If you’d have asked me 25 years ago what the appeal of video games were, my answer would probably have been something about being given the opportunity to inhabit a reality unlike that of my own.
I was 15-years-old back then, and my life revolved primarily around school, sleep and girls turning me down for dates. I think about my favourite video games from this time, and they all concerned action and/or adventure. The cavernous exploration of Tomb Raider, a game I truly loved at this time, was infinitely more exciting than the many nights I spent with my friends sitting on the swings in my local park, yearning for something – anything – to happen. You could have made a game about my life at 15-years-old, but it would have been really, really, really boring.
A lot has changed in the years that have passed. My favourite game at the present moment is a title from a few years back called Night Call. It’s an extremely strange game, and though I’ve tried, I really can’t think of anything else like it. Released into an ocean of AAA releases in the summer of 2019, Night Call’s launch saw it quickly swallowed up by the great white whale of hype and of churn. The game made so little impact on release, in fact, that late last year, scarcely known French development team Monkey Moon announced on Twitter that they just couldn’t afford to release their planned PS4 port. “We’re probably as disappointed as you are,” they said, sadly.
Night Call positions you not as a Tomb Raider, but as a taxi driver, working nights, navigating Paris’ vast sprawl in order to earn enough money to fill your car with petrol and thereby do the same thing the very next day. It’s often extremely monotonous, as you might imagine the job of driving a taxi probably is. The twist is that you’re the sole survivor of a serial killer stalking the French capital, and you’re tasked with helping the police with their enquiries by picking up passengers and listening to their stories. You pick up sex workers and the homeless, tourists and politicians. Even, at one point, a ghost. If you ask the right questions – if you listen in the right way – you’ll glean information about what’s going on within the crevices of the city that the police can’t reach.
I do things in games now that I’d never have dreamt of doing when I was younger. I spent much of the cursed 2020 wheeling and dealing with a tanuki in Animal Crossing in order to buy a nice couch. One of my favourite games of recent times is Stardew Valley, a game about farming, but perhaps more so, escaping the rat race, slowing your life down, and living a life fuller for it. I wrote on this website last year about another strange indie game called Welcome To Elk, which despite being short and relatively linear, I’ve played through multiple times now. In that game you’re a carpenter, dropped onto a remote island community and asked to acclimatise. And yet, by way of Welcome To Elk being a game about people and the connections formed between them, it’s much more too.
Though stylistically poles apart, and with vastly different tones, the noir Night Call and the cutesy Welcome To Elk have a lot in common. They’re really games about storytelling, and thereby psychology and sociology, the stuff that makes people tick, for better and for worse. I have no doubt that my 15-year-old self would have thrown the controller at the wall at the start of that last sentence, then set off in search of a title where the aim was to blow some stuff up. But I’m not 15 anymore. I need different things. Which is for the best. If I was still using the amount of acne cream as I did when I was 15 all these years later, I think I’d be really very miserable.
It is of course normal – it is healthy – to grow as the years pass. My life needs moments of calm and restraint that I never did in my teenage bedroom back then. I have less time for explosions and violence than I did in the days I was unaware of the reality of the physical world.
Sometimes when I’ve paid my bills, sorted the weekly shop, argued with my neighbours about the raves they seem to hold in their upstairs flat each Friday night and scraped together enough money to pay the mortgage, I just cannot face – no, cannot be bothered with – killing a dragon. I can’t believe how much pleasure I’ve obtained lately, simply by driving around Paris, listening to stories, deciding when to interject and when to listen, soaking up the world with depth, but with very little pace.
I do wish I had the amount of hair on my head that I had way back then, though.