This is important.

Well, not as important as “Obama is the anti-christ” or “I have found a cure for diabetes” or “My penis just sprouted wings and flew away”, but important in many other ways.

First, background:
In seeking out enjoyable entertainment (books, film, music, theater) I tend to gravitate toward those works that provide some philosophical or emotional payoff. And, yes, the older I’ve gotten the more discriminating (snobbish?) I am about what I find entertaining. Frankly, I don’t like to be entertained mindlessly (as a rule), though there are times when a good, goofy movie or cheesy song work some magic within me.

Video games, though, have traditionally been exempt from this requirement. Not because I haven’t desired more provocation from games I play, but because it felt like I’d be demanding too much to require an “artful” game. Games are meant to be an escape and to get our minds off heady topics, right? Most games today have amazing graphics created by incredible artists and undeniably challenging puzzles and often require you spend a lot of mental energy to develop a solid strategy of play. Many of today’s games also attempt to engage the player by incorporating rich cinematic sequences into the flow of the game…yet such attempts are rarely interesting or notable for anything beyond how visually stunning they are. They’re not all that poignant and often serve only to move forward some well-worn plot. Rarely, if ever, does a player expect from games any commentary on the human condition or design elements that aspire to communicate something meaningful.

Of course, I wouldn’t write a lead-in like that unless I’d found something counter to it, right? Right. But not yet. More background first, because there’s sort of an odd synchronicity working here.

I moved to Olathe, KS my senior year of high school and there befriended a guy named Jason Rohrer. We didn’t stay in touch post-graduation but years ago I googled him to see if I could find out what he was up to. So I did and found this guy which I don’t believe is the initial site I found, but regardless…Now the odd thing is, this Jason Rohrer sort of looks like what the Jason Rohrer I knew might look like 10 years past graduation. Looking at further biographical details, however, revealed that this was a different cat than the Jason I knew, but I kept tabs on this other Jason Rohrer anyway because he shared many of my interests (computing, games, literature, philosophy, yadda, yadda, yadda). I hadn’t checked him out in a few years so had no idea what his current work consisted of. (Incidentally, I’ve since made contact with my old friend, Jason, on Facebook and he’s doing well as an ad writer in Las Vegas.)

Flash-forward to this past weekend and I’m working out on my treadmill in the basement, searching the Ubuntu repositories for games to play. I was looking for an easy to control RTS or a simple puzzle game. During that search I stumbled upon a game called Passage by one Jason Rohrer. Interesting. So I installed it – but got pulled from my workout when Roman came downstairs and wanted to walk on the treadmill with me. I forgot about the game.

Yesterday, I’m catching up on my blog feeds and come across this (don’t read it yet), which I didn’t read at the time but served as a reminder to play the game I downloaded. During my workout last night, that’s what I did (and I urge you to do the same – it’s only a 5-minute game). Passage left me with that sucker-punched feeling one sometimes get after exposure to a thing which carries much more weight than one is prepared for. I wasn’t left with much time to consider that feeling because Roman came downstairs and wanted to walk with me – and it’s hard to feel sucker-punched when you’ve got a fun and energetic two-year-old walking in front of you on a treadmill.

So we walked for a while and then he almost fell which scared him so we went upstairs to get ready for bed. He usually vacillates as to whom he wants to put him to bed and last night he chose Mom, so I went back to the basement to check out another game by Rohrer I recalled seeing in the repositories, this one called Gravitation. I installed it. Played it. Finished playing (it takes 8 minutes and I recommend you give it a shot yourself) and then cried. Not long, not hard, but indeed, a video game made me cry. Granted, thematically, Gravitation hits on a particularly tender spot for me, but no matter. The fact that a video game elicited a kind of introspection and emotional resonance typically reserved for other creative works is what is important and why I’ve spent most of the morning going back and forth between work duties and this essay. These games mark a sea change in gaming – in creators’ approaches to creating games and in what we, the players, can (and should) expect games to provide for us.

I haven’t provided much commentary here on Rohrer’s games themselves because 1) I hope you play them before reading my (or any others’) spoilers and 2) there is plenty of discussion on-line regarding the games. I don’t have a lot to add to those discussions, which have already well-covered using game design elements as metaphor and/or as vehicle for communicating often hard-to-pin down themes and ideas. Something that, now that I think about it, should have been going on all along.

This is important.

Picture this:

Breakfast nook table, covered by a tablecloth. At opposite ends sit Roman and Beatrix. Ro finishes his lunch, leaving behind on his plate some untouched toast. Beatrix, not given to a long-distance relationship with unwanted food, grabs the tablecloth and starts to pull Roman’s plate and drink toward her. And, in less than 15 seconds, she’s got herself a toasty new friend.

Picture this: