I’ve already compiled a list of games that make me deliriously happy and agape with wonder. But not all art aims to create positive emotions such as these. Much to the continued consternation of aesthetic philosophers, human beings have been proven, time and time again, to also like art that makes them sad, that makes them scared, and even art that makes them angry.
The games listed under this category excel at provoking feelings. Not all of these feelings are what I’d call “emotions.” Some of them are too inchoate and undirected to attain that designation. This is raw, bodily stuff we’re talking about here. And unlike my delight category, not all of the feelings provoked in these games are positive ones. Happiness might be undercut by a sense of melancholy. Wonder might be mixed in with dread.
But whatever the feelings are that these games actually offer up, they all display an airtight control of tone. Some might find the end results to be manipulative. And, for some of these games, I wouldn’t deny that charge. But even if we grant it, there is still no denying that these games display top-notch craft in mood-modulation. If nothing else, they are a wild ride.
Developer: Anna Anthropy
Platforms: Browser-based Flash (since taken down), Windows, Mac
And, here it is. After my teasing in the “elegance” category, you can rest easy. Dys4ia is on this list.
Dys4ia successfully re-creates the seconds-long minigame format of Nintendo’s WarioWare series. But in place of that franchise’s irreverence and joviality, Anthropy substitutes suffocating frustration, anxiety, and confusion, leavened with the occasional laugh and eventual ray of hope. Who would have thought that such complex and often stressful emotions could be wrung from a couple of seconds of arcade-like challenges? As both a mode of diaristic expression and a manifesto on what the “Zinester game” could achieve, Dys4ia broke new, defiant ground.
So, yeah: it deserves to be on here. It’s not my favorite queer game on this list. (I prefer Porpentine’s storytelling, and I think merrit kopas does a more consistent job of using game mechanics allegorically.) And, in recent years, Anthropy herself has voiced misgivings about the game and the specific type of media attention it has attracted. (She removed it from Newgrounds, and has now even hidden it from her itch.io storefront—although it is still there on the site, if you search for it.) Still, though, it is deserving of recommendation. No list of provocative and thoughtful games released in the past decade would be complete without it.
Developer: Laura Shigihara
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
Weaving elements of escapist fantasy into tales about children coming to terms with death is not a particularly novel move. It has a well-established history in children’s literature. Tales of royal succession and magical realms are layered over tragic realities in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, in Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game, and in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. And it had been done in videogames prior to Rakuen, as well: Fran Bow (Killmonday Games, 2015), which I already gave an honorable mention to in my “intimacy” category, plumbs this area with particular aplomb.
Rakuen, though, adds an additional and impressive twist to this formula. Unlike the aforementioned stories, in which the tragic elements are just as fictional as the fantastical ones, at the heart of Rakuen sits a real-life trauma. The hospital in which its “reality” layer is set is reeling from the the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, and subsequent Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster.
This is revealed slowly over the course of Rakuen. (So slowly, in fact, that my explicit mentioning of it verges upon “spoiler” territory, but that was a risk I was willing to take.) Initially, the hospital’s mysteries seem like an elaborately woven gothic fiction. There are abandoned passages and shuttered wings that “kids aren’t supposed to go to.” The doctors are still rattled from a past event that no one wants to name. But, eventually, it becomes clear: this story is all the more tragic for being utterly grounded. Hospital areas have been blocked off due to earthquake and flooding damage. Doctors are stressed because of the influx of patients in the wake of a natural disaster. Although these are fictional characters, the sources of their suffering—the loss of a spouse, loved ones in a coma, cancer—are heartbreakingly literal, when placed in historical context.
Rakuen, then, displays rare ambition. Its fantasy sections are sometimes playful and humorous, sometimes exquisitely melancholy. Its “real-world” sections are sometimes charming, sometimes sad, and ultimately quite serious in their scope and implications. This could have easily been a tonal train wreck. But Rakuen is held together by its uncommonly humane voice. (I think it says a lot that the game’s control scheme has a dedicated button for talking to your Mom.) There is a great swirling mass of feelings in Rakuen, as its themes and narrative stakes become ever-more clear. It’s easy to imagine a version of it that doesn’t work at all. But Shigahara proves herself to have exactly the deft touch necessary to hold it all together.
Developer: Dennaton Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Android
Hotline Miami makes you feel like a badass. Kicking down doors and shooting goons in the face with a shotgun while Moon’s “Hydrogen” slithers its way out of your speakers into your brain, you feel like the world’s most ruthless cleaner, a Tarantino-worthy badass cleaning out rival thugs’ headquarters in record time.
