How many times can you save all of humanity before it stops meaning anything? Over at Joystiq, Jason Lomberg argues that video games need to stop favoring high-stakes battles and start addressing the human condition. The crux of his argument is this: "Most games would rather task you with saving the world than with rocking a baby to sleep or patching up a failed relationship. This intransigence on the part of developers to create idiosyncratic stories that resonate with the individual is holding the medium back." In discussing his favorite games of 2011, L.A. Noire and Catherine, Lomberg calls for developers to draw less from Michael Bay and more from "David Lynch, David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson, or even Mel Brooks."
It's been a good year for character-driven games, even as Battlefield and Modern Warfare dominate the charts. This change, however, didn't happen overnight. While AAA games have tended towards the bombastic, indie developers have been playing with everything from high-concept environments to deeply personal narratives for a while now. Take Ice-Pick Lodge, a developer that has achieved cult status by building surreal experiences that can be barely classed as first-person shooters: in its 2008 game The Void, for example, your player character "shoots" with a palette of colors and must vary his actions according to the whims of a monstrous family trapped in an endless social battle. That same year saw Dear Esther, a quiet piece of interactive fiction about remembering a lost love. They weren't best-selling games (although Dear Esther is now being remade by a former EA DICE developer), but they're just a few of the many pieces that push a narrative beyond gunning down aliens.
"Gaming could explore the human condition by interfacing with the player like books, movies, and TV never could. Instead, we do battle with rogue Russian nationalists, storm Normandy for the 47th time, or fight off an alien invasion," says Lomberg. We'd love to see more of the hypothetical games he describes, and we think plenty of developers would too — just look at the team behind Warco, a proposed game about a military correspondent. Fortunately, it looks like AAA studios might be taking the hint as well.