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Philisophical Gaming: A.K.A. How Heavy Can You Get?

JuJu

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So, here's a question for the blog, rather than my usual spiel about internal thoughts.

 

How heavy can you get?

 

Let me explain: People like thinking. Well, let me amend that: MOST people like thinking. And game that make you think, are the best. Games that give you deep, heartrending questions and choices with no clear answer. People like that because... hey, that's how life really is!

 

So, what's your favorite game that made you think? Alternatively, how dark adn heavy should games get? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed? I'd like to hear your thoughts.



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Philosophical games are fun sometimes! As long as the philosophy is meaningful and interesting anyway. Xenogears is probably the most extreme example that I can think off the top of my head. The whole plot is just filled with philosophical and religious symbolism (which is fitting given one of it's main inspiration is Neon Genesis Evangelion). But other games incorporate philosophy in more subtle ways. Final Fantasy VII for example has it's moments, and Chrono Trigger does too.

 

The big question is I think, does your inclusion of philosophy really do anything for the game/story? For that matter does the game/story really have anything to do with the philosophy? Some philosophy can be fun, but sometimes it's better kept on it's own.

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This question came up recently in Yahtzee and Gabe's Let's Drown Out series. It boiled down to really, there is no topic that art can get to that is too heavy - and I would whole-heartedly agree. There is no line that can be crossed; no scenario I can think of that any form of art- games included, should be forced to stay away from. You should be challenged by what you consume, or your escapism really is meaningless.

 

I love games that are actually about something, and not just that hitting things is fun. Among other things, Talos Principle is all about defining what it is to be human. Dark Souls, is at it's core, thematically about the human spirit, and to fight despite any foregone outcome.

Personally, and I know this might sound kinda stupid, but Metro 2033 actually changed my life when I first played it.
The long and short of it being that...

The player character, and their companions are the villains the whole time. Engaging in the complete and utter genocide of an entire species out of some rationalized sense of fear. The world of Metro was destroyed in nuclear fire, because cooler heads did not prevail, and over the course of the game (the novel, originally), humanity is deterministically portrayed as simply continuing this cycle. Convenience and emotion continually winning out over rationality and compassion. It's a tough pill to swallow, because I think it hits pretty close to home.


It's message was handled better in the book, and even then it's not really an earth-shattering revelation. Bad things happen, and people can do bad things. But at the same time, it was really the first game to make me sit and think about my actions as a player, and what it meant of me as a person. Ideally, that's what a serious topic, or a serious moment really should do.

 

Of course, no discussion about this topic should go without a shout out to White Phosphorous,

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Xenogears is probably the most extreme example that I can think off the top of my head. The whole plot is just filled with philosophical and religious symbolism (which is fitting given one of it's main inspiration is Neon Genesis Evangelion).

 

BEST. GAME. EVER. That game was deep, and it took me a few playthroughs to fully understand what was going on, but man that game was awesome! It was originally written as Final Fantasy VII, but the producers thought it was too dark for the series. They wanted to make anyways, so it was given a new name and a few other details. fack I love that game, and I digress...

 

Metro 2033 was pretty cool, but either I wasn't paying much attention to the story, or I didn't fully process the information that was coming at me, but it seemed to leave a lot of information out. When I seen it was based on a book in the credits, I thought "Russian authors produce some of the best Sci-fi I have ever read... Must acquire books!" (I still haven't yet, because I don't purchase a lot of fiction these days.)

 

Games that present something for me to chew on are the best in my book. I will play pure entertainment games, but to me they are kind of like parody songs. They are fun for a little bit, but eventually they just feel empty and vapid so I need to put them down and move on.

 

And I am with ChaosianGabe, Art should never be forced to shy away from any subject.  As Cesar A. Cruz is quoted as saying "Art should disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed."

Art can be used to help us exorcise our societal 'demons' without actually becoming those evils, or repressing them to the point they make an unwanted appearance.

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BEST. GAME. EVER. That game was deep, and it took me a few playthroughs to fully understand what was going on, but man that game was awesome! It was originally written as Final Fantasy VII, but the producers thought it was too dark for the series. They wanted to make anyways, so it was given a new name and a few other details. fack I love that game, and I digress...

 

Yeah, but on the other hand... Xenogears was pretty cool and all, but it could be such a pain to play sometimes. That damn Tower of Babel for example. I think I don't need to say anything else, even though I could say a looooot more. I like Xenogears, but it's also would probably make a better anime then a game.

 

Also:

 

Making a piece of art that has some kind of emotional impact and tries to deliver a message is not the same thing as making the game philosophical. You have to work a lot harder to really try and get into the meat of a philosophical idea then you do to simply make a simple message like "violence is bad", and not too many games really do that.

