According to game critic and designer Heather Alexandra, “videogames have a pessimism problem.” Too many of today’s games are set in worlds as bad as or worse than our own, and too many of these games’ protagonists are just “everyday people … wad[ing] through a sea of corpses ” (Alexandra). In other words, they have too many neo-Tokyos and too few Mushroom Kingdoms, plenty of Nathan Drakes and Lara Crofts but not enough Links and Marios.
Overall, I agree with Alexandra. I love titles like Batman: Arkham City and The Last of Us as much as the next gamer, but lately I have found myself gravitating toward titles that aren’t so emotionally draining. I don’t think I’m alone in this craving, either, and developers are already responding to gamer demands with cheerier takes on typically dark genres and series. Compare, for example, Skyrim Special Edition’s injection of color to the original’s grey and dark-grey palette, or GTA V’s sunny Los Santos to GTA IV’s drab Liberty City.
Still, I think we risk oversimplifying the problem by decrying that cheerful games are dying/dead or that games today “hate the player …, [lack] heroes and good deeds [and] a sense of hope” (Alexandra). Optimistic games with vividly colored worlds do still exist, and in spades – they’re just… different. More specifically, you have to look in different places to find them. A quick check of the current top-sellers on the App Store and the PlayStation Store confirms my intuition:
Optimistic games are now largely coterminous with mobile or casual games, and consoles are left with bulk of the serious, cynical titles. Somewhere in the migration, hero characters were removed. Even casual games that feature protagonists delegate the in-game actions to some invisible, god-like force: who pulls the slingshot in Angry Birds? Who cuts the rope in Cut the Rope? Who takes the shot in Desert Golfing?
My answer: I do. You do. We do. In today’s optimistic mobile games, the player is the hero. We don’t play as the hero or even become one – we just step into a frame that instantly recognizes our omnipotence. Games that integrate with social networks to merge our ‘real life’ identity with your in-game one make the player-hero boundary even fainter. Conflating the player and the hero is both extremely optimistic and extremely delusional, underscoring our expectation that mobile/ games’ deliver us, however briefly, away from the stresses and struggles in our own world, which can come awfully close to resembling the apocalyptic ones depicted in “pessimistic” games.
What about Desert Golfing? There’s no hero but the player here, either, but surely a game about an infinitely looping task can’t qualify as “happy.” Well, Albert Camus would likely say it can. My knowledge of philosophy is pretty limited, but I have at least learned when to name-drop Camus’ landmark suggestion that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” It’s an apt enough metaphor when talking about Desert Golfing just for the game’s similarities to the “OG” Sisyphean task: Drag. Release. Repeat until the ball is in the hole (which sometimes does happen to sit at the crest of a hill). Repeat steps one thru three ad infinitum, or at least until the game’s procedural level generation breaks.
Hero-less mobile games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush process Camus’ imploration on their own. When they populate our phone screens between shifts and during commutes, these games envision a happy Sisyphus – namely, they envision us as the happy Sisyphus – and project back what that might look like. But as I’ve mentioned in previous logs, Desert Golfing is the rare game that refuses to speak to or for its players. Desert Golfing gives us the boulder and the hill and leaves the rest to our imagination.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. 1942. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1991
Heather, Alexandra. “Videogames Have a Pessimism Problem.” Paste Quarterly. Paste Media Group, 4 May 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.