Dildo Bats, Mixtapes, and the Future of Gaming

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In the last seven days, I’ve played and completed two games that, despite being polar opposites of each other, will almost assuredly end up alongside each other in my Top 5 Games of the Year. If they were people, they would be the sullen dramatist in the back of the classroom and the puckish rogue shooting spitwads at the teacher, the quintessential gaming Odd Couple.

The two games are Gone Home and Saints Row IV.

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If you’re not aware, Gone Home is a piece of interactive fiction that’s more akin to the novel House of Leaves than whatever Call of Duty is doing this year. You play a young woman, home from a trip abroad, who arrives at her family’s new house only to find it empty. Cue ominous peal of thunder. Without giving much away, it’s a ghost story that’s about far more than the supernatural, told through conveniently discarded letters and some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard.

In Saints Row IV, you get a gun that shoots dubstep. Yep.

SR4 is a joyous romp, an exultant cry that floats above such plebeian concerns as theme and meaning. It gives artistic interpretation the finger, then runs off to ragdoll into oncoming traffic. It’s The Matrix, Mass Effect, and Grand Theft Auto all in one, both a loving homage and snide criticism. Above all, it’s the most god damn fun I’ve had with a game this year.

Whether you’re soaring over Steelport looking for collectibles, deep inside a computer simulation of a Keith David’s (yes, the actor) greatest fears, or simply stopping to smell the roses and unleash chaos upon some unsuspecting bad guys, SR4 never stops being exhilarating and bombastic. Much like both inFamous and Crackdown, two games SR4 has been widely compared to, SR4 is a pure and simple power fantasy, a chance to just cut loose and go wild. It’s one of the greatest strengths of videogames as a medium: the ability to do everything and anything you’d never be able to do in reality.

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What sets SR4 apart from its similarly referential sibling Borderlands 2 is its choice of material. Rather than leaning heavily on pop culture jokes that will fade into obscurity and mocking gameplay mechanics while indulging in them, SR4 digs deep into the collective nerd culture. While it may start with a sequence that pokes fun at the over-the-top bravado of military shooters, it seals it with a laugh-out-loud dig on the 1998 movie Armageddon, all with a subtle wink and nudge. Don’t get the joke? That’s fine, there’s something for you in here, even if it’s just the constant stream of Star Wars cracks.

If you had a camera trained on me for the entire 20 hour campaign, you’d probably have seen the same stupid grin on my face the whole time. There was one scene where, much to my surprise, I actually had to put the controller down, I was laughing so hard. I won’t ruin it for you here, but if you have played the game, you probably know what I’m talking about.

That same camera would’ve captured a very different expression as I crawled through Gone Home, one of rapt concern broken by gasps during certain climactic scenes. You’d see me strain towards the conclusion, desperate for the ending I wanted for the characters who I had become deeply connected to, who I was rooting for with my all heart. By the end, nursing my misty eyes, you would’ve seen me lean back in my chair and let out the breath I had been holding for the entirety of the story’s final act.

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Much has been said about Gone Home, and I predict more will be said in the coming weeks as the taboo of spoilers is peeled away, but very little of it is the same. Much like a piece of art, what you bring to it is almost more important than what it is in determining meaning. Did you move a lot as a kid, never quite feeling at home? Did you also struggle with issues of gender and sexuality as a teenager? Were you just an older sibling who had to watch from the sidelines as a familiar world collapsed?

Gone Home is something that is informed by the human experience, rather than something which tries to inform it. Your place in the world is that of a mute observer, something that’s unfortunately foreign to a medium where agency is often expressed through the barrel of a gun. It’s still very much a videogame, but it’s also something more, a vision of the future of the form; of a world where four person teams can make amazing interactive experiences for a wider audience than just their friends, family, and those who stumble into their art galleries.

It’s a bookend to SR4, a game whose vision is firmly fixed towards the past. Whether it’s a random text adventure or a loving rendition of Biz Markie shared by two friends, the references run thick and fast in SR4, and practically none of them are current. It’s not about “redefining the genre” or being “a new take on the series,” it’s content to simply be a beloved property treated well. Everything that videogames have become gets a turn, from turret sequences to car chases to seemingly arbitrary moral choices. It’s a buffet of experiences, a finely tuned omni-game that’s too busy having a great fucking time to worry about the problematic implications of some of its dicier bits.

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While Leigh Alexander’s recent piece comparing the grunge and riot grrl movement of the 90s to current game culture doesn’t directly reference Saints Row 4, it’s the first thing that came to mind after finishing it. If Gone Home is the moody and expressive side of the 90s, Saints Row 4 is the wildly asinine and sarcastic, expressed by the shift towards animation with radical shows like The Simpsons and Ren and Stimpy as well as those mentioned by Alexander.

Who’d have thought, years ago while we were stuck in the gunmetal grey and dirty brown rutt of endless cover shooters, that we’d soon be on the cusp of a cultural revolution in the world of games; one heralded not only by the popularization of downloadable indie titles, but also of studios unafraid to crack a smile and poke a little fun.  

Moreso than ever before, I’m proud to announce that I’m a gamer, a part of a culture that’s expanding in directions nobody could have predicted. Whether we’re still approaching that moment of revolution or have already arrived is up to debate, but no matter what, it’s a good time to pick up a controller and finally become part of the conversation, even if you choose something like SR4 as your entry point.

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