Basically constant contact with violence tends to have huge negative effects on your mind, despite what most video games try o show. This is not a bad thing per Se, I'm a huge fan of cool violence myself. But wouldn't it be swell if a video game tried to show violence as it really is, which is something that can really ruin your mind? As something ugly which drives you insane bit by bit? Well, there is such a game. It's called Condemned: Criminal Origins.
Now, the plot of this game is written by no Shakespeare, and a lot of negative criticism about it is due. That's the reason I'm putting it as the last entry. But you have to give them this: they work out the psychology of their hero pretty well.
The game is a psychological survival horror with action elements, using a first person perspective with fights, puzzles and some CSI-like sequences, it narrates the story of a Serial Crime Unit investigator who investigates a serial killer murders in a part of town where the condemned people are kept and people are turning into psychos, and he's framed for murder himself.
As an interpreter I'm never sure if the whole thing is not made up in protagonist's mind, but what I'm sure is that he's not entirely sane. And this is evident in everything he does. The city of the game is devoured by violence, and people are going insane. It's not entirely liberal to claim that this game is about the traumatic effects of violence on the sanity of a society.
There's one thing that's frequently used in literature and cinema as a tool to justify the actions of the characters. It's trauma. The idea is this: When characters are doing crazy things, we have to justify it one way. So, why not put a disastrous event in their life and make sure this disaster serves as a turning point in their life. This is a very frequent device. It may or may not accord with psychological science of traumas, but that doesn't really matter. It may be cliche but if it's done masterfully it helps the flow of the story a lot. It's all about creating plausible characters with believable history.
There are multiple aspect of using trauma as narration device in video games. One can think of Max Payne, where the death of his wife and daughter turns his life around. Also of the life of Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, where the traumatic event is the death of Zack. You can see a pattern here: most of the time the trauma is caused by someone's death. Why? Because this makes the trauma more emotional and more compelling to the reader.
One great example is Ethan Mars of Heavy Rain. At first we observe Ethan in his normal life. We see he's a good guy, a good husband, and a beloved father. Then one day he loses his son in a crowded shopping mall. The son exits the shop and is killed by a car. This turns Ethan's life around. He develops Agoraphobia (the fear of crowds), has frequent black outs and also becomes depressed. This serves as a very important plot device because later we will doubt the fact that whether or not he's the serial killer of the game.
Ethan's portrayal of trauma may be psychologically correct, I don't know that. But it's believable and artistic, and serves his characterization a lot, and makes him compelling.
There's this device that writers and filmmakers love even more than trauma which happens in adult years: childhood trauma. So, we have a serial killer? Let's go back to his childhood and find the cause of his trauma THERE! This device is over-used now. However, there are artistic instances of using it. The person who's responsible with cinema's obsession with childhood trauma is Alfred Hitchcock, who used the device more artistically than others. He was deeply influenced by Freud.
The idea is, when something traumatic happens in your childhood, your memory suppresses it and later in life it shows up as psychosis. And it's far better if it shows up as criminal insanity: we have a thriller now. While this device, as I mentioned, is now a cliche and overused, I can think of one example where it's used more artistically than in any other place: Silent Hill 4: The Room.
To me, Henry Townshead, the playable character, is not the protagonist of this game, he's only the narrator. The anti-hero, the real focus of the game, is the villain, Walter Sullivan, who wants to make 21 sacrifices and therefore sets out as a serial killer. Unlike most video game/movie/book serial killers, his character is tangible, real, and even sympathetic, and he rises above normal villains to a real character. And the game's handling of his childhood trauma is the main reason of this.
First of all, the game deals with Walter's childhood in depth and extensively and doesn't brush over it. We find multiple memos, we visit multiple places, we go to his childhood home, in short, we see all his life before us. Secondly, his case is really strong and sad: He has suffered from a really cruel upbringing and a huge lack of affection. He's had no mother figure in his life, so that he thinks that the room he lives in is his mother. He's brainwashed and tortured into his presence state by cruel religious teachers. Walter's personality is so compelling because we realize he's really as much a victim as a villain.
