Most media entities out there tend to stick with the safe. Stories and archetypes that are well-treaded and don’t offer many confrontations to the wide audience that they try and capture. However, there is a saying that I adhere to pretty rigidly: nothing truly beautiful is ever made by playing it safe. The simple fact is, our world isn’t safe. It’s unpredictable, it’s scary and it’s filled with all manners of villainy and repugnance. To try and hide that in your story is you simply lying to yourself and shying away from the reality that we find ourselves in.
Games don’t always need to have stories that are impactful and dripping with meaning. We play them for fun, after all. To enjoy a silly romp through a bunch of beautiful locations is perfectly fine. However, those stories are often not the ones that resonate with us for a very long time. They’re transient and have a sort of spur-of-the-moment charm to them. Then you get games that offer something much grander than just the usual. That seek to challenge us as human beings while still treating us like players. These games are the ones that stick with you, that offer you something meaningful.
In my opinion, these experiences strongly correlate with games that are not afraid to push the boundaries. That refuse to play it safe and go with the conventional and actually skirting the line of becoming “too real”. These games take what is happening in our modern world and display it for all to see, even if they are not exactly rooted in reality. The following are games that have managed to push these boundaries in some form or another.
The world of BioShock Infinite was immensely complicated. The central premise was an extremely personal tale, but the environment surrounding everything had quite a dark underbelly. The game dealt with slavery and subjugation, religion was portrayed at its delusional extreme and many of the dark underpinnings of the very early 20th century were shown to their fullest extent. It was jarring in many ways since the game didn’t sugarcoat any of it.
BioShock Infinite did what a lot of games are too scared to do. It took the darkness of our world and the deplorable actions of corrupted people in power and made them a part of its identity. These themes were challenging for the player, resulting in an almost uncomfortable experience that posed a lot of difficult questions. Whether they were about race relations, the ideas of radical religions or even some existential thoughts, BioShock Infinite proved challenging and that’s what made the game so great, in my eyes.
Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto V was mainly a satirical romp in a fictionalised Los Angeles. The game makes a lot of jokes or sarcastic observations about the world around us, but it does it so frequently and often so well that it ventures into sincere territory. It sort of unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly) becomes cutting social commentary among all the ridiculousness that transpires during its story and as you explore the world.
Boundaries were definitely pushed, especially with the torture section that tasked you to use pretty inhumane methods of extracting information. Many players, including myself, got rather uncomfortable during this scene and while some argue that the “gamification” of torture sullied the message, I think the fact that it makes the player uncomfortable can be seen as a statement in itself.
Grand Theft Auto V is pretty ugly in terms of, well, everything. Most characters are repugnant or morally corrupt, the society around you is dirty and filled to the brim with the seven deadly sins, and there’s a thin veneer of apathetic hatred surrounding everything. But you know what, this reminds me a lot of home. We often just block out and sometimes join in the ugly fracas that is unfolding around us. Grand Theft Auto V just puts it all out there for all to see and it refused to censor itself or hold back. Considering the meteoric fame of this game, this is also quite a surprise.
Spec Ops: The Line
Modern military shooters set up a boring precedent during their time in the sun in the last generation. The good guys versus those pesky bad guys somewhere in the desert. You shot a bunch of dudes in the name of civic duty and justice, maybe stop a nuke from launching and pop the main bad guy in the face during a slow motion shot after you’ve been downed by a single bullet. It all became very safe and we already know what happens when you go safe.
When Spec Ops: The Line entered the scene, you could have been excused to think that it was a part of this stampede of mediocrity, but it was actually the contrary. It went against the very idea of patriotic heroism that we so idolise in much of our entertainment. It questions the very fabric of war and what makes it justifiable. Furthermore, it made you, as a player, question your sanity.
The game is essentially a spiral down the heart of darkness while having the shell of a pretty average third person shooter. Playing this game makes you so uncomfortable that it can sometimes even become unbearable. Where you need to put the controller down for a second just to catch your breath and not fall down a hole of depression. Many of its scenes and instances make you question your role in this madness with the slow realisation that you’re actually the monster in this story. Spec Ops: The Line certainly did not care about any boundaries and delivered one of the most unique shooter experiences out there that still resonates with me to this day.
The Witcher 3
I’ve just accepted that The Witcher 3 will be on every list that I make. From an outsider’s perspective, The Witcher 3 won’t really seem like it can be home to so many dark themes. This is a world of unicorns, elves, trolls and busty sorceresses after all. However, beneath the fantasy background are stories of so many hardships and injustices that they will make your head spin. The Witcher 3 does not care about any boundaries and it immediately throws any form of restraint out of the window.
This is an extremely troubled world that you need to traverse with everything from crippling poverty to racial tensions and political unrest. Besides the macro issues, The Witcher 3 follows a multitude of personal tragedies with people who have lost loved ones to the unending wars, families that have been ripped apart, physical and mental abuse, mental illness and so much more. If you strip back the grim fairytale setting and make the people wear normal clothes, it can be a frightening mirror of our own world.
The novels that the game is based on also does not shy away from crossing boundaries and the series has always been known for being “dark”. However, The Witcher 3 is a perfectly packaged masterwork that was both challenging and enlightening. I don’t know when we will get another game quite as powerful as this again.
It might be difficult to think that a social simulator/dungeon crawler with a bunch of teenage kids and a cat mascot would be anything but silly, but this game gets dark. Within the first few hours of the game, you deal with sexual abuse, suicide, corruption and mental anguish. It only gets more fun from there. However, Persona 5 uses these themes so well that they’re not overtly in your face and they never become overwhelming. Some games, even some of the ones on this list, have not mastered the art of subtlety quite as well as Persona 5 has.
The game is jam-packed with important philosophical and existential questions mixed in with its already pretty cutting social commentary. You can spend literal days analysing certain themes and events for their obscured meanings and make some striking debates and arguments from the events that transpire. Someone can probably write a Masters thesis just using this game as their main inspiration and it would be perfectly fine.
Like the other games on this list, Persona 5 is not afraid to push boundaries. It is relentless in the social issues that it chooses to tackle and it takes its sweet time covering all of the bases as thoroughly as possible while still retaining its teenage rapscallion aesthetic. When all is said and done and the game finally concludes, you have essentially gone through a transcendental journey of enlightenment without you even realising until you sit down for a second to evaluate what you just went through. This game truly is something special.
I understand that being challenged all the time, especially by things you consider as entertainment, can be overwhelming. If we had to face the infinite struggles of our world every day and be bogged down with all these existential thoughts, we would lose our minds. However, there is beauty in the rare things that do make us think like this. That are not afraid to challenge or to see where the line is and nearly crossing it. In gaming, we can still perfectly enjoy our tear through war zones and shotgunning demons in the face, but games such as the ones on this list that deliver something more worthwhile to say about the world is why I consider this medium to be art.