Should Video Games Cover Sensitive Topics?

Video games are cherished for encompassing a range of creative devices and narratives to fuel a plot or support a story. Known for providing everyday escapism these narratives often feature topics which are aloof from every day life. Stories of super heroes, monsters and far off fantasy lands dominate the gaming genre leaving little room for the narratives which stay closer to the lives all of us know, and some of us try to get away from.

*Before we get into this article I will warn readers that potential spoilers lie ahead* 

Although its not a new phenomenon for the platform of video games to cover sensitive topics and potentially upsetting themes, in the past few years it has almost become a prominent genre of its own. In 2017 Ninja Theory released their adventure indie game Hellblade. The narrative largely revolves around the main character Senua on a rescue mission to save the soul of her dead lover but the tone of the game from the opening credits is immediately distinguishable from those which is shares a genre with. Voices of doubt fill the background of the game and their persistent tone fills you with dread, the dialogue follows the structure of self-doubt so loud and demanding that at times it crushes any spirit and hope that Senua gains through her travels. Whilst Hellblade was successful for other reasons, (narrative, gameplay and voice acting) for me it stands out as a memorable title for its presentation of mental health and the constant pressing struggle for a sufferer.

Considering this I decided to uncover which other titles had abandoned the stereotypical fantasy plot of video games. Immediately What Remains of Edith Finch came to mind. I wrote an entire article summarising my thoughts for the game here and concluded that it was the touching way the game dealt with death and grief which grasped my attention and admiration. Edith Finch is the sole survivor of a supposed family curse, one which has picked off her brothers, uncles and parents and left her as the rightful owner of the Finch Mansion. Death fuels the narrative with the exploration of the strange Finch household reveals the final moments of her relatives lives, playing out these interactions is moving and in the case of the younger victims it’s heart-wrenching. Death isn’t a rare occurrence in video games, but human nature and emotion is harder to find. The narrative of What Remains of Edith Finch carefully handles loss in a manner which leaves a forlorn impact on the player, the lives of the characters are delicate, and the narrative of the game allows you to get to know these characters in great depth, meaning their death impacts the player more substantially.

Another game which handles the sensitive subject of death is That Dragon, Cancer an emotional game from the start That Dragon, Cancer deals with the journey of Joel, a young child suffering with terminal cancer and his parents journey through the diagnosis to the unfortunate early end of Joel’s life. With the knowledge that Joel’s story is based on a real-life tragedy the emotion poured into the narrative is even more heart-wrenching and forlorn. After winning Innovative Game in the 2017 BAFTA Game Awards Amy Green, Joel’s mother and the writer of That Dragon, Cancer said “We created a game that was hard to play. But we believe it was beautiful.” The emotional aspect of That Dragon, Cancer makes this game a hard pill to swallow, but for those who play it it’s a beautifully haunting story of those who suffer with cancer and I believe it’s extremely important for a representation of this dreadful illness to exist in the form of a video game.

As I mentioned in podcast 56 I was also impressed by the representation of other physical illnesses in video games, particularly Firewatch and Robin. In Robin you play through a point and click narrative as Robin a sufferer of the misunderstood chronic illness Myalgic Encephalomyelitis also known as ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The limitations to suffers is executed brilliantly in Robin, with the player having to carefully choose how to expend their restricted energy. For a video game this pace is rather unexpected, (considering that most of us spend our time in video game world’s sprinting rather than calmly walking as we would in real life) but it pays off so well in Robin as the player unconditionally gets to see into the lives of suffers of ME. For an illness so poorly recognised its phenomenal that ME has it’s mark on the world of video games.

It’s also common for video games to encompass mental or physical illness as a propellant to fuel the narrative at the start of the game. Firewatch for example starts with protagonist Henry taking a job as a fire lookout in the middle of a forest in Wyoming. Henry’s decision to move so far from his normal life is derived from the accelerated decrease of his wife Julia’s health, namely her development of early on-set dementia. Although this feature isn’t the main plot of Firewatch, it does provide Henry with moments of raw human emotion and it’s clear that his feelings towards Julia bubble underneath the narrative. Her deteriorating health shapes Henry and allows him to make the choices which go on to shape the story.

There are hundreds more games which showcase why it’s a fantastic idea for the platform of video games to tackle sensitive topics. With books and films showcasing real life sensitive matters often, it makes sense for this genre to find its way into a more interactive platform. What do you think? I’d love to read your comments and hear your thoughts on this topic.