He's personality is split into two: adult Walter who's cruel and child Walter who's innocent. When Walter was younger, a little girl was the only person who showed him affection; this girl was Eileen. Adult Walter attacks Eileen in an attempt to kill her but the child Walter intervenes and saves her. This might get us thinking; what would child Walter become if he was treated more kindly when Walter was a kid?
This game is really sad. And that makes it quite valuable as a work of art.
Schizophrenia is another popular device for both mainstream and artistic literature and cinema, another device used both deeply and shallow. Schizophrenia seems to be the mother of all mental problems, which basically means that your thinking and emotional processes are not working the way they should. It manifests in hallucinations, paranoia, or unusual speech, disorganized thinking, and social dysfunction. In popular culture it's commonly confused with dissociative identity disorder which is also known as "multiple personality disorder" or "split personality". I just wanted to make this clear: these two things are different. The second one is more used in popular culture and we focus on that in this entry.
Dissociative identity disorder is when you think you are two or more people, you have more than one personality. These personalities take over you and more than often they're associated with memory loss.
Depiction of DID in literature goes back to ancient times, Janus is a god with two faces. This disorder is hinted at most famously in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Edgar Allan Poe's Tales, Shirley Jackson's The Birds' Nest, Stephen King's The Dark Tower, and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. The device is also a favorite in movies, as in Hitchcock's Psycho (the most famous example), or the comedy Me, Myself & Irene.
What about video games? They love it just as much. Xenogears, which mistakenly refers to this illness as Schizophrenia, Clock Tower II, and Mega Man Star Force are examples.
But to me the most artistic examples is Killer7. In this game the playable character suffers from DID and this serves as a tool to make the game intentionally confusing: Who's the dominant personality? Are the final scenes correct? Was it all a dream? The game uses a psychological disorder the way I think it should be used: as a way to convey more serious questions. When you play as the DID hero of the game you question the nature of truth, politics, and history. This game uses DID to send strong philosophical and social as well as psychological messages. It's truly a brave and artistic game.
Taking a break from the world of criminals and dangerous people, let's take a look at another dominant psychological theme which all of us have faced somewhere in our lives: coming-of-age, maturity, and the crisis of identity that the adolescent usually face. This is a very important theme and many great masterpieces narrate the psychological journey of a teenager from childhood to adulthood, including James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Henry James' The Awkward Age, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and most recently, Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. So do we have a similar theme in a video game too? Yes, we have.
Neku Sakuraba, the protagonist of The World Ends with You, is a teenager with a deep and thoughtful personality. He's an anti-social teenager. He has problem communicating with those around him. He says that he doesn't get people. At sart he might seem self-centered and spoiled, as all the teenagers facing a crisis like him do, but he develops later in the game. He struggles through the game not only with outside forces but with the inside forces as well, and he changes from an emo kid to a mature adult who takes his responsibilities seriously, so most players can easily identify with him.
Neku is a great example of characterization because the developers have paid minute attention to all of his personality details, and his feelings, interactions with others, and all of these things change as Neku matures into a more reliable person.
As a side note, there are such characters in many games, like Cloud, Squall, Zidane and Tidus in Final Fantasy series, Sora of Kingdom Hearts, and some characters from Shin Megami Tensei. To me the greatest examples of such characters is Heather from Silent Hill 3. But I chose Neku nonetheless because 1) he's a brilliant character and 2) Adolescence crisis and overcoming it most evident in his case. In short, this game is a good psychological story.
This game is a little bit tricky example, because this psychological point is not made evident in the context of the game. But in a way, I think it's the only acceptable explanation to the behavior of Agent 47, the protagonist of the series.
