ANGELES — Miguel Oliveira is developing a video game
in a tiny apartment near the University of Southern
California, worlds away from the high-tech studios of
Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. He works on a laptop
surrounded by folding chairs and red plastic cups. The
forgettable surroundings belie his ambition: to design a
game that changes the way we play.
Oliveira’s game "Thralled," set in
18th-century Brazil, players explore jungles and ships
to help a runaway slave reconnect with the life that was
stolen from her.
Portugal native grew up on games where guns played the
starring role. Now, he wants something more — to
create work that has the same cultural resonance as the
best in film, literature and music.
blocking interactive media from being considered art is
that most video games focus on primitive feelings of
aggressiveness and competitiveness," said Oliveira,
23, a lifelong gamer who graduated from USC’s
interactive media program last spring. "Art is
introspective. It makes you see the stuff that makes us
want to believe I’m in the business of making people
is among a new generation of designers who are
re-imagining the role of video games, injecting a dose
of realism — from everyday moral dilemmas and economic
struggles — into a medium that’s generally relied on
two extremes: save the princess or save the world.
& Yo" follows a young boy who must tread softly
around an abusive monster, a metaphorical father who is
struggling with addiction. "Prison Architect"
calls on players to build and manage detention
facilities while navigating issues such as race and
capital punishment. "Gone Home" spins a tale
out of the feelings of loneliness and banishment that
consume a teenage lesbian. "Papers, Please"
asks players to imagine life as an underpaid,
over-stressed immigration officer in an Eastern Bloc
don’t have to be a happy, fun thing," said
"Paper, Please" designer Lucas Pope, a
36-year-old American now living in Japan. "Our
generation grew up with games, and we express ourselves
through games. Games once had to be entertaining, but
now games are another way to talk to people."
of these character-driven games are being developed on
shoestring budgets by independent designers. But big
video game companies are seeing the potential in tapping
a demographic beyond the GameStop crowd.
Montreal, best known for blockbuster brands such as
"Assassin’s Creed," will release a game
later this year called "Watch Dogs." Set in a
crime-ridden Chicago, the game deals with government and
corporate surveillance, with players grappling with the
balance between personal privacy and urban safety.
Designer Jonathan Morin said his goal is "to bring
a shade of gray to the gaming world."
Cage of Quantic Dream, a Paris-based company, is making
games that turn seemingly small moments — losing track
of a child at a mall or feeling uncomfortable at your
first high school party — into grand, anxiety-filled
set-pieces. "You can do more with this medium than
make toys," he said.
Hofmeier’s independently produced "Cart
Life" offers a snapshot of what it’s like to be
poor in America. "Cart Life," which has been
downloaded more than 3 million times, puts players in
control of various street vendors, such as a Ukrainian
immigrant trying to sell newspapers or a single mom who
hopes to start a coffee stand.
Life," with its crude block-style art and blip-and-bloop
sound effects, looks straight out of the 1980s. Its
thematic maturity, however, is very much of the moment.
What the game lacks in technological prowess, it makes
up for in character depth.
Emberley, the game’s struggling entrepreneur, is
getting divorced and battling for custody of her
daughter. Here’s a puzzle players are forced to
confront: Can Emberley spare the time, financially, to
converse with her child? One doesn’t necessarily win
"Cart Life," since a character such as
Emberley is never really out of debt.
not just indie games that are getting existential. Sony’s
2013 zombie-themed hit "The Last of Us"
included a realistic underlying theme: coping with the
loss of family members.
in a place where it’s OK to fiddle with people’s
emotions," said Adam Boyes, a vice president at
Sony Computer Entertainment. "Video games were
always a way out, but nowadays we can have deeper
conversations, whether it’s around the NSA or our
relationships with our parents."
the game genre is also seen as a way for the industry to
keep players buying games long after they’ve grown
tired of narratives built around men with guns.
two-thirds of video game players are under age 35, and
55 percent of players are male, according to the
Entertainment Software Association. The trade group
defines video games broadly; it counts avid consumers of
more casual titles played on handheld and mobile
data for the most popular games points more forcefully
to a younger male demographic. Seven of the top 10
selling video games in 2013 were combat, sports or
action titles, according to the NPD Group. "Grand
Theft Auto V" and "Call of Duty: Ghosts"
claimed the top two spots.
games have yet to win broad appeal across age, gender
lines in the same way that blockbuster films or
top-rated TV shows have.
game industry likes to say we make more money than
Hollywood, but more people saw ‘Toy Story 3’ on
opening weekend than have played a ‘Call of Duty’
game," said game designer Warren Spector, whose
credits include "Deus Ex," a sci-fi combat
game with complex narratives and political overtones.
"The movie industry isn’t charging $60 to see its
product. We sell a lot of copies, but there are probably
2 million core gamers really into this stuff."
STORY CAN END HERE)
Scott Elder, 44, sits in his family room near San Diego
and pulls up the Web page for RedBox. The service offers
online games for rent, but nearly half the games listed
for adults are violent action titles. Scrolling through
the page, Elder is bored.
guys. More guys. Killing more people. It’s not
interesting anymore," Elder said. "I want
games to mean more."
has been playing video games most of his life, including
the moody and violent "Grand Theft Auto" and
"Silent Hill" series. He’s still playing,
but he said these days he’s looking for games that
challenge him intellectually.
is a big fan of "Papers, Please," the game
that puts players in the shoes of an Eastern Bloc border
control officer who must decide who gets to cross, and
tense and requires quick thinking, but Elder calls it
"fascinating and engrossing." Characters will
beg, lie and throw a fit at the border inspector.
like the direction games are going," Elder said.