Hotline Miami makes you feel helpless. That soundtrack is still there, thumping, propelling you forward, but it’s now your twentieth try on this agonizingly difficult floor. You just finally made it past that guy that’s always hiding in that one corner, but now you have to inch a little further down the hallway. You’ve memorized the first half of this level, but now here it is again: the fear of the unknown, the sense of trepidation, the gnawing knowledge that a white-suited mafioso hidden just beyond the confines of the frame could end your life instantly with just a single bullet. This game is hard.
Most importantly of all, Hotline Miami makes you feel delirious. As the game’s cutscenes progress, its plot sinks further into a Lynchian fever dream. Our grasp on the events depicted slips away. What’s up with the masks? What’s going on with that guy’s face? What happened to the woman that we saved? Did … did we do that to her? What is actually happening in between these narrative ellipses? Who are we, really?
For the most part, I have avoided violent games on this list, as violence tends to limit appeal and accessibility. I said in my introduction that this list of games would be biased toward games that are “easy to play, and aspire to middlebrow acceptability.” Hotline Miami does not aspire to middlebrow acceptability. Hotline Miami wants to stab middlebrow acceptability in the face with a fistful of barbed wire. And you know what? It is all the more intoxicating for it. Its violence is at once slinky and stomach-churning, and is a central contributor to Hotline Miami‘s ability to make you feel increasingly unwell as you reach its head-scratching conclusion.
Much like Killer7 (Grasshopper Manufacture, 2005)—a game that I have written about admiringly before—everything you see and hear in Hotline Miami seems at least one level removed from whatever the game’s fictional “reality” is supposed to be. The narration of Hotline Miami oozes with epistemological instability. We’re not seeing this world quite right. What scraps of plot we get suggest that nefarious mind control is afoot. But we also might just be dealing with good-old-fashioned psychosis. In Hotline Miami, you’re the unhinged psycho who all of the other gangsters are afraid of. In fits and spurts, this can be a power trip. But it is also more than a little unsettling.
Platforms: Xbox 360, Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS, Android
There are those who will insist that Playdead’s sophomore effort, INSIDE (2016), stands head and shoulders above their debut, LIMBO. I respect this opinion, but cannot agree with it. For me, the two are locked in a dead heat, each with their own plusses and minuses. Deciding which to include on this list was very nearly a coin flip.
Certainly, I would not wish to dissuade anyone from playing INSIDE. The movements of its characters are marvelous. Its world-building is mysterious and vexing. Its sound design is superb. (Seriously, do yourself a favor and play it while wearing a pair of high-quality headphones. It is a downright tactile experience.) Its ending is a bizarre and captivating slice of animation, as eye-catching and provocative as any animated short you’re likely to see in the 2010s.
But where INSIDE, in my mind, falters—and where LIMBO succeeds, wonderfully—is in strict control of tone and mood.
Both games are filled with graphic violence. Not, for the most part, violence done by your character towards others, but instead violence done against your character, as you fail over and over again in each game’s deviously crafted platforming puzzles. The violence in INSIDE struck me as a hint too literal in its expression. The violence in LIMBO, by contrast, is expertly woven in to the entire package.
LIMBO is a perfect little nightmare of a game, one in which the creepy and macabre become so exaggeratedly grotesque that they curl back toward the comic. Its monochrome shadow-puppet visuals reverberate with a murky dread. But when the dread of anticipated violence gives way to actual violence, the game’s gleeful sadism can give rise to uneasy laughter. This world is unfairly terrible and terribly unfair, both to the hapless lost boy who serves as its protagonist, and to you, the player, struggling through repeated cheap deaths in the face of cruelly misleading visual cues. When disaster strikes, and the boy’s shadow-puppet body crumples into a dismembered heap, the immediate reaction is a gasp of throat-tightening shock. But there is also something strangely funny about the game’s no-holds-barred sadism. The game’s designers impart this world with cartoon-villain cruelty. And the boy at its center, too, is a cartoon character: much like Scratchy of Itchy & Scratchy, he keeps getting up and taking his licks again, no matter how many times he is literally ripped to pieces.
This mix of legitimately suffocating dread leavened only by the obvious gleefulness of its sadism is a hard one to get right, but LIMBO nails it. It works as a devilishly difficult game, and it works as a gorgeously-rendered slice of animation. It doesn’t quite stick the landing. (INSIDE‘s ending may be a head-scratcher, but it’s certainly better than LIMBO‘s, which is just a shrug.) But for a few hours, it remains an almost unimaginably tight experience.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Journey has a reputation for being the be-all-end-all of videogames as art. If anyone on the fence about the medium’s potential as an art form, the consensus since 2012 seems to be that you should point them in the direction of Journey. According to conventional wisdom, it is medium’s most aesthetically mature game.
But Journey is more divisive than is often acknowledged.
