Video games of the golden arcade eras were rarely about children, despite and perhaps because they were made for them. But Super Mario Bros., Golden Axe, Smash T.V. and so on weren’t about adults exactly. They were about adults as seen through the eyes of children.
Now these children are real adults and many of them no longer share these ideals. Shirtless badasses the likes of Lance Bean and Duke Nukem died in the industry equivalent of a retirement home, spouting their great adventures with their last dribbly breath to the young shooters on the block. The kids grown in front of MS-DOS terminals like choir boys taking in daddy Duke’s sermons are now out in the world. And they aren’t just nostalgic for old games – the failure of Duke Nukem Forever proved that. They’re nostalgic for the person that used to play them.
So these new 8 and 16 and 32-bit Indie platformers aren’t just nostalgic for Contra, but for the kid that thought of Bill Rizer as an adult, and his quest to save the world from monsters as not only feasible but romantic too. When we remember those days, we don’t see a Humongous conquering the universe but the child who wished things were that simple by pretending to be him. We see children in a world only an adult would know is so hostile.
Many games now visualize these victims we see in our past selves and our old dreams. Many of the games that used to offer luxuriously fictional escapes are now returning as introspection on their origins and on the new worldviews that withdraw into the torment of their psychological home life.
Limbo sent us to a literal hell of trauma and monsters, as a young boy made tiny by adversity in a world as dangerous as it is beyond understanding. Inside twisted mundane social traumas into emotional horrors of self-surveillance and shadow. The Binding of Isaac disenchanted parenthood to a level tearful and macabre, filled with miscarriages of hope and love. Among the Sleep cast the player as an actual infant in a world of hurt and horror.
There are many other examples. We’ll soon see a VR horror experience that takes place in the womb – I can feel it.
I suspect that this child persona tells us something about the changed nature of the first generation of gamers (as I stated in my article on the father persona, expectations shape the industry and not the reverse). I wouldn’t swallow the idea that it’s an aesthetic whim on the part of the industry. So what exactly does it tell us?
If the mainstream gamer base is searching for a strapping, stubbly-chinned father figure, the sensitive Indie gamer seems to be looking for a mother. As much as games have been validating the father’s quest to protect his family they have been demonizing motherhood, abandoning goodness to loveless realms of delirium and pain. The monsters hiding in P.T. and The Binding of Isaac are true Minotaurs at the center of labyrinths of anxiety and trauma.
Perhaps this is a reaction to the horrors of the 21st century, or at least, to our adult perception of them. The core psychogenic thing with 9/11 was not that people died, which happens every day, but that we lost a sense of security. It was a national home invasion after which the things we relied on – the bed waiting for us after work, the doors that shut out the outside world – didn’t seem so safe anymore.
Video games in which you’re a He or She-Man saving the universe from evil are irreconcilable with this worldview. To imagine our adults as such heroes, we have to believe in the world that they built. And for many reasons, today we do not.
The lost child in video games is a portrait of this recession of trust. The evil mother figure could not be more psychologically transparent as an icon of the moral reversal of our worldview, to see the old paragons of virtue as cruel, and stability as a broken promise. Media representations escalate in popularity when they strike an emotional chord. Ask yourself what that chord looks like and where it comes from, if its result is an industry obsessed with sadomasochistic virtual child abuse.
Video games in the Indie scene are resetting their center of gravity from adventure to trauma. Their discoveries have become spiritual unveilings; their enemies are familiar faces. Their fantastical realms boil down to a horror of the psychological mundane: abuse, embarrassment, isolation. They reflect a view of the world staring at its shoes as it gets blamed for something. Or getting slapped for reacting wrongly to what it doesn’t understand.
The world is a threatening place, and the change in the platformer could be reduced to this: it has gone from conquering threats to acknowledging them. The things we used to believe in have resurfaced as villains. I wonder where it will all lead. VR technology makes self-harm simulators perfectly viable. After we’re passed the age of fearing our mothers, will we play a game in which we have to kill our own children? Or be killed by them?
Sounds like a disastrous lack of propriety on my part to even suggest it. But when games in which you’re hunted by your bloodthirsty mom are considered critical darlings and national past-times, I think we should do a little projecting and ask where it’s all headed. I honestly don’t know.