Games mock realities that, at their best, can make players feel an emotion more powerfully than any other medium. You are the on-screen actor, and you control the game’s plot through your actions. Having control means you’re responsible, within obvious bounds, for what happens in the game, so achievements, failures, consequences and the emotions those come with, belong to you.
What does it feel like to face the death of a child, or to live with hopelessness, or to suffer from the bitterness of extreme loneliness? Fiction and art have grappled with these issues for centuries. Now games are showing us what it is to exist at the extreme margins. A new generation of games, like That Dragon, Cancer, Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight, is connecting players with real human issues, including terminal illness, depression and suicide. Mostly generated by small teams or by individuals, these games are described by Lucas Pope, creator of Papers, Please, as “other people simulators” that allow us to interact with the world from a challenging point of view. While games have traditionally endowed the player with a host of impressive fantasy powers, these games show how their creators cope with real-life difficulties, often with a limited ability to effect change. In demonstrating specific challenges via game mechanics, they allow us to walk in other people’s shoes. Developers are showing a deeper understanding that by connecting the player with the storyteller through actions, as opposed to the anecdote, confession or demonstration of more linear forms, they can convey strong feelings or empathy in unique ways.