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Gaming's Five Most Thought Provoking Franchises

Mytheos Holt | 22 Jul 2015 15:00
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Everyone today agrees that games are art, but no one can define for sure what an "artistic" game looks like. Some, for instance, seek to make gaming more cinematic, which has its advantages (such as more realized characters, grander visuals, and deeper stories), but also ends up creating games with narratives that are so linear they almost make you feel like a spectator in your own experience.

Others, meanwhile, seem to be approaching games with the deconstructivist ethos of modern art, whereby a work becomes artistic the more it forces you to question existing standards of beauty or quality. This can lead to some interesting experiments, and works well with horror games, but can also act as a fig leaf for poor quality.

What very few people notice is that games have an artistic potential unique to them. Namely, they can dramatize thought experiments, and force us to contemplate abstract ideas in the first person. Games can place us in worlds where the rules of our own existence can be rewritten, or where we can experience choices that we ordinarily wouldn't. This enables us to understand the stakes of philosophical questions that might seem remote to our everyday lives at a deeply personal level. Video games are the ideal philosopher's playground.

As it happens, there are five game franchises that I think explore high-minded philosophical ideas particularly well, without sacrificing the fundamentals of good game design. These franchises, in my view, deserve to go down in history as high art independent of their genre, and should be recognized as significant to art as a whole, rather than their contribution to gaming. Without further ado, I present these gods among gaming for your consideration... along with one honorable mention.

5. ActRaiser

smart games actraiser 1

Speaking of God and His properties, let's start with a game where you literally play as Him.

Specifically, you play as some sort of hybrid that combines the Christian God, who is served by angels and opposed by Satan, with a more personal, Pagan conception of a deity, who personally slays monsters so that his worshippers may expand their civilization.

ActRaiser splits its time between two different modes of gameplay. First there is a fairly traditional side-scrolling platform section, in which you fight your way through the aforementioned monsters (and a few bosses). Second, there is a primitive civilization building strategy section in which your angelic assistant oversees the development of a civilization of people while fighting off encroaching demonic threats.

Where this gets philosophically interesting is when you look at some of the game's mechanics. For example, the stronger and more populous your civilization gets, the more health your avatar gains as you travel through the world destroying monsters. The idea of a God that derives His power exclusively from worshipers has been raised most persuasively by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that the advent of reason and science "killed" God by making faith in Him progressively more and more irrelevant to daily life. But Nietzsche's point is abstract, where ActRaiser portrays a God whose life is sustained by faith in accessible, concrete terms.

And if that wasn't cool enough, here's another thing about ActRaiser. Have you ever wondered why a benevolent God would let natural disasters happen? ActRaiser gives us an answer - because He wants to give us a reason to progress.

You see, ActRaiser makes it so the only way to make older parts of your civilization modernize (that is, level up to match your newer developments) is to strike them with earthquakes so they have to be rebuilt from scratch. If you've ever heard the phrase "God works in mysterious ways," then consider this at least one attempt at demystifying Him. And if you really want to spend ages thinking about what it must mean to be an omnipotent being controlling the destiny of billions of innocent beings, ask yourself whether such a tradeoff (progress at the price of sentient life) would be ethical from your perspective. You'll find you can probably argue with yourself (and others) for hours over the answer.

ActRaiser isn't the only game to have a God's eye perspective like this, and other games, like Shin Megami Tensei, arguably carry it off with greater complexity. But because ActRaiser predates Shin Megami, and emulates divinity in a way that raises such tantalizing ethical and theological conundrums, it deserves a spot on this list.

But what if you weren't so much interested in what goes through God's mind? What if you instead wanted to know about the inner workings of the human mind? Well, then number four is the series for you.

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