Thanks to Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and the well-intentioned (if overstepping) zealous concern of lawmakers, games have a rating system that help inform consumers about potentially objectionable content within games. By “objectionable content,” I of course mean sexuality and violence. Thanks to the ESRB, parents have a much easier time making choices for their kids. Game ratings are a good thing. However, they’ve shaped people’s views about what constitutes “mature” content, and not always for the best.
Growing up, I assumed mature content simply meant gore and nudity. It never would have crossed my mind to think of content that wasn’t violent or sexual as being mature. Really, though, maturity simply means fully developed, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, as well. Now, more than ever, games are embracing their role as the emergent artform and are putting out content that is appealing to those with fully developed minds and bodies. Those games might also have “objectionable” content, but that content isn’t there for shocks alone. They tackle real issues, like mental illness, loss, family struggles, emotional abuse, and more. When you’ve blown up your millionth tank or saved your millionth princess, they’re a breath of fresh air.
One series that made the transition to real maturity is Tomb Raider. In the early days, Lara Croft was a one-note character, an object for the straight male gaze. A huge amount of the advertising for the game made that clear, with its focus on her physicality. With 2013’s Tomb Raider, however, Lara Croft is a fully developed human being with real struggles, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. In light of the soon-to-be-released next chapter in that saga, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, let’s take a look at her 2013 game, as well as some others that exemplify what real maturity in games means.
Tomb Raider (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)
In contrast to the guns-blazing action of the original Tomb Raider series, the 2013 reboot is a very different affair. It takes the form of an intense survival experience. Lara is a normal woman, not an action hero, and she’s never faced the sort of trauma she experiences on Yamatai Island. Shipwrecked, Lara and her friends discover this “lost” island is somehow inhabited by a militaristic cult. The game doesn’t shy away from violence, but it goes to lengths to show the effect the violence has on Lara as a person. The first time she has to kill someone is jarring and unsettling, as real violence should be. The sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, even sees Lara undergoing therapy to help her deal with everything she experienced on Yamatai. There’s some ludo-narrative dissonance involved, as with most action games, where the Lara you control while mowing down enemies doesn’t seem nearly as affected as the Lara you see in cutscenes. Games still have a ways to go to truly create an entire experience that handles violence in a fully mature way, but Tomb Raider is a big step in the right direction.
Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4)
Not many games tackle parenthood head on. The recent God of War on PlayStation 4 did an admirable job, as did The Last of Us with Ellie and surrogate father Joel. Heavy Rain predates them both, and it takes a bit of a different approach. Ethan Mars loses his son at the park when he experiences a blackout. It turns out, his boy was kidnapped by a psychopath known as the Origami Killer. Players take on the roles of Ethan, a private detective named Scott, a journalist named Paige, and a police investigator named Norman in four parallel stories that explore the scenario from different angles. Ethan is forced into some horrific situations, Saw-style (though not nearly as graphic), in order to gain clues about the location of his son. Dealing with heavy themes like the loss of a child, suicide, drug abuse, and more, Heavy Rain isn’t messing around. While some of the performances are a little hammy, it’s still an excellent adventure game well worth checking out.
Spec Ops: The Line (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
War games like the Call of Duty or Battlefield series are a dime a dozen (okay, more like $60 each). Each purports to tell a serious, dramatic story about war, though most of them undermine themselves with their focus on multiplayer deathmatches. Spec Ops: The Line set out to do something completely different. It’s the story of a few soldiers dropped in a warzone, one in which a U.S. colonel has taken control of the city of Dubai, weeks after it has been devastated by a sandstorm. You, as Lieutenant Walker, are tasked with bringing Colonel Konrad and his men to justice. Where The Line differs from so many war games is in the way it presents the horrors of war through the main character’s eyes. Players will be forced to make difficult decisions that impact innocent people, and each of these decisions takes a toll on Walker. By the end, both players and the characters will be questioning what’s real and what’s fantasy. It avoids sugarcoating the real-world impact of war, and in doing so, it elevates itself to the status of art.
Silent Hill 2 (PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Silent Hill made a name for itself in the young genre of survival horror by veering away from the jumpscares of contemporaries like Resident Evil and instead focusing on a haunting atmosphere and a sense of the uncanny. Silent Hill 2 faced the challenge of improving upon a masterpiece, and it did so by keeping the elements that worked — the aesthetics — and changing the story focus to something deeply personal. James Sunderland’s wife passed away three years prior to the start of the game, and yet he received a letter from her, asking him to meet her in the sleepy town of Silent Hill. When he arrives, he enters a nightmare the likes of which he’s never seen. Silent Hill 2 tells its story of lost souls without shying away from the darkness infecting each of their lives. Its characters faced bullying, sexual abuse, and more, and each of their stories is handled respectfully and maturely. It’s rightly remembered for the role it played in showing games could tell grown-up stories, despite the “kiddie” reputation games had always possessed.
Persona 5 (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4)
The Persona series has always tackled taboo subjects and made them palatable by focusing on the perspective of Japanese high school students, and Persona 5 is no different. You, the mostly silent protagonist, are a transfer student to a school in Tokyo, after you were arrested and wrongly accused of a crime. You quickly make new friends and discover you have the ability to enter into a secret world, a world made up of wicked people’s hidden desires. Through accessing this world, you’re able to bring about a change of heart in these people. Dubbing yourselves the Phantom Thieves, you set about fixing the broken, powerful adults of the world, from a gym teacher who physically and sexually abuses his students, to a powerful and corrupt politician. The gameplay is fast-paced, especially for a Japanese-style role-playing game, and the music is an infectiously catchy mix of pop, jazz, and rock. Buckle in for a long experience, too. If you spend less than 100 hours completing this game, you’ll probably have broken some sort of record.