Hitman series are one of the greatest game series ever made. All the four games are complete gameplay masterpieces, and the protagonist, Agent 47, is one of the most charismatic anti-heroes ever made. However, let's look at his personal journey:
He's an assassin. He's a genetically created super-soldier who's designed merely for killing. He's very good at killing. He can bring down any target. But how does he handle at, in his own private life? Is he a broken desperate soul like the character of Alain Delon in Samurai? Well, he's not. He feels no remorse when he kills people. His face is always emotionless, and he never seems to be angry, sad, he doesn't even seem to enjoy killing. You feel more remorse and excitement when you crush a mosquito. He does it the way a bank clerk counts money or a bus driver drives. He does it in no particular way, he just does it.
Nothing seems to be his particular motive. His only benefit from the whole situation is the money he's paid, but what he spends this money on? Well, guns and suits. He tries to keep casualties at a minimum but only because killing more than your targets is "bad business", not because human life matters in anyway.
It gets creepier: the second game begins by 47 working in a church and being repentant and all, but ends with him embracing a life of crime again. And if you haven't played the game you just don't know how the developers narrate this story: it seems as if this is a redemption story. Gee. Even Tenchu are less loving of the killing job.
So, let's face it: 47 is insane. And insane on the criminal spirit: he genuinely sees nothing wrong in taking human life. You might blame it on his genes, but I rather blame it on his mind. And it makes sense too: He was born to kill. From his very childhood, he was trained to kill. I'm not sure if this particular parenting method was a success or failure.
Am I making it sound cool? It is. F***ing cool.
One of the most touching and grave subjects we have on our hand is how we handle people who are actually mentally disturbed. Our wrong treatment of them can cause serious problems. Let me give the stage to our guest writer, Boadicia, to explain this game to you:
"Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is one of those rare games that deliberately tries to screw with your head. It tells the story of Alex Roivas, a young college student who is trying to solve the mystery of her grandfather's grisly murder. While searching through the family mansion, she finds the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a large book made of flesh, bound with bone, and written in blood. The book tells the story of different individuals who struggle against the evil machinations of three ancient beings who are trying to return to the world and subjugate it. As the stories progress, the characters' grips on reality fall apart, and even the player is assaulted by the effects.
Only one or two of the characters walk away from the ordeal unscathed. Perhaps the one who suffered the most was Maximillian Roivas, who encountered the tome in 1760. Maximillian was a medical doctor who was highly respected by his peers and students. He inherited the mansion from his father and begins his story while exploring it the first night. He finds the Tome of Eternal Darkness, and the mansion is immediately invaded by monsters. As Max goes through the mansion, the servants become objects of suspicion themselves. Before the monsters arrive, one servant makes an innocent comment about the dinner she's preparing. Afterwards, Max thinks he sees her place a human organ into the pot. Did he really see that? The player never finds out.
The game then takes a darker turn as it subtly addresses a difficult issue: society's treatment of the mentally ill, and the tendency to either ignore them or throw them away. Where do you draw the line between the psychological products of their illnesses and something to take seriously?
Maximillian eventually finds the ruins of a great city in a cave under the mansion, and it is infested with the Dark Guardians, monstrous servants of the Ancients, and it is only one of many such places. Max makes it his life's mission to warn the world of the coming horrors. Instead, he ends up being thrown into an insane asylum. This leads to an interesting conundrum. When you watch him rambling and gibbering in his cell, you know he's insane. When you see the flashback where he murdered his servants because he believed they were possessed by Bonethieves, you can tell by his countenance that he's at the breaking point. When you listen to him read the autopsy reports, you can hear in his voice that he has lost his touch with reality. The problem is that, as the player who has shared the experience, you know that he's telling the truth. There's an entire city of bloodthirsty monsters waiting for their master's go ahead to wipe the entire human race off the face of the planet, and the only person who knows can't warn the world because he's officially labeled as insane and no one takes him seriously."
Thanks to Boadicia for explaining it so greatly. Applause!
