The idea that games are escapist fantasies has been around for a long time. Before the technology to make games was so accessible to people, it may have been true. Now, however, we find ourselves in a privileged time where people can use games to tell emotional stories that weren’t possible in the days where the most complex stories were “Eat dots, don’t die” or “Find the Princess.” There are games available now that tackle the darkness of the human condition, delving into the mind of a man in the middle of a war zone who must wrestle with moral ambiguity or following the lives of children who are haunted by their abusive parents. Games are growing up—throwing off the labels of being purely for entertainment and creating rich experiences to help us grow along with them.
The games on this list can be fun, but at their roots, I don’t think they’re meant to be. They’re meant to entertain in the same way that dramas and horror movies entertain us. Games are an incredible vehicle for creating empathy. The fact that we have to play the game means that we’re already involved just by picking up a controller, and when you switch over from your regular game fare to topics that naturally drag people down, the results can be both amazing and conducive to giving a person an existential crisis.
Just so we’re 100% clear: this list will be spoiler-heavy and contains a lot of triggering topics. Trigger warnings include general abuse, child abuse, homophobia, drug abuse, death, depression, suicide, and violence. This list also only includes games that I have played, so it won’t have That Dragon, Cancer on it.
All set? Okay, let’s go.
10. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Starting us off at No. 10 is Ubisoft’s entry into the artsy game category. The wonderful thing about Valiant Hearts is that it somehow makes war feel new again. We have seen so many war games that it’s easy to become desensitized to it all. Shoot some people, shoot them again.
Valiant Hearts takes that in an entirely different direction by leading you through World War I and making you solve a series of adventure game puzzles. The tone lurches between being cutesy “friendship is magic” to horrific war imagery. The fact that there are collectible artifacts and ways to learn about World War I throughout the game is a nice touch, which, combined with likable characters, goes a long way in making you feel for the people who were a part of the greatest conflict humanity had ever known at the time.
9. To the Moon
There has been a resurgence of games made with RPG maker. This tool allows stories to be told that might not have been told otherwise. To the Moon is one such story of a dying man who has a regret that he wants righted. Your job is to go back and create memories that will allow him to die without any regrets.
What seems like an easy task means going back through a long, winding history of mental illness and tragedy coupled with the heartbreaking pain of just existing. It can hurt just to live in this world, but what are we to do about that? Isn’t the pain worth all the struggle that we have to go through to get there? Would we really have wanted to lose the people who were important to us and brought us so much pain if losing them meant losing the joy as well?
8. Gone Home
For anyone who hasn’t tried Gone Home, just go and try it. Stop reading now and go try this game. There are few games that can build atmosphere this effectively. Set in the ’90s, Gone Home takes a hard look at the pressures that queer teens had (and still have to) deal with. Well-meaning, but unyielding parents, struggling for acceptance, and fighting with depression are all touched upon in this game. It also gives a good idea of how helpless it can feel to be a person watching all of this happening to someone we care about. It is agonizing to not be accepted by the people you care about most, and Gone Home hits that nail right on the head.
7. Papers, Please
If someone told you that you could get an enormous amount of feels just by playing a paperwork simulator, would you have believed them? I wouldn’t have, but that’s just what Papers, Please does. The game has a simple format—you are a guard at a border crossing and you examine the papers of the people who are passing through. You can decide whether or not you want to help people live their lives or just take care of yourself and your family. Do you sacrifice someone if it means that you can get more money to feed your family? Do you let them through so they can meet up with families of their own? The game makes it incredibly hard to want to be a good person, and you’re likely to stop playing it with a guilty conscience.
I was first interested in Sunset because I thought it would give an interesting take on race. You play as a black housekeeper name Angela who is stuck in the middle of a civil war. Trapped in the fictional country of Anchuria, your gameplay of keeping the house clean is juxtaposed with the knowledge that things are happening outside of you, providing something that I’ve never seen in a war game before. Often during war games, we play as people who are fighting in the war, but what about the civilians? The ones who are watching, but unable to directly affect the tide of the revolution? Dealing with dictatorships, politics, race, and societal traditions, Sunset does an incredible job at lulling you with gameplay as you fall into a routine before snapping you out of it with the reminder that you are in the middle of a f*cking war zone.
