Young Hearts Spark Fire: The case for honest games

Lately, I’ve been listening to the new Japandroids album, Celebration Rock, a lot. Like, over and over and over. It’s a fantastic record about the weird period between age twenty and age thirty, how it feels to simultaneously get old, die a little, and still know there’s a lot of life left out there to live–if you can get out of bed and go grab it. With Celebration Rock, Japandroids have crafted something equal parts eulogy and battle cry, complete with ripping, neanderthalic drums and guitars that sound like they are plugged directly into the sun.

Before we proceed, here’s a little about me: I am 23. I’ve been in the “professional world” for over a year now. I have died the little death of cubicle life, and I’m fine with it. But goddamn do I miss the reckless stagnation that was my collegiate career, or the drunken night time bike rides home of summer vacations past. I miss a lot of things, and I regret not taking advantage of how much time I had to fuck around before.

So on Japandroids’ ‘Younger Us,’ when vocalist/guitarist Brian King howls out:

“Remember when we had them all on the run
And the night we saw midnight sun
Remember saying things like “we’ll sleep when we’re dead”
And thinking this feeling was never gonna end
Remember that night you were already in bed,
said “fuck it,” got up to drink with me instead”

I know exactly what he is feeling and what he is singing about, because I’m feeling it too. What I like so much about Celebration Rock is that the band is laying it out all for you, uncensored. The guitars, the drums, the singing: it’s all a little unhinged and straight from the heart – their souls, laid bare.

I also know that I still have a lot of life left ahead of me; a maze of possibilities that could take me anywhere. King knows that about himself, too. On album opener ‘The Nights of Wine and Roses,’ he sings:

“We all want to know what nobody knows
What the nights of wine and roses hold
For the wine and roses of our souls
So we down our drinks to the final friends
And we burn our plans right down to the end
We don’t cry for those nights to arrive
We yell like hell to the heavens”

I can’t read those words without getting tingles in my spine, and I can’t listen to that song without stopping whatever I’m doing. It’s not just that the guitars hit my sweet spot of “massively warm and fuzzy” or that the copious ‘oh-oh-whoa-oh-oh’s and endearingly out of tune vocals are just the kind of thing I like. The reason I’m so into this album, the reason it keeps giving me the chills, isn’t just because its sonic aesthetics are in-tune with my personal taste. It’s because the soul of the album, the very fabric of what you get when you put those vocals and that instrumentation together – defiant, joyful, nostalgic, the mix of excitement and anxiety that is growing up –  speaks to me. It tells me I’m not alone, that others are going through this, and we’ll make it to wherever we are going together. If you wanted a description of what it feels like to be Adam Harshberger in July of 2012, I would simply point you to Celebration Rock.

A videogame has never managed to encapsulate a part of my existence like that – trap it in the amber, like Vonnegut would say. They’ve come close; they’ve really resonated with me before. Last week, I wrote about how Squall from Final Fantasy VIII connected with me like no other videogame character. Or fictional character, ever, really.

It’s safe to assume that at some point the person who dreamed up Squall put a little bit of himself into it, and really that’s (as Tom and I concluded in that article) why FFVIII is great. There’s humanity there, and honesty. But it’s not the same as Celebration Rock. It’s not some kind of weird, universal autobiography. It’s not flooded with anything human like Celebration Rock is flooded with weird death-joy-anxiety. There’s a stream of it, maybe. But not much. (Don’t worry, the water analogies are over now.)

Because truthfully, Celebration Rock is an intensely personal album, and it’s not shy about it. It’s brazen, and, for lack of a better term, punk as fuck. It’s not dressed up as anything, and it’s being honest.

Videogames get personal too. But the bluntness and the rawness – the honesty? Many games don’t do that very well. They can be as poignant and potent as Celebration Rock, but frequently the real human story gets buried underneath a lot of bloat. Jonathon Blow’s Braid, for example, is an intensely personal game. But a lot of what that game is about is hidden under layers of posturing, of acting deep and meaningful. There’s soul and honesty there, but it’s obfuscated. That just doesn’t work for me; it’s the reason I can’t relate. I want someone to be brave enough to say, “This is a personal thing. This an emotional thing. It’s all on the table.” And some indie developers have done this – Anna Anthropy comes to mind – but why aren’t we celebrating it more? Or calling for it to be done en masse?

(An aside, which has to go here because the ancient gods who actually control Nightmare Mode haven’t blessed us with footnotes yet: since we’re talking music, if we were ignoring cultural significance, and if Braid was a band, it would be Radiohead.)

And a lot of games end up only having a little bit of time to be honest and emotional. Videogames and “honest emotional expression” or “depicting an existential crisis” aren’t, typically, thought of together. To many, feelings aren’t the point of a videogame. As a result, game stories are too often forced to bend to certain expectations, and spend a lot of time on them: there’s got to be a constant threat of death, a binary between “success” and “failure, and probably some shit to kill. Problem is, these expectations are really, really far off from what actual life is like. Success and failure aren’t black and white, I’ve never killed anything beyond a bug, and mortal peril, as far as I can tell, is pretty far off most of the time. Those aren’t the kind of things I can relate to. Those aren’t really things the everyday human will face; they contain traces of quintessential human problems, but they’re exaggerated, insincere forms.

These exaggerated human conditions  wouldn’t be a problem, but videogames suck at really imbuing them  with honest, everyday, relatable meaning. Braid does one hell of a job of this, even if decoding what Mr. Blow is saying is, to someone like me, nigh impossible and unappealing. (“Just say what you mean, bro!” cry the Adam Harshbergers of the world.)