I know I'm going to be criticized a lot for including three Silent Hills in one list (yes, there's another one waiting for you below), but it doesn't matter. Silent Hill is a psychological franchise, and no other franchise that I know of handles the matter so greatly and artistically. So let's get on with the second game.
Well, this entry contains as much spoiler as a hot summer day. You may stop reading if you plan to play the game in the future.
Silent Hill 2 is a psychological allegory. James Sunderland receives a letter from his dead wife to meet her at their usual spot in Silent Hill. James travels to Silent Hill and finds out that he has actually killed his wife. So James' horrific journey to Silent Hill is in fact his odyssey through his own troubled subconscious.
Anything in this game is a physical, horrifying manifestation of his guilty feelings. All the monsters are symbolic, and they all hint to a troubled mind which is sexually insecure and troubled. James can not come in terms with his guilty feelings. The Pyramid Head appears in this game, which is definitely a symbol of murder guilt.
Two women appear in James' way. The first one is a little girl, which represents the innocent aspect of his wife. The second one is a sportive woman called Maria, who symbolizes the fact that James objectified his wife. James is attracted to Maria, but he ends up murdering her over and over (remembering that all monsters, including Pyramid Head, are himself), and is annoyed by the little girl, who constantly makes troubles for him.
This shows the nature of his relationship with his wife. I think even the murder part is symbolic. Silent Hills, in contrast to their gritty nature, are about simple everyday things. Silent Hill 3 was really about a girl discovering her real self and shaping her sexual identity. Silent Hill 2 likely, is about a husband who feels guilty after the death of his wife not because he literally killed her, but because he mistreated her and looked at her only as a sex object. So it's a psychological murder.
James' redemption is achieved by coming in terms with the little girl and reshaping the memory of his dead wife. Will he be redeemed? I think yes. At least on my old PS2 memory card he does.
So, we now reach the most common, the most fun and fascinating way that psychology has been used in video games: to narrate the story from the perspective of an insane or mentally challenged person. In literature a great masterpiece of this genre is The Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol. In movies this trend began with Doctor Caligari's Cabin in 1920, and many great films are produced in the genre Donny Darko, Mulholland Drive, and most recently Black Swan. These works of art always use this to another end. They usually aim to show the instability of our mind in general, and cast doubt on the established opinions.
In video games, there's a great example. This example is Psychonauts which is funny and deep at the same time. Psychonauts is a very brave game, it's innovative in style and content.
The hero of the game is called Raz, short of Razputin. He has various psychic abilities, including the ability to travel to the mind of other people. At one time in the game he's trapped in a mental asylum, and now he has to travel through the mind of the insane to find the key to his freedom.
The most interesting level is the milkman level, which is extremely hilarious and crazy at the same time. The level is full of neurotic cops who all are afraid of a coming conspiracy, everything is out of shape, nothing is in the right order. The level is a surrealistic masterpiece, full of hints on our real life, which makes it a real great commentary as well.
Psychonauts achieves what all masterpieces in the genre do: it goes beyond apparent insanity and poses the tough question on all of us. The insanity exists in everything, us, them, all of it. The world and nature is insane.
If Salvador Dali had a most favorite game of all times, this would be it.
Now, we're down to our number one game of this list. And yes, this one: the most underrated game ever made. I have always been openly a fan of this series, and I'm shocked how this pure masterpiece didn't get enough attention. Almost all people, even fans, acted as if a very normal spin-off and it was a sort of "meh" and then moved on. Let me enlighten you: Shattered Memories is when a video game goes beyond the boundaries of a normal work and challenges the very boarders of a medium and art in general and stands not on the top of its genre, but a little bit outside it.
This game is the most out-speaking psychological one of the series. It happens in a psychiatrist office, and you have to answer to the questions of the doctor, and then proceed to play a level. These levels are the remake- or the reread- of the events of the first game. The game warns you at the very beginning that it collects data based on what you do and will reshape the game to create your personal nightmare. The game warns you that "this game plays you as much as you play it".