I don’t think that anyone could contest that every single detail of Journey is exquisitely crafted. Austin Wintery’s score is a triumph of sweeping sentiment. The game’s visuals, all orange sunsets and sleek blues and streams of flowing sand, are a marvel. Its narrative arc—a minimalist mash-up of the hero’s journey and the visit to the mountaintop guru to attain enlightenment—is an elegant, transcultural fable. Its unique approach to online network connectivity pointed a way forward for the medium as a 21st century art form: out of the swamps of homophobic teens trash talking each other on voice chat, and toward respectability.
But here’s the thing: some people don’t like their art to be exquisitely crafted. Some people don’t like art to value respectability above all else. Some people like their art to be rough, challenging, experimental. And although Journey might be innovative its approach to online interactions, it is certainly not otherwise a rough or challenging work of art. Its aesthetic is pure Disney: astonishing artistry, minus any sense of danger.
And I wouldn’t hold it against those people if they rolled their eyes at Journey. I wouldn’t blame them for disliking the score’s “now you will feel this” emotional prescriptivism. I wouldn’t blame them for getting bored with the game’s postcard visuals. I wouldn’t blame them for finding its narrative to be too tritely uplifting. (If you actually poke around, you’ll notice that Journey tells the story of an advanced civilization that failed to prevent environmental catastrophe, ended up warring over the scraps of habitable land. But that dark and cautionary thread is kept in the background, behind the vague, shiny celebration of nonspecific spiritual enlightenment.)
Unlike some more effusive critics, I can acknowledge that there are people who won’t like Journey. There are people who will find its conservative aesthetics stifling. I acknowledge this point of view. I have no beef with it. But I do not myself share this wariness. And that’s why I will continue to recommend Journey for the foreseeable future.
Is Journey a flawlessly manufactured product? Yup. Is Journey emotionally prescriptive? Oh my, yes. Is Journey middlebrow? I don’t see how I can deny that. But if enjoying middlebrow art as potent and affecting as Journey is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Its totalizing, gesamtkunstwerk spectacle is just too appealing to my senses for me to resist.
In the end, I guess I don’t mind being emotionally manipulated, as long as the emotional path I am taken on is rich and satisfying. And the medium has provided precious few experiences as emotionally satisfying as the arc of Journey, aesthetic conservatism be damned.
I will readily admit: If Stephen L. Clark had something specific to say with Rooftop Cop (2014), I didn’t get it. Perhaps the five-part game is supposed to be a treatise on community-based alternatives to traditional policing. Or a plea for prison abolition. If so, I didn’t catch it. Rooftop Cop is a very opaque work of art. But I am not one who believes that art needs to clearly communicate a message in order to be successful. Even though I was personally baffled by Rooftop Cop, it nonetheless made me feel things, mysterious and deep and confounding things, things that I had felt before in the presences of abstract art or experimental cinema, but no videogame before had ever quite managed to touch on for me. For anyone pre-disposed to hating Journey for its aesthetic prescriptivism, consider Rooftop Cop your antidote. It is befuddling, it is open to interpretation, and it has the power to provoke inchoate feelings far removed from by-the-numbers emotional manipulation.
Keeping on the theme of confusion: There is a bewildering opacity to The Path (Tale of Tales, 2009). Following its explicitly-stated instructions gets you lightly reprimanded for your lack of rebelliousness. Stray from its guide, and you will soon yourself faced with a bevy of possible interactions, a confounding UI, filled with unexplained icons. It is inscrutable, yes, but that is the point: the whole game is about the experience of getting lost—an experience that the medium of the videogame can uniquely offer us. From its interface to the sneaky non-Euclidean cheats of its landscape, The Path is singularly devoted to the gnawing feeling of disorientation, of being out of one’s depth, of drifting ever more deeply into danger. It’s a bit janky, yes, but it’s a singular vision.
David Lynch is a popular cinematic reference point for game developers. This fact is already amply represented within the list I have been building. Deadly Premonition is a clear riff on Twin Peaks. In its mix of otherworldly gangster figures, unsettling violence, and hallucinatory ellipses, Hotline Miami owes a debt to both Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. And then there is Lone Survivor (Jasper Byrne, 2012), which didn’t quite make it onto my main list. Lone Survivor takes the survival horror formula of the Silent Hill franchise and twists it in two important ways. First, it adds a heftier “survival” element, spreading the plot across several days and requiring your character to scavenge for food and drinkable water. Secondly, it adds a heavy dose of Lynchian surrealism. The end result is something more potent than even the best of the Silent Hill franchise has been. Mere fear is supplemented with soul-crushing anxiety, and the suggestion that the post-apocalyptic world we’re seeing is purely a psychic landscape adds another layer of unnerving possibility. Lone Survivor is not a pleasant game to play, but it is an affecting one.