"I’d like to see more games focus on internal
character conflicts. I’m hoping that’s the next
stage. I’m hoping indie games continue to do that and
I hope larger games realize they can make money from
largely unexplored terrain. Portia Sabin, 42, said she
was once an avid player but lost interest amid more
who runs the Portland, Ore.-based independent record
label Kill Rock Stars, recently took the video game
"Gone Home" for a spin after one of the bands
she works with licensed a song for the game. She was
pleasantly surprised to find that it addressed feminist
issues and homosexuality.
is heavier and more important than a lot of video
games," she said. "This makes me excited for
the future of video games."
there was this bonus: It could be completed in just a
few hours, a godsend for an often-ignored demographic in
the video game world: working parents.
summer blockbusters, games will always have a place for
high seas adventures with a pirate assassin, but at no
other time in gaming history has there been such a
robust alternative to what’s stacked at the end of the
Best Buy aisles.
that’s because the cost of producing content has
dwindled. In the mid-’90s, software alone could run
tens of thousands of dollars. Today one can design a
game for free and sell it, sans intermediaries, via
2009 to 2012, the percentage of digitally accessed or
downloaded video games — including games for
smartphones, tablet computers and home consoles —
doubled. Discs and cartridges, which once accounted for
80 percent of sales, are now closer to 60 percent of the
market, according to the NPD Group. An estimated 1
billion people worldwide buy games, and the
fastest-growing sector of the industry is (like the
music business) downloadable content.
is rare in the mainstream game industry. Big-budget
games typically cost somewhere between $50 million and
$100 million and three to five years to develop. With
that kind of investment, companies expect outsize
indie games can be made for thousands of dollars or
less. Hofmeier created "Cart Life" with free
software, so his main expense was his time. "Gone
Home," created by the four-person team at the
Fullbright Co., was completed for less than $200,000,
included living expenses — the team rented a house
where it lived and worked. In half a year, "Gone
Home" sold more than 250,000 copies. Lucas Pope
designed "Papers, Please" by himself, hoping
to sell 20,000 copies. He sold more than 400,000.
despite these successes, there’s still an in-crowd,
exclusionary nature to the medium. Video games typically
require certain skills, such as mastering a controller
with a dozen-plus buttons or attaining the quick thumb
reflexes needed to blast enemy soldiers. Most also
require a big investment of time, and not everyone can
afford games and game consoles.
said, the generations who are growing up using
smartphones and tablet computers in grade school will
benefit from the ease of touch screens and won’t need
mom and dad to buy an expensive game console, making it
easier for game designers to reach them.
puts the onus on the storytellers. There’s an audience
out there looking for video games that aren’t about
fantasy worlds, military action or sports.
these games available, the thinking goes, and the
audience will be there.
been creating content for ourselves for a long
time," said Ruben Farrus, designer of the "Papo
& Yo" addiction game. "We’ve been
creating content for gamers, for game developers. When
there was an explosion of casual games, it was a seen as
a market that wasn’t for real gamers. But I think we
have a duty to reach everyone."
he said, games are doomed to "stay in a cultural
STORY CAN END HERE)
AT A DIFFERENT LEVEL
high-jumping plumbers and gun-toting muscle men, the
characters of these independent games, all playable for
the PC, are more akin to those found at your local
Life" (Richard Hofmeier). Play as a Ukrainian
immigrant or a single mom, each in a desperate state to
succeed as a street vendor. But selling lots of
newspapers from a cart isn’t a key to riches in this
life simulator, which turns daily anxieties —
remembering, for instance, to buy cat food — into
tense, playable moments.
Architect" (Introversion Software). The idea was
simple: design a game in which players can build
penitentiaries. But the execution has been far from
easy, as nearly every aspect of running a penal complex
is a hot-button issue. Still in development,
"Prison Architect" mixes narrative and
simulation elements, touching on issues of race, capital
punishment, prison labor and more.
the Moon" (Freebird Games). "Can you take me
to the moon?" It’s a dying man’s last wish, and
it launches this sci-fi fairy tale in which two doctors
are hired to re-arrange the memories of an elderly
client to help him die a happier man. Can we love the
life we lived, or will our dreams always haunt us? There
are no easy answers when grappling with mortality.
Novelist" (Orthogonal Games). A marriage on the
brink, a father who thinks he’s a hack, a mother who
has suppressed her desires to be an artist and a bullied
child. These are the various tales that the player — a
ghost living inside an idyllic home — will uncover and
attempt to manipulate. But are the supernatural as
helpless as the living?
Shivah" (Wadjet Eye Games). There’s a murder, and
Russell Stone is a suspect. But this is no ordinary
whodunit. "The Shiva" is a character study,
offering a look at the life of Stone, a down-on-his luck
Rabbi. He’s bitter, in debt and ready to step away
from his life of servitude, but the game’s events have
him reexamining his relationship with his faith.
Stanley Parable" (Galactic Cafe). Stanley’s life
is a modern tragedy. He’s not only stuck in a
soul-crushing cubicle job (Stanley is employee "No.
427"), he’s content with going nowhere. But
suddenly everything that’s normal is not, and Stanley’s
daily routine is thrown upside down. Can Stanley,
frightened of his boss and nervous of losing his job,
handle the unexpected?
Todd Martens, L.A. Times staff