How Video Games are Still Pushing the Envelope

Earlier this year, Activision and Electronic Arts released opposing trailers for the upcoming year’s first-person shooters, building off opposing billion-dollar legacies that had catapulted the two corporations to the top of the market over the last decade. For the two gaming giants, it was the big reveal, stemming from months of development, millions of dollars in marketing and production costs, and countless hours of tweaking and refining game mechanics. The situation felt tense; both companies knew that they were unleashing competing behemoths that, if executed correctly, could devour the other’s sales. In the end, Activision played the safe route, releasing a futuristic rendering of Call of Duty and hoping that it would continue to generate the billions of dollars in revenue that the series’ previous titles had. The game was another step into the future, relying on increasingly advanced technologies to simulate intense warfare.

So when Electronic Arts released a trailer for a game based on a conflict nearly a century ago – in the gas-ridden, desolate trenches of the First World War – it was a risky gamble. Never before had a triple-A title (the highest budget for a video game) delved into that particular war, and especially not at a time when competing titles seemed to be taking so many strides into futuristic landscapes. But it paid off – the game released to well-deserved acclaim, with critics praising the gritty combat and tense moments that often stemmed from the close quarters of the game’s bleak, smoke-filled trenches.

Battlefield 1 is a gritty example of how video games are still pushing the envelope, as titles like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare seem to blend in with past releases, differentiating themselves in only marginal ways. The World War I thriller opens with a surreal sequence in which players take on the role of a soldier on the front lines of combat, and an increasing sense of desperation develops as waves of unstoppable German soldiers close in around them. Death is inevitable, and when it comes, obituaries flash across the screen for each player. Each marks the death of a fictional character before shifting to another soldier somewhere else on the battlefield; life after life is extinguished with little outcome. It takes a few of these futile attempts at victory to realize that this is what’s at the heart of Battlefield 1: an intense demonstration about the lack of regard for life in the First World War. Millions died in a bloody and brutal conflict, and Battlefield 1 embraces that dark truth instead of seeking to alter it. At times, the game feels like just as much a solemn reflection of as a tale of heroism.

Another tale of bitter conflict takes form in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a late-summer release from Ubisoft Montreal. Early on, the game sets the stage for an oftentimes philosophical story; one that carries complex undertones of the deep-seated racism and anger that, in many ways, mirrors the United States’ current political climate. As the hatred of the general population towards a group of cybernetically augmented citizens in Prague spirals out of control, the game becomes as much a commentary on the swollen underbelly of today’s racism as it is a hacker-themed thriller.

Games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Battlefield 1 are continuously shaping our perceptions of conflict, whether it comes in the form of the war of attrition found in the fields of France a century ago or the ideological warfare that so eloquently shapes Deus Ex’s dystopian world.

Other games, too, are highlighting the immense intellectual strides that the industry is making. The Stanley Parable is a fantastic example – it’s a short game, and made by an independent studio, but the philosophical implications that it punches into just a few hours are staggering. Set in a mysteriously empty office building, it’s a game about the illusion of choice; every time players make a decision, like walking into a certain room or a particular hallway, or even turning backwards, they slowly realize that they’re not the ones that are in control. All the while, players are strung along on little journeys and directed by a wry, knowing voice off-screen, never entirely knowing where each small story is taking them. Little things like viewing seemingly insignificant objects or even standing still for too long open up new possibilities, and the dry humor from the subtle narrator follows players at every turn, constantly surprising them with hidden options. The game even got a shout-out in season 3 of House of Cards, when a grim Frank Underwood plays it and casually remarks to the camera, “Sometimes I think the presidency is the illusion of choice.”

These games (and many others) are breathing new life into an industry that’s felt slightly stagnant for the last few years. In the case of Battlefield 1, as many others have already noted, sometimes taking a step back can lead you forward; and with games like The Stanley Parable, the exploration of complex and often cerebral topics are more than enough to keep players busy.

It’s a lot like art, in a way – the lessons that video games are still teaching are a lot more than what they seem on the surface. One college even has an entire class dedicated to learning about Nordic culture through Skyrim; and only a few years ago, the Smithsonian had an entire exhibition dedicated to video game art. As video games continue to push boundaries – whether through the advancement of graphics, the exploration of philosophical concepts, or simply by having players experience compellingly personal stories like those told by the Great War – it’s exciting to see what adventures are still in store.