Print Edition: March 13, 2013
It can be difficult for video games to tell emotional stories, especially without relying heavily on cut scenes to make the point. Recently, games like Dear Esther and Papo & Yo have pushed gamers to find their emotional side by putting darker themes and touching moments into the gameplay itself. Topics like substance abuse and depression have typically been restricted to other mediums, like film and music. It’s a new frontier being explored in the gaming world, with mixed results – but with a gaming audience increasingly interested in mature, compelling stories with detailed, believable characters, it’s a sign of good things to come.
Spate—a Steam Greenlight project, funded Kickstarter project and winner of IGN’s game project show The Next Game Boss—draws inspiration from these emotionally-driven games as it follows Detective Bluth, a private eye hired to track down a businessman who has gone missing after entering Xzone, a forbidden area in the game’s rich steampunk world. While Spate uses traditional platforming gameplay familiar to fans of Mario or LittleBigPlanet, it includes gamers in the troubled emotional state of its protagonist, a man struggling to deal with the death of his daughter and his regret in how he handled their final moments together.
In order to handle the swirling depression, Bluth turns to absinthe – alcohol with hallucinogenic effects (though many dispute whether real absinthe truly has this effect). Eric Provan, the game’s designer, describes on his site the symbolic way this reliance acts as a crutch and a growing hindrance. “At the click of a button the character can take a swig of absinthe. This temporarily gives the player higher jumping and faster running abilities. But, it also makes him hallucinate, which changes the world both visually and physically,” Provan explained. These effects are meant to “mirror” the “emotional seesaw battle of drinking,” he added. As the game progresses, Bluth is lost further and further into the fictional world of his madness and has to fight not just to find the missing person but also his own sanity.
Provan began working in the game industry since 2005 when he was hired at Kush Games, but he’s never been the sole designer of a game before. He’s also done a lot of work with storytelling in television and film, working for the Cartoon Network, Sony Pictures Imageworks and, most recently, Walt Disney Animation Studios. Provan began the game with Temo Kokiashvili, the game’s lead programmer. However, after receiving $10,000 funding from The Next Game Boss and $14,430 from Kickstarter, the small team has been able to hire on a small team to improve and finish the game. The “2.5D” sidescrolling platformer is being developed on the Unity3D game engine.
While most of the initial feedback for the game has been positive, it has re-opened debates among gamers about the future of the medium and the possibility that the recent obsession with emotional game mechanics among indie developers is akin to Oscar-bait (the flurry of emotional, heart-wrenching films released just before nominations are announced). Some who’ve played an early demo of the game say that it’s still a long way from being a hit game. While both these angles of critique hold some merit, the game has a lot of potential – as do games pushing the medium in new and more meaningful ways. If Spate does become a success, it could encourage other developers to dig into deeper issues that people are struggling with in their real lives. There will always be a place for escapism in gaming, but it’s time to explore what else they can do as well.
Spate is expected to release later this year on Steam.