Video Games

Growing genre proves video games can be good without being fun

A screenshot of the upcoming break-up game, “Apartment”
A screenshot of the upcoming break-up game, “Apartment” The Elsewhere Company

Earlier this week, I got dumped.

I spent about 20 minutes attempting to put the pieces together in my apartment. It is just as full as it was the day before – minus one person – but it feels far emptier. Some of the stuff is her’s. Some just reminds me of her. Every object represents a moment in our four-year relationship.

I should clarify: I wasn’t actually dumped. At least not at the time I am writing this. Who knows – a lot can happen in the day or so before publication.

No, I was actually playing a demo of “Apartment,” an indie game from The Elsewhere Company centered around the story of one man’s recovery after a crushing breakup. The demo is a glimpse at a largely unfinished game, but “Apartment” seems poised to continue a growing genre that use fantasy elements to add some color to very dark, very real subjects.

Maybe these games have been around forever, but I first noticed it with 2013’s “Gone Home.” It centered around a young woman returning to her parents’ home to find it deserted. She inspects the objects throughout the home, eventually piecing together what happened and finding all kinds of heavy things not usually covered in games, such as the abuse of her father when he was a child.

I reviewed and loved “That Dragon, Cancer,” which was about one family’s struggle to cope with their infant son’s diagnosis and death. Ditto for “Life is Strange.”

A few of my coworkers wondered why I or anyone would want to play games about death or breakups. “Apartment” even has this weird depression button you press to find the objects that remind you of the character’s ex and display his self-deprecating thoughts.

It’s the same cathartic experience I get from watching depressing movies like “Blue Valentine.” I vividly remember watching “500 Days of Summer” with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a take-out container of chow mein in the other just after bitterly ending a serious relationship. I loved every depressing moment up until the happy ending, which caused me to throw the chow mein at my TV in disgust.

I hardly remember the relationship, but I remember that moment. And I still do things like that, even when in a happy relationship. Is sitting in a bathtub listening to Death Cab For Cutie’s “Transatlanticism” – not just the song, the entire album – fun? Not really, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy doing it every now and then.

We all accept those relationships with sad or upsetting literature, movies and songs, so why not video games?

These titles attack this narrow, established view that a game should be fun. Some people think these aren’t even games – they’re clickable graphic novels, interactive comics or other nonsense.

“Gone Home” is a game, even if it isn’t like the millions that came before it.

Games like “That Dragon, Cancer” aren’t played; they’re experienced. You sort of have to push your way through them. It isn’t necessarily fun, but you feel better having made the journey.

This trend has value because it let’s players know that it is normal to feel sad after a breakup or grief after the death of a loved one. The developers have experienced it and created a story that resonates with us on a personal level.

Focusing on these sad themes over a prolonged period of time probably isn’t a good idea, but it’s good that we can enter these worlds if we need to. This quasi-depressing genre is helping to create a much fuller gaming sphere. Those who prefer shooting things, fantasy stories and sports still have all the same objects. There isn’t a finite amount of game space that this new genre is eating up. We can have both.

I look forward to finishing “Apartment.” Maybe he will win her back, or maybe he will get over the fact that she won’t be won.

And I’m excited for the future projects developers will undertake, at some risk to their professional futures, to push gaming subject matter even further.