5. Among the Sleep
Horror games are favorites of mine, and Among the Sleep is no different. Originally, I was just interested in it because it was about a young child who was traversing a dark house at night. Everything becomes scarier then, and given no way to defend yourself from whatever might be out there, it was creepy as hell. But as you make your way through the game, you start realizing that the idyllic scene that you saw at the beginning might have had some cracks in it. Layered underneath the horror motif is a game where, piece by piece, the players are slowly able to uncover the telltale signs of abuse. Child abuse not because the child is hated, but because the parents just aren’t ready for that kind of responsibility is shockingly common. Among the Sleep manages to nicely balance both the fear of an abusive parent and love that an abused child still has for them.
4. The Cat Lady
I’m going to be 100% honest with you and say that while The Cat Lady was interesting, it wasn’t a game that was fun to play for me. It’s a point-and-click adventure game set in a stark, uncaring world. You play as Susan, a middle-aged woman who tries to commit suicide at the beginning of the game. This leads her down a dangerous path. It’s rare to see a game that’s so whole-heartedly dedicated to portraying depression, because depression is not fun and it drags you down.
Every moment feels ponderous, and the game takes care to convey that both by limited color schemes and art styles, but also with voice actors who speak slowly. I didn’t warm up to the game until midway through, and its treatment of other forms of mental illness leave much to be desired, but The Cat Lady is an experience that I feel like most people should have. Depression is so common now, you should see how it feels.
3. Actual Sunlight
Another game that deals with depression and does it in a way that’s much easier to connect with than The Cat Lady’s narrative. The one big problem with this game is that there’s not much in the way of gameplay. It’s an RPG maker game, which ends up feeling like a visual novel. Still, the game itself is poignant, and like Depression Quest, it gives you an inside look into what it’s like to be trapped inside of yourself. The choices that you make, the seemingly trivial things that your mind will focus on, and how it seeps into every aspect of your life. How do you deal with struggling with suicide? How do you talk to someone about wanting to kill yourself? It’s a hard line to walk, and the game does it brilliantly.
2. Papo & Yo
Have you ever wanted a game to punch you right in the heart? Papo & Yo is here to service that need. You are playing as Quico, a young Brazilian boy, who is hiding from his parents and transported to a dream-like world reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth or the otherworld that is so often shown in Studio Ghibli movies. You are joined by a Monster who is generally quite kind and won’t hurt you, but when given certain drugs, becomes a dangerous, terrifying thing.
Just like Among the Sleep, this game deals with abusive parents—specifically, an abusive and alcoholic father. Unlike Among the Sleep, which is first and foremost a horror game, Papo & Yo is very good at letting you forget the abuse that underlies the story, making it that much more powerful when it comes to the forefront once more.
1. Spec Ops: The Line
I don’t tend to like games that are shooters. I am sick to death of the war motif and the idea that Americans are liberating the world through shooting various nationalities. I picked up Spec Ops: The Line on a whim, saw it was set in Dubai, and was all ready to see your regular bile-inducing patriotic sludge about fighting “terrorists.”
Instead, I found a horrifying glimpse into the depths of what happens on the battlefield. This doesn’t happen to everyone, obviously, but the gameplay tends to juxtapose the adrenaline-inducing action alongside the mental deterioration of Captain Walker and his crew. War turns people into animals. Never has it been more clear as we follow them down this path, and perhaps even begin to walk alongside them when it comes to the terrible things that we’re forced to do. We’re just trying to survive, right?
Spec Ops: The Line takes it one step further by making us question ourselves. Loading screens will ask us just how many American soldiers have we killed today. Why are we doing this? Does being a hero matter so much to us that we’re going to keep killing innocent people to do it?
It’s not a fun game to play. It’s downright depressing, but it’s a beautiful gem that shows the potential of video games to be more than just fun. You are walking down into a modern day Heart of Darkness, and in the end, the question is really whether you’re going to end up losing yourself in that darkness—or able to find some kind of moral compass to cling to.