To go back to FFVIII, for as much time that Sad Young Adam spends getting the warm fuzzies as Squall goes from a self-doubting prick to a courageous leader/lover, he spends twice that amount of time following a silly plot about sorceresses/saving the world, drawing 300 Firagas from a random monster, and killing Wendigos so he can get the screws needed to forge a cooler sword-that-shoots-bullets. The moments of actual humanity are vastly outnumbered by the Shit You Do In Videogames. Don’t get me wrong: I love doing shit in videogames. I would just love it more if the shit you do in videogames had actual humanity – actual themes, meanings, and resonance – to back it up.

So that’s where we’re at. Celebration Rock has overwhelming amounts of humanity, and the balls to lay it all down for you. As a result, it ends up being this crystal-clear snapshot of a near universal part of human life. Videogames haven’t managed this yet. There’s a lot of reasons why: timidness, pretentiousness, the restrictions of the expectations commonly placed on games, a failure to breathe their messages into the whole of the game and not just a little of it.

But I think it’s well within their wheelhouse. It’s not impossible, and we’re already seeing it happen as indie developers create games that are more and more personal, and, well, punk. None of the indie games of this ilk that I’ve played have done what Celebration Rock does. But even if one did, that isn’t enough: games as a whole have to learn to what they really are if they are to really progress. They have to be braver, they have to be more honest. I missed the chance to have a videogame help me get through becoming an honest-to-goodness adult. Here’s hoping that games have made it far enough to be able to comfort me when mid-life crisis time comes around.


  1. I feel a little bemused that you died a little death at the ripe old age of 23. Wait till you’re my age, son! (cane waving)
    But to answer the question at hand: something can only express a sentiment that feels honest, when it expresses a sentiment that feels *specific.* There’s actually lots of little indie games about feelings. It’s just that most of them fall flat, because they’re trying to discuss generic relationships using generic visual language. They have the depth of a pop song, basically. Being specific takes courage, and it takes a special kind of developer to want to be specific about personal feelings, and then invest all that time and energy in to a game (rather than a blog post or something).

    • BigShellEvent

       @ajlange  I definitely agree with you here. Interestingly enough, games and books are the only two media that I have found work that I felt is sufficiently honest, but if I have to really think about it it’s more that just as it happens, those specific games or those specific books have resonated with me because we had a good compatibility match. 
      I yet to see any music that left me feeling this way. Several came close, but not close enough. 

  2. TrueAxiom

    This guy’s such a fuckin’ hipster.

    • ethancgach

       @TrueAxiom He probably pays someone to help him out of his skinny jeans at night..

  3. Videlais

    For all the cries, and I side with you here, of authentic moments and “honest” games, there are those who want the next shiny that will let them shoot mutated Nazi-zombies for a few hours each night with their friends. We can have both, of course, but one will often out sell the other. And business tend to side with products that will make money.
    I’m looking at projects like Fullbright’s Gone Home as being part of the answer to what you asking for. Narrowing the scope from saving the whole wide world to just a few rooms or even, in the case of The Last Express a few train cars, can help. Diving into personal relationships and away from vast conflicts can bring us closer to more internal struggles instead of just random battles. It’s much more work to make those games, sure, but I fully agree that they stay will us longer and can mean a great deal more than just the latest Heroes of Wartime 12: That Battle That One Time.

  4. Numquam

    One of the best fit examples I can give of a game that has trouble being honest is the God of War series. In the first God of War, Kratos’ character was sympathetic. He displayed a range of emotions: dismay, fear, guilt, instead of just rage and bitterness. This made his retribution palpable, and we identified with Kratos’ actions because he had been damaged emotionally. There was an instance in God of War, where we, as players, enacted our own hostilities on each enemy, and killing Ares became a relinquishing of the sum of those hostilities.
    However, this changed in God of War II and God of War III, where Kratos lost almost every ounce of sympathy. Kratos was megalomaniacal, sociopathic, overtly angry, and self-obsessed. He goes about maming, dismembering, and mutilating immeasurable amounts of corpses. His revenge doesn’t seem justified, neither morally nor emotionally. Where we should feel a connection to Kratos, as we did in God of War I, we instead get something  so pretentious in showcasing its graphics that the experience is marred.

  5. ethancgach

    “Jonathon Blow’s Braid, for example, is an intensely personal game. But a lot of what that game is about is hidden under layers of posturing, of acting deep and meaningful. There’s soul and honesty there, but it’s obfuscated. That just doesn’t work for me; it’s the reason I can’t relate. I want someone to be brave enough to say, “This is a personal thing. This an emotional thing. It’s all on the table.” And some indie developers have done this – Anna Anthropy comes to mind – but why aren’t we celebrating it more? Or calling for it to be done en masse?”
    And yet I wonder if it isn’t inbetween the cracks in our humanity that we really find ourselves, or one another…

  6. MattN

    Great album. I think music, just like all mediums, has its own strengths, though, and one is the ability to touch people in very simple but deep ways. That’s the power of music, in general, and when songs are only a few minutes long, it’s much easier to get to the root of a person without people expecting much more. Games often have much great expectations due to length and the interactive element. Something like Passage is closest to a song due to the limited time and interactivity. It becomes just an experience like a song that hits on an idea for a brief enough time that it doesn’t get old or boring.These aren’t complete thoughts, but it’s my first instincts, so I hope it is coherent. 🙂 

    • MattN

       @MattN I finally put down a full response to this great article. I hope you enjoy! :D

  7. SinclairVox

    It’s not entirely what you’re looking for, I think, but the performances behind Enslaved: Odyssey to the West lend it an honesty and vulnerability that really spoke to me. The game’s not perfect, but man, when you get Andy Serkis to do your mo-cap and your voices, you’re gonna get something special.

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