The coming-of-age story fits film like a glove. When seen through a great director’s viewfinder, America’s picturesque suburbs are fertile ground for stories about inarticulate teens guided by uncertainty. From “The Spectacular Now” to “Boyhood,” filmgoers have recently been treated to several exemplary films in the genre, yet our appetite for the mysteries of youth continues to be insatiable.
Film is not alone in its obsession. Nearly every major artistic medium is graced with countless coming-of-age stories, whether they come in the form of Taylor Swift’s bubble gum accusations, or J.K. Rowling’s magical page-turners. However, the one consistent absence from the coming-of-age party is its youngest invitee — video games.
For much of their short history, video games have acted like the kiddie version of an art form. In some sense, they are an awkward fit for stories normally told through subtle character interaction and prolonged silences. The closest games come to coming-of-age stories usually still involves killing monsters and zombies.
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That said, if the past year established film as the genre’s wise adult, it painted video games as its spirited adolescent. Finally, we are witnessing a sharp rise in video game coming-of-age stories, stories that eschew boyish aggression. Some embrace the medium’s fantasy-inspired, objective-based roots, while others reject its established principles in favor of less structured exploration.
The former category includes the Kickstarter darling “Broken Age,” which expresses its two parallel story arcs using familiar interactions in a charming fantasy setting.
An adventure game from Double Fine, “Broken Age” is an homage to the studio’s beginnings, when it created classic point-and-click titles like “Grim Fandango” and “The Secret of Monkey Island.” The game’s long-established genre asks players to alleviate its characters’ dilemmas by solving puzzles using objects in the environment. The setting inspires a large part of the player’s curiosity to explore the fantastic and absurd worlds — because “Broken Age” takes place in two distinct fantasy settings (hence the name).
Although they are framed differently, the characters’ struggles should seem familiar to independent film goers. “Boyhood’s” protagonist Mason suffers through a cycle of abusive stepfathers, while “Broken Age’s” Vella rebels against her family’s own unflinching attitude toward a destructive tradition.
But of course, “Boyhood’s” grounded portrayal is miles away from “Broken Age’s” whimsical fantasy, which more closely resembles a Dr. Seuss book than a modern slice-of-life film. Fantasy settings are often video games’ de facto mode, and an obvious choice in a medium usually bounded by rules and objectives — when it is a tall order to come up with a game system for the ordinary and mundane, such as Mason’s frequent arguments with his sister in “Boyhood,” narratives involving space battles and giant birds provide appealing alternatives in “Broken Age.”
Thankfully, Double Fine’s fantasy worlds are a far cry from stereotypical Tolkien knockoffs, and are filled with playful interactions that illustrate their characters’ sentiments: One section humorously plays with a character’s vulnerability by requiring the player to purposefully dismantle a roller coaster to help him escape his dull routine.
Vulnerable characters anchor every coming-of-age story — they are woefully insecure, susceptible to heartbreaks, and magnets for reckless behavior. Rigid video game design that tests reflexes in increasingly challenging environments is well-suited to express physical vulnerability, but generally not subtle enough to express emotional vulnerability. “Broken Age” stems from a rare established video game genre that does not utilize reflex challenges, and that omission is becoming more commonplace in games that are not explicitly about a character’s physical power.
The Fullbright Company’s “Gone Home” exemplifies this trend, gleefully omitting long-heralded game design rules to tell a coming-of-age story set in the genre’s most familiar backdrop — the American home. By embracing reality (a surprisingly remarkable feat for a video game), “Gone Home” echoes the grounded tone of recent coming-of-age films, moreso than its interactive peers.
The central story arc, a love story involving a girl discovering her sexuality, is not miles apart from the beginnings of Adèle and Emma’s relationship in “Blue is the Warmest Color,” infused with uncomfortable secrecy and an attraction to creative spirits. The game’s protagonist Samantha, like Adèle, is a quiet introvert drawn to imaginative fiction, and her relationship is mostly shrugged off by the all-too-judgmental adults.
Just as Sutter Keely dealt with an estranged father in “The Spectacular Now,” “Gone Home’s” adults have closets full of skeletons, and the game dismantles their veneer of maturity through subplots about the parents’ strained relationships. “The Spectacular Now” also shares its core source of tension with “Gone Home” — the looming inevitability of college, young love’s natural antagonist.
The films mentioned tell their respective stories with terrific character dialogue and moving performances, but “Gone Home” makes no attempt at mimicking their filmic structure. Instead, the player unravels the story’s mysteries by examining letters and ordinary objects, piecing clues together as as audience member would (similar to what’s experienced by the audience of the haunting interactive play “Sleep No More”). While video games tend to have trouble selling the illusion of two characters interacting on screen, they remain unparalleled at representing space. “Gone Home” embraces this advantage, throwing away the unnecessary baggage that usually comes with the first person perspective in its heartfelt interactive tale about ordinary life.
Whether set in “Gone Home’s” empty suburban home or in the stars above “Broken Age’s” eccentric fantasy world, the rise in video game coming-of-age stories is a welcome reminder that this medium will not be a kid forever. Like most children, it is not overly concerned with its parents’ behavior (no medium can portray the passage of time quite like film did in “Boyhood”) but instead, gaming hopes to create a different window for our memories of youth.
Amidst its many growing pains, the video game medium marches toward new expressions of the universal themes long enjoyed by independent cinema, and in the process shows signs of its own coming-of-age. While it may never shed its boyish sensibilities, year after year, we see glimpses of the adult it may become.