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Making a piece of art that has some kind of emotional impact and tries to deliver a message is not the same thing as making the game philosophical. You have to work a lot harder to really try and get into the meat of a philosophical idea then you do to simply make a simple message like "violence is bad", and not too many games really do that.

 

I would quite strongly disagree. It's called subtext, and meaning is just as much (if not actually more) extracted from, than it is placed into something.

I think that anything that can deliver impact has room to deliver message - if only just a statement of the human condition. While it takes 2033 400 pages / 9 hours to say violence is bad, and Spec Ops 6 hours to do the same thing - that clearly isn't the only things that's being said by them. 2033 is at its core is about the very animal nature of humans as a species, to instinctively combat and destroy things, rather than making effort to understand or preserve them. Spec Ops on the flip side is not just about how violence is bad, but how easy it is to dehumanize an enemy, and of course, the lampooning the entire genre of modern military shooters and war itself as a source of escapism.

 

Subtext is an order of magnitude more valuable in art than a Jesus allegory, or allusion to Gilgamesh.

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I would quite strongly disagree. It's called subtext, and meaning is just as much (if not actually more) extracted from, than it is placed into something.

I think that anything that can deliver impact has room to deliver message - if only just a statement of the human condition. While it takes 2033 400 pages / 9 hours to say violence is bad, and Spec Ops 6 hours to do the same thing - that clearly isn't the only things that's being said by them. 2033 is at its core is about the very animal nature of humans as a species, to instinctively combat and destroy things, rather than making effort to understand or preserve them. Spec Ops on the flip side is not just about how violence is bad, but how easy it is to dehumanize an enemy, and of course, the lampooning the entire genre of modern military shooters and war itself as a source of escapism.

 

Subtext is an order of magnitude more valuable in art than a Jesus allegory, or allusion to Gilgamesh.

 

I am not saying games don't have subtext or offer artistic statements. But to simply "deliver a message" is not what I count as "philosophical". Jesus allegory or allusion to Gilgamesh even less so for that matter. Philosophy is a bit more in depth then that. You can't just deliver some moral message or some symbolism and have it automatically equal philosophy in my mind. You sort of have to explain yourself. You have to make arguments.

 

For example, at the risk of talking out my ass about a game I never really played, Spec Ops is mostly a "violence is bad" game that relies on emotional reaction for it's core message. It doesn't really try to build any logical philosophical statement about violence as much as it just tries to pound into player's heads as much shocking imagery and emotional moments as possible. It's a game more about gut reaction then about thinking. And I have to stress that isn't a bad thing! But it isn't philosophy, at least as I understand it. I have never seen much of Metro 2033 so I have no idea how it goes about doing stuff.

 

But if you want to do "violence is bad" in a philosophical way, you kinda have to sit down and explain yourself. What is violence? What is "bad"? Why is violence bad? I could for example, take the position that violence ultimately boils down to using force to eliminate other's free will, causing a sharp reduction in both individual freedom and the variety of life as a whole, overall causing the world to be diminished rather then enriched... and maybe you agree or disagree with that position and would like to get deeper into the hows and whys of it, and that's fine, because that's exactly the kind of thing philosophy is for.

 

Art however is most often used for making very broad, very vague, statements though a carefully arranged set of experiences, and while often these statements can be used to enforce or oppose philosophical arguments, they are not necessarily philosophical in and of themselves. And for a very good reason. The more you want to sit down and really get into the meat of philosophy, the more you have to stipulate. It's often much easier to just make either more broad or vague art or long boring philosophical texts then bother with art that requires you to weigh down your messages with lots of explanations of exactly what your argument is.

 

Then again, I heard Bioshock does it pretty well. I have never played it myself, but I heard lots of things about it, especially how it deconstructs Objectivism though showing exactly what would happen to a Objectivist paradise. Now you may say it's the same as Spec Ops and it's deconstruction of violent gaming, and maybe it is, but I don't think "video game violence" is really a philosophy. I am not really sure if Bioshock is much better really, but it does have a much narrower scope and focuses much more on the deconstruction of particular philosophical and political arguments. Though, again, I have never played either of those games.

 

Really this is more my loose feelings on the matter then any sort of real argument, but I hope you can see where I am coming from.

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I do understand your position and I understand the sort of academic position you're coming from, and would say my position is also quite subjective. From my position though I still see your reasoning as flawed - and becoming further and further distant from the initial question. If the requirement for something to be philosophical is for it to explicitly lay out the arguments it has for its philosophy or world view, then none of what you might even consider "the greats" in media are remotely philosophical. 2001, the Matrix, a Clockwork Orange, 1984, Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep, or recent classics like Enemy or Drive - it's just things happening and emotions.