By taking this bold step, the game dismantles the traditional definition of the gamer, and does so more effectively than any other media before. There has been a long time since literature and cinema have tried to leave parts of the story blank to fill it with reader. There has always been attempts to kick the audience from its passive role into an active one- and this game has now defied the boarders. You, as the gamer, are the main subject of the game. Not because the game drastically changes based on how you play it- no, that would be meaningless. To me, every second of the game is meticulously worked, and a game that really changes based on the gaming of the gamer can never achieve greatness.
The game plays you by always making you self-conscious. The magical miracle this game is, it keeps two opposing things in art together. First, it involves you in the story it narrates. Second, it keeps its distance. This paradoxical constant involvement-alienation, makes you to lose yourself deep in the story, but always resume to yourself and ask yourself, "what about me?" "Am I doing the the right thing?" The game plays you by making you self-aware. This game is no escapist fun, it's a wake-up call.
The game narrates the events of the first Silent Hill. This is also a genius move. The fans of the series know this story pretty well. And now this game boldly dismantles it. It changes the roles. Reverses good and evil. Redefines. Why should you manipulate an accepted, standard story that everybody loves? Because that's what gives this game is powerful voice. The game wages its war against dogma and fixed answers by not only making you question yourself- but also your past knowledge of events, your ideas, your memories. Nothing is as it appears.
The game puts psychology under its feet to climb higher. Add to this the great, miraculous execution of every moment and event in the game. I have a dear friend who says: "Art must end somewhere", whenever he sees a really great work of art, and is yet again surprised. Call me an exaggerating fanboy if you will, but I sincerely believe if art ends somewhere, this game is near that somewhere.
The relationship between the artist and the psychoanalyst has always been tense. One has called the other a neurotic, and has claimed the piece of work he worked on so hard is nothing but a manifest content to his repressed dreams.
Psychology is a respectable branch of its own, but artists have always misused it to raise the most important question. A psychologist may have to work with "abnormal", but his ultimate goal is to change it to "normal". An artist jumps in, and tries to mingle, reverse, or unify the "normal" and "abnormal". To artist, there's no "cure" for psychosis, for psychosis is everywhere, and there's no "cure" for insanity; the world is insane.
I have to make this clear: this list was not about psychology, but about art. Psychology, to artist, is nothing but a platform. There has been works that try to be fair to the great profession of psychology, like Good Will Hunting. But then again, I can see no real doctor to act like the character of Robin Williams in that film.
It seems that the artist, repeatedly, finds themselves on the side of the lunatic. It seems that the artist values insanity, abnormality, and maybe the artist is trying to reverse everything. Thus, we have works like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Artist goes to the mental asylum to find the whole world in a smaller scale. The artist chooses to narrate the events from the eyes of a lunatic, maybe his "innocent" eyes will provide the truth.
To me, these games above are the same. At the end, Silent Hill 2, Psychonauts, Heavy Rain and Shattered Memories are mainly about everything. Psychology is a tool they use to shake us into knowledge and open mindedness.
While I was struggling hard to decide which game to choose, BlueGunstarHero recommended Eternal Darkness (which I was already considering). His suggestion was enough for me to make my mind, and I'd like to thank him.
And of course, that entry was written by Boadicia. She has written a very fantastic list herself, and I strongly recommend it to you. Thanks a lot for your effort, dear friend!
If you have enjoyed the list so far, good news! There are a lot more to come! If you're already tired, bad news! There are still a lot more to come!
Next one in the series is "Top 10 Game Games Which Deal Important Moral Issues". We're going to be a little more didactic this time, and pick up universal topics such as honor, courage, and so on.
Please drop in the Top 10 Lists message board and tell me every suggestion that you might have for the future lists. Until next time, bye bye!
List by Nazifpour (01/26/2011)
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