8. ‘FINAL FANTASY VII’
The first game in the long-running series to be released on the original Sony PlayStation console back in 1997, Final Fantasy VII blew players away with its rich (for the time) graphics, almost symphonic musical score and stylized world and characters. Its world drew heavily from fears of overconsumption and a heavy reliance on Norse mythology.
Players assumed the role of ecological warrior-activists as they tackled a story set in a world that was bleak and cold and losing its literal soul due to over-harvesting of natural resources. They leave the city of Midgar (a play on Midgard, the middle of the Norse 9-world cosmology), travel past a massive serpent blocking their path, visit resort towns and communes in the desert, confront the past in a dead village called Nibelheim (eg Niflheim, another of the 9 worlds), and eventually do battle with a villain named after the Jewish mystical path to human ascension, Sephiroth, for the eternal memories of the planet itself. The more one plays and replays the game, the more nods they might find to mythology, philosophy, religion, and concerns over the decline of our planet in the name of modern convenience and profit. Heady stuff to tackle in one sweeping story, but it still holds up after almost 20 years.
7. ‘PERSONA 4’
Mechanically, Persona 4 manages to incorporate two games into one: by day players are encouraged explore the town, take part time jobs and form bonds with the people they meet; by night those same characters jump inside a television and fight monsters. But those monsters are no generic enemies to vanquish.
Right off the bat, foes embody ideas of lies, self-deception, delusion and fear, prominently evolving the story into a tale where characters are forced to confront their deepest desires and shames in order to accept who they truly are. With an in-game philosophy mirroring Carl Jung’s idea of the Shadow—whereby we deceive ourselves to present an “acceptable” face to the world at the cost of our own mental wellbeing—the game’s use of fog and the aforementioned real shadows to convey confusion, depression and eventual chaos turns what started out as a murder mystery into a (both real and metaphorical) struggle for the fate of humanity.
6. 'YEAR WALK’
Year Walk is a game with two major attributes: a creepy atmosphere and frustrating puzzles (often with no hints for solving them). But while the idea of walking alone in the frozen snow past old farmhouses, into caves, over rivers and through silent graveyards holds its own innate appeal, the setting of the story during an ancient Swedish folk tradition adds a touch of mystery and the supernatural to an already chilling experience.
Known as Årsgång in its native country, participants would fast, separate themselves from their neighbors and family and walk alone in the snow during the dead of winter’s night in order to make contact with spirits, ghosts and other weird creatures, and in turn divine pieces of the future. Year Walk manages to replicate the experience splendidly, and the result is a game that could either be a real experience for the protagonist, as they struggle to find answers to a disappearance—or the effect of sleep deprivation, intoxicants and the power of nature on the fragile human psyche.
5. 'FINAL FANTASY IX’
In its opening moments, Final Fantasy IX details a plot to abduct a princess, produces a stage play and hints at rumors of impending war—a mashup of classic storytelling hooks and a hint of Shakespearean drama (and fashion). But as the game progresses, that story is left behind in favor of exploring the outcomes of actions, the consequences of memory loss and abandonment, the depth with which fear, greed, and envy transform a person, and a confrontation with the idea of death itself as the ultimate foe.
From having to explain what the end of life is to artificial beings possessed of a childlike mindset to pondering the impact family and friends have on each other, FFIX pulls no punches in sending its characters—and by extension players—down into a well of emotion and sacrifice only to insist that the reason for living is life itself, that we fight (and live) because that’s what we do. How very existential.
There are plenty of games that never end, due to lack of end-game content or because the structure of the games has no need for such a point. And then there’s Journey, a game that has a fixed beginning and end point, but which cycles itself right back to the beginning once the player takes those final steps into the beyond. Reminiscent of the cycle of life that Buddhism (among other world religions, both major and minor) claims all people are riding, Journey shows players the challenges and experiences of the world as it exists at that moment, with the results of those experiences dictating whether or not the characters have “learned” anything.
Should more time be necessary, this Journey repeats over and over again, revisiting those challenges, taking different paths, and facing the consequences of decisions, with each attempt (hopefully) bringing travelers closer and closer to the “truth.” Along the way players experience a wide, gorgeous world that is slowly crumbling into dust and pass the final resting places of those who have failed in their own Journies. And as the game moves towards it crescendo, the character’s cloak grows longer and more lustrous, indicating the effort put into a story where the Journey itself is the important part—a lot like life itself.
Science fiction has a long history of running hand-in-hand with morality plays. Xenosaga takes this historical blending of fantastic technology and philosophical questions and sets it against a conflict between good and evil, messianic prophesies, and giant robots punching foes in the face.
While very long in forming its overarching narrative, the game borrows from the well of religious traditions (including mystical Qabbalah, gnosticism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism), the psychology of Carl Jung, the philosophy of Frederick Nietzsche, and the novel flavor of the great sci-fi authors (like Carl Sagan, Orson Scott Card, and Phillip K. Dick) to create a story that will appeal to both lovers of the genre and people who like to consult textbooks while they play.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful woman who was beloved by all—until one day her twin brother teased her so mercilessly that she turned her back on the world and hid herself away in the blackness of a cave. The people wept and cried and pleaded for her to come out, and monsters threatened to overwhelm the land. And when she crept back out of hiding, the light of her radiance drove back those fearsome beasts and restored order back to the world.
This woman’s name was Amaterasu, and her story formed one of the foundations of Japanese mythology. Okami takes this oft-repeated myth of the return to brilliance and perfection, transforms the lovely goddess into a majestic wolf (itself a play on “okami” being a homophone that means both “wolf” and “respected goddess”), and proceeds to bring light to a dark world through metaphorical painting and poetry, two hallmarks of Japanese culture that persist to this day.
1. 'PERSONA 3’
Much like Final Fantasy IX, Persona 3 tackles the notion of death (or in this case, non-existence) as being the ultimate adversary for humanity. But unlike the previous game, with its nods to hope and the eventual triumph of life, Persona 3 supposes something darker—that humanity cannot change its destiny, does not truly wish to, and cries out to be mercifully erased.
Fight if you must, but failure is the only outcome. This fatalism takes the form of long conversations with terminally ill people, dealings with greedy businessmen who advocate using fear to sell products, and constant wondering if friends are taking advantage of your good nature. The Protagonist navigates this crumbling vision of our own world, witnessing the gradual decline into apathy (which becomes a named disease over the course of the story) and in the process becomes a surrogate for the will to fight, a character who understands that sometimes sacrifice is necessary to preserve even a flawed existence against “impossible” odds. That is, if the player chooses to take that path—otherwise, the entire world ends, and nobody even realizes it.
Charles Dunbar is a professional storyteller, anthropologist, and Japanese culture lecturer. He presents frequently at libraries, universities, and anime conventions all across the United States. You can read more of his work at studyofanime.com.
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