 

Hell, that great example of Bioshock is really only called such because of a single scene. It presents a single assertion, with no real arguments as to back that up, other those in the contrived scenario inside the game. This is doing it "well". Further. by this definition, the only game that I know of and would remotely call philosophical would be the previously mentioned Talos Principle - and that is only because the game takes a hard left turn every now and then from the game's core mechanics to have philosophical conversation in dialogue boxes.

 

Simply put, explaining out a philosophical position is not what makes something, particularly art, philosophical. If that's the line we draw, then maybe Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto is the sort of thing you're talking about. In which case, I guess we got to how heavy things can get.

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Great answers, everyone! It just goes to show how open ended this stuff can be sometimes. Philosophy is really a gray area, especially when it comes to how we as humans perceive what's given to us and how we digest it in different ways.

 

I think, all in all, the best thing about it is that we CAN disagree, even on the same thing. It's the old "two people look at an apple, one sees white, one sees black, and it ends up that they're both right" story. Or, that's how I see it, anyway.

 

I think my question (in my head, anyway) boiled down to "do people like games with heavy topics?" The answer is, for the most part, yes. The part I do wonder about is whether people like those topics to be thrown at them from the start, or learn through subtext, or perhaps have to play the game over and over again to really get what's being presented to them. Personally, I like a mix of the three, but some people, I feel, like only one or the other. Maybe it's the game itself that sets the tone for which one it should be, and the wrong combinations create those more cringe-worthy games.

 

I look at it like I look at other things that I like outside of games. In my writing, and when reading other people's writing, I like subtext. Let me decide what's going on based on what you give me. But, in TV, I think I like it being presented openly a lot more. I think of my favorite anime, Hellsing: it's the type of show that gives you this scenario and throws its hands in the air like "here. This is what it is, make of it what you will." And there are so many different topics being presented in 10 hours that I had to watch it over three or four times to get the main messages. Even so, I feel like I keep finding new things every time I rewatch it that I missed before. It's got the perfect mixture of the three that it just resonates with me. And, of course, each person is different in their tastes, so I suppose even THAT is up for debate.

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I should probably rephrase exactly what I mean.

 

I think there are levels to it. You don't really have a story that is completely 100% philosophical without becoming something like Atlas Shrugged. Aka, using the story as a device to explain the philosophy and basically nothing else. Bioshock is much less philosophical then that, only about 25% to 50%. There are philosophical ideas and commentary there, but it's more of a backdrop to the action. That single scene is not all there is though, it's just that most of the meat of it is implied rather then stated. The whole point is that a Objectivist paradise is bound to fail, and most of the backstory is dedicated to how it failed, but a lot of that is just backstory and implication. You can totally miss it if you just go in thinking of it as a game where you blow stuff up, or a story where you just care about the plot or characters.

 

Presenting a particularly constructed fictional scenario is still in of it's self an argument if it is intended to poke at a philosophical ideal. There is a reason Bioshock spends so much time characterizing the ideas and personality of Andrew Ryan, and spends so much time detailing where his utopia went wrong. Even if it might be too close to a strawman argument for most people's taste, it's still making a point about a philosophical idea.

 

Same with works like 2001, the Matrix, a Clockwork Orange, 1984, Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep. There are implications there on philosophical subjects. If they were fully philosophical, yes they would sit down and detail everything. But they are still saying something about particular philosophies using particular arguments. Well, maybe 2001 isn't really, I am honestly not sure what it is trying to get at, and The Matrix is more just trying to be a cool sci-fi story most of the time.

 

Spec Ops though, I don't think is, not really. Maybe they are trying to poke into ethical theory but they never really state or imply what exactly they are trying to debunk that way. You are just kinda forced to to bad things and then it pokes at you for doing those bad things. What Spec Ops is rather, is art about art, not art about philosophy. And that's okay, but it's not the same thing. It's focused on commenting on a particular kind of art, not a ethical standard. It assumes automatically an ethical stance yes, but it doesn't really argue for or opposed to any particular ethical argument. Maybe I am over simplifying it though.

 

Undertale is another good example of :"art about art". It's focused wholly on the art form of RPGs and also takes an ethical stance without really making any arguments about it. Pacifism good, killing bad, and that's it. The game is wholly about reframing RPGs under that ethical stance without any attention given to if those ethical ideas are appropriate or not (and I have heard more a few people give it flack for that). And it's a really good game. But it's not, in my mind, philosophical. It is artistic. It's not about making an argument, it's about making an impact.

 

And again, that kind of thing is fine. But it;s not philosophy. It's art.

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