“Sometimes, I feel I gotta get away
Bells chime, I know I gotta get away
And I know if I don’t, I’ll go out of my mind
Better leave her behind with the kids, they’re alright
The kids are alright”
I’m a generation one gamer, which is to say that I‘m closing in on an impending mid-life crisis and often finding myself dissatisfied with this mythic “younger generation” that has perpetually plagued the aged, jaded, and socially obsolete throughout modern human history. All of the little things that mark the Millennial generation: the lives ruled by social media and celebrity gossip, the narcissism, and most of all the resultant attitude that suggests an earnest belief that every single thought that enters their heads is the most important thought anybody has ever thought (even if they didn’t so much think it themselves as read it on the internet); these eat the brains of their Gen X progenitors.
But lest we become like our own reckless Baby Boomer parents and forget where we came from ourselves while lashing out at our offspring over superficial differences, we old-school gamers owe it both to ourselves and the incoming generation to put aside petty differences and objectively analyze the most relevant, enduring, and telling aspect of any generation’s cultural legacy: their art. And as the children of the ‘90s grow to become productive members of society in a new millennium, I think we as elder gamers have to admit it: the kids are alright. And the very same youth trends that are driving us crazy? They may turn out to be their greatest strength.
Appearances aside, Millennials do have something relevant to say and they are changing media as we know it and proving themselves as bold and innovative artists by twisting their perceived narcissism into universal expressions of human emotion and honesty like we’ve never seen before. And it’s good. Really good. I don’t even feel like shaking my stick at them and yelling to get off my lawn anymore.
The other day I was watching director Kevin Smith interview geek goddess Felicia Day and he told her that her generation were the “true independents”; accountable only to themselves as they have made cyberspace their own and filled it with creativity with no governing body to exploit or impede them. And he’s right. It’s a new world. This is possibly most evident in the rise of the indie game scene, and the way it has taken low-budget minimalist storytelling to heights absolutely unheard of in previous decades.
Games like The Cat Lady, Cibelle, and even Depression Quest have garnered attention and acclaim in telling stories that feel intensely and unflinchingly personal and evoke powerful feelings with very little to work with. The real life issues that cause us chronic anxiety like mental illness, sex and relationships, and the general unfairness of life is something that Boomers have long pretended to ignore and Gen X have skirted with cynical apathy, but Millennials are breaking down those walls head on and integrating them into the very medium we’ve used to escape from those things. And you know what? We’re all the better for it.
Repression is an indisputably damaging psychological force, and while the youngsters’ willingness to (over)share may cause an initial kneejerk of discomfort in the more conservative among us, you’ve got to hand it to them: they know how to tell a good story. As an interactive and growing entertainment medium, gaming has infinite potential and looking at the rise of indie storytelling, it’s truly impressive are using the same tech used to create games in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras to craft creative and artistic stories that would have been absolutely unheard of in that time.
Case and point: 2015’s Three Fourths Home; a game I feel like I should have played sooner but somehow never got around to before now. It’s billed as an “interactive short story”, and including its bonus content is closer to the length of a feature film. As a video game, it doesn’t have much to recommend it since it’s not exactly what we’d call “fun”. Plus, it’s composed almost entirely of silhouettes and text and would not have looked out of place on an early ‘80’s computer. But the economics of storytelling and immersion that make it such a worthwhile gaming experience are as post-millennial as it gets.
The main game takes place on one two-dimensional stretch of road and you, the player, are expected to do two things: press the gas and talk to the main character’s family on the phone as the car moves through the Midwestern countryside. As an apparent casual phone conversation continues to take turns towards unveiling the various traumas this family unit has undergone in the recent past, the weather gets progressively worse…
Lots of little touches and personal details as well as visual and audio cues pepper Three Fourths Home’s rural journey into the heart of American anxiety in the 21st century, but at the end of the day it is a story comprised of text and lo-fi silhouettes and sounds that convey a wealth of human emotion and a personal experience with nearly universal scope. That is amazing.
In the game’s extended edition, the story is expanded into even deeper artistic territory including an epilogue that takes place inside the protagonist’s memory that offers a way of creating an alternate past for the character and her family, even if only in her own mind. This stays with the theme that was detailed in the base game via her socially impaired younger brother reciting a story he wrote to her about a terrifying monster who looms over a village without destroying it, just slowly poisoning it with its mere presence. Like what the bad feelings, unexpressed anxiety, depression, regret, and general stress of living life these days will do to your general well-being if you don’t find an outlet for them. And still, one day, after slowly rotting your existence indirectly over years as you ignore it, that beast may still wake up and lay waste when you least expect it, leaving nothing behind. Ain’t life grand?
This is bleak even by Generation X standards, but it’s a valuable lesson that the young Millennials have to impart. And maybe that’s the core of what we perceive to be a generation of chronic oversharers: a desire to exchange these honest and personal stories of dysfunction as a form of catharsis. We had punk and grunge and heavy metal and gangsta rap and horror movies that didn’t suck and violent video games speaking to us, but in the face of saccharine corporate cookie-cutter garbage taking over modern cinemas and radio, teens and twenty-somethings have taken to the internet and independent gaming to share the horrors of coming of age in a world that may already be broken beyond repair.
They’ve been left to suffer the consequences of previous generations’ irresponsibility and these personal horror stories of a harsh and unforgiving world and the way it amplifies their personal failings are becoming a form of art unto themselves. And for once gaming is right in there from the start, not playing catch up to film, literature, and television, but blazing the trail right alongside them with the new wave of independent artists. It’s a beautiful thing, really.
The power of this new form of interactive entertainment is that a brief stint spent driving a virtual car in a straight line by depressing a single button on a controller and making dialogue choices in a text conversation with a video game character’s unseen relatives can take a jaded aging gamer’s negative opinions about a generation obsessed with vapid reality shows, arguing about nonsense online with inappropriate zeal, and posting endless pictures of everything they eat and drink (or just their own damn faces) and help give him a whole new perspective just by telling him a story in a way he’s never seen before.
That’s a pretty solid testimonial of the advent of post-millennial storytelling and it feels good to know gaming is only going to get better and more personal from here on out. I’ve murdered tons of Nazis and aliens and monsters and whatnot and traveled to every possible kind of realistic and imaginary landscape in video games. Maybe the future of gaming isn’t about literally battling external threats and traveling places you’ll never get to go in real life anymore. Maybe it’s about going inside of our own heads and figuratively battling the universal human anxieties that are holding us back in life instead. Sounds good to me. Lead on, whippersnappers. Just give the selfies a rest, ‘kay?