We are living in a golden age of television. The Sopranos and The Wire gave TV some heavyweight critical credentials, and now discerning viewers pride binge watch Breaking Bad. But it’s time to get ahead of the dinner party set. If you’re a true fan of intelligent, original writing, you need to start playing games.
Forget your preconceptions: video games have come a long way since they were about rescuing princesses and shooting zombies in the face. Well, actually, there’s still quite a lot of that. But a new breed of sophisticated games – of which the superb Gone Home is the latest – offer more powerful stories than anything you will find on TV.
In fact, they’re not really video games at all. They run on machines you already own, have simple controls and only last a few hours. They are easy for anyone to pick up, even if they’ve never touched a gamepad. You don’t shoot anything. You’re not trying to ‘win’. You can’t lose.
Instead, these ‘Art Games’ are closer to the site-specific theatre produced by companies like Punchdrunk: you simply explore an interesting space, unravelling stories as you go. The difference is that you play the lead character, and the environments are only limited by the writer’s skill at coding.
The feeling of being immersed in a different world, seeing through a different set of eyes, is unlike anything you have experienced before. There’s a slight barrier to entry if you’re new to games, but it’s no more difficult than reading the subtitles on Borgen. Make the jump and you’ll find a whole new artform, ready to download.
Here are three of the best, along with the TV shows they surpass in every way. I repeat: you can’t lose.
PC/Mac/Linux – £14.99 – gonehomegame.com
It’s true what they say: you can’t go home again. It’s 1995, and you’ve just returned from a gap year in Europe to find the family home deserted. Where are your parents? Where, more importantly, is your little sister Sam?
What looks like a clichéd horror in a creepy mansion unfolds into a subtle exploration of growing-up. Only memories haunt this house.
Sam’s difficult adolescence is revealed through the nick-knacks of family life: souvenirs, notes on the fridge, torn VHS labels. Imagine rummaging through your own teenage bedroom, complete with a period-accurate soundtrack of feminist grunge bands.
Delicate and manipulative in the best way, this will have you in tears, or at least digging out your old Courtney Love mixtape.
It’s Like: Skins/The Shining/Daria/every memory you have of puberty.
PC/Mac/Linux – £6.99 – dear-esther.com
Whereas Gone Home is grounded in reality, Dear Esther is a more abstract affair. It’s set on a wind-blasted Scottish island: remote and deserted. Equally bleak is the monologue you hear while exploring, obsessed with a tragedy in its past.
All that’s left is to keep climbing the mountain, up up up, towards the leaden sky and waxen sun.
Dear Esther was arguably the first of this new wave of ‘Exploration Games’, and it’s still inspiring today. The desolate beauty of the island and the unhinged voice-over make you feel like you’re starring in a Beckett play, or even King Lear.
They never said that about Mario.
It’s Like: Endgame by Samuel Becket. Coast with Neil Oliver (although Dear Esther inspries less existential dread).
The Walking Dead
iPad/iPhone/PC/Mac/Xbox 360/PS3 – £2.99 for first episode – iTunes
OK, remember when I said video games had moved past shooting zombies? That wasn’t quite true. Still, the real enemy here aren’t the undead, but other humans.
In this grim psychological drama, you play a convict trying to survive the apocalypse while protecting an eight-year-old girl named Clementine.
It’s a more traditional video game than the others on this list, and occasionally requires puzzle solving and quick reactions. However, at its heart are a series of gut-wrenching decisions. Who gets the last rations of food? Do you lie about your background, or tell the truth? Can anyone be trusted? Can you?
Your decisions carry over into each two-hour-long ‘episode’: you’ve got to live with the (possibly fatal) consequences. The Walking Dead will show you what kind of person you are, deep down. You may not like what you see.
It’s Like: The Returned (but less French); The Walking Dead TV show (but good).