In the last five years, the games industry has seen an influx of short, story driven games that are typically developed by small studios.  A large majority of these games do not focus on action, set pieces, or complex puzzles, but are meant to deliver the player through a crafted, linear experience.  Usually only a few hours in length, they are typically rather poignant and concise.  Many of these titles attempt to teach a lesson or convey a central theme (Journey, The Unfinished Swan, Proteus), but are ambiguous enough that each player can garner a somewhat different meaning from his or her experience.  A few have been metaphorical in nature, such Papo & Yo, which was created to share one developer’s story of having an alcoholic father.  Yet others give players the primer of a story, and then require each individual person to fill in the holes for themselves (such as Dear Esther).These “art house” projects are on the rise, with gaming sites reporting on the obscurest of titles in the genre daily.  Many of the titles are released with little hype or fanfare, but others have risen up to win many awards and become special for gamers everywhere.

Dear Esther is godawfully nice to look at.

While conveying themes and teaching lessons is something games have attempted before, rarely has the process been conducted in such an elegant manner.  Titles such as Journey typically have implied themes that gamers pick up as they go, but at no point is the lesson forced onto the player.  Whereas many (not all, but many) games that try to convey a message feel a need to force said message on the player, these bite-sized experiences allow the process to happen at its own pace, typically nailing it down towards the end.  A general mood that hints at the game’s purpose is present the entire time, but never really makes itself blatant until the final moments.  It is a trend that hasn’t really been seen before in the industry, but has been prevalent in another form of entertainment since the dawn of communication, one that shares a remarkable amount of similarities with these new, experimental endeavors for gaming.

That form of entertainment is oral storytelling, more commonly known as the “fairy tale” or, perhaps, the “bedtime story.”

Rocking chairs are the best.

At first glance, these two things have little in common.  Fairy tales (and related stories) were created to scare children, or to teach them a critical life lesson.  While they did usually contain entertaining elements, they were also very dark, and were created with the pure goal of lying to children in order to speed up their maturity.  Meanwhile, these artsy games are interactive, somewhat strange-looking attempts at trying to invoke an emotional response from the player, asking you to learn something from the experience that might not necessarily be vital, but that the creator(s) simply wanted to share.  And, a lot of the time, the attempts are successful.  Countless gamers have voiced their approval of these artistic endeavors, saying that many of the projects have been some of the more emotional and thoughtful experiences that they have ever had.

Look a bit deeper, though, and similarities begin to pile up.  Both forms of media require imagination to fully grasp what is going on.  A mother attempting to imitate the voice of a man in a bedtime story, while hilarious, will not keep a small child from creating a unique voice for that character is his or her head.  Similarly, if one looks at Proteus in a purely literal sense, all that you will find is a first person view of some seasons changing and musical crabs.  Searching beyond what the creator provides is essential to actually form a real connection.

Run. Down. The. Hill.

The second large similarity is that lessons are being taught both ways.  Regardless of what one person gathered from Journey (I know that I keep using that example, but it’s a good one) versus what someone else did, something was learned.  Because of the experience’s subtle nature, which doesn’t throw a life lesson in the player’s face, there isn’t only one theme that can be gathered.  This is in contrast with fairy tales or bedtime stories, which typically nail down one two specific points, as the intended audience could lose the meaning entirely otherwise. Currently, the storytelling of a game like Papo & Yo is closer to that of an oral tale due to its very clear tone and ideas that are presented.  However, regardless of the delivery, lessons are being taught and absorbed.

So, there are similarities and differences.  Both oral stories and artsy games are concise, try to convey ideas, teach lessons, and require imagination.  However, games require the player to fill in more holes, and even sometimes create for themselves a message from their experience, while the stories are very one note, and oftentimes don’t leave much room for interpretation.  With these observations in mind, I ask myself a question: are the artsy games becoming simply bedtime stories for adults?

Here’s a bedtime story for no one.

From about age fourteen and up, people don’t enjoy being told how to feel.  We like being able to mold ourselves and take from our experiences whatever we deem important.  We begin to slip away from the founts of knowledge that are our parents (not completely, but we grow more independent), and begin to create a world of values and ideas for ourselves.  When people tell us exactly how we should feel, we rebel against them.  We never stop wanting to learn, but the ways in which we hope it happens may change dramatically.

This type of open ended learning is exactly what artsy games provide.  They teach us things, and we feel as if we have grown as people, but not on a leash.  We are given an experience and told to garner from it whatever we can, as opposed to being led to a canned theme that may or may not resonate with players.  The brilliance is that no one will feel the same way when the game ends, but will come out a better person (or a more learned person, at least) regardless.  When given free rein to feel as you naturally would, as opposed to exactly how the developer wants you to, the player forms a stronger bond with the experience.

But not when you shove it down my throat.

I do believe that these types of games connect with gamers for the same reasons that fairy tales did when they were small children.  Almost everyone enjoys learning, and being able to do it independently is something that is undeniably more attractive than being forced down a set sequence of thought and emotions.  When we were younger, we needed the guidance.  Now, we look for lessons that resonate with us specifically.  By being thought-provoking, beautiful, poignant, open-ended, emotional, and chuck full of lessons that are interpretable in many ways, I believe that artsy games have become an advanced form of bedtime stories for adults.