Is it too much to ask for the real treasure to be the friends we made along the way?
Aside from games, reading is my other favorite pastime. I’ve gotten through quite a few books this year, with most of them falling into the young adult or children’s literature genres, and this got me thinking — why don’t we have more games like this?
For as long as I’ve played games, there seems to be a clear divide between games that are made for kids and games that are made for adults. Kids’ games are often simple, and pretty pristine in terms of subject matter, but developers do a good job of making them equally fun for adults. Good examples of this are Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and the Super Mario franchise.
Then we have, well, the majority of the gaming market, which are games made for adults and adults only. They’re usually very violent, have lots of swearing, sexually explicit content, et cetera. If you’ve been around this industry for more than like two days, you know the drill. Older kids and young adults can technically play titles like Uncharted, Horizon Zero Dawn, and God of War, but those are still about adults doing adult things that a younger audience can’t really relate to. Games like Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto, and Call of Duty are among the most popular AAA games that children are also playing — and those titles are chalked full of enough adult themes to leave any kid traumatized.
Now don’t get me wrong, this is far from a pearl-clutching moment; I love and play those “explicit” games all the time. However, my inner child can’t help but notice that there’s a discrepancy in the type of content game studios are putting out there. The YA genre is a huge part of the film and literature industries, but it’s something that games rarely seem to touch.
Of all the books I’ve ever read, some of my absolute favorites are series like Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, The City of Ember, and Gregor the Overlander. I have a real affinity for these sort of coming-of-age adventure stories, and unless I’m missing something big, I don’t see much of that at all in the games industry. I like stories about revenge, murder, or other intense adult things as much as the next person, but these types of “children’s” tales have a certain hope and optimism that I’m missing from games.
I guess the closest thing I can think of to what I’m describing is Breath of the Wild, but that game’s narrative was a bit bare. I’ve been told Pokemon fills this role for a lot of people, but unfortunately I missed that boat growing up so I can’t speak to the franchises’ impact as much. There’s also The Walking Dead Telltale series where the player gets to watch Clementine grow up, but those games are so bleak and sad, they still don’t quite scratch that itch for me. Minecraft is pretty YA-friendly, but it’s a bit too open-ended. I’m asking for something that’s specifically story-driven, because I want a game to take me on a ride sometimes, rather than making my own fun. I know I’m being picky, but it’s my column and I’ll do what I want.
Life is Strange feels like it’s the closest to what I’m describing, but that game leaves a lot to be desired, in my book. The real problem here, though, is that its tone is a bit too dark, too pessimistic to be the next uplifting magical friendship adventure. Oxenfree also falls into this category somewhat, and while I do like it better than Life is Strange, it also leaves you feeling a bit more sad than when you first started it.
Plus, where are the games about friendship? I’m getting down into the weeds now, but I’m sorry, I just don’t need another story about how “we were the real monsters all along.” So many of these children’s series have a through line of the characters having each others’ backs and forming unbreakable bonds, and I really think games could use a good injection of that kind of friendship into my games.
I would bet money on the fact that there are tons of great little indie games out there that are exactly what I’m looking for, and if that’s the case please let me know in the comments. As for the AAA studios, I think this is a whole market that they’re leaving untapped.
All I want is for a kid or young adult to be able to load up a game and have it be a magical, formative experience for them akin to what Harry Potter was for my generation (JK Rowling can kick rocks, though). I know Hogwarts Legacy is right around the corner, but like, I’d rather stay away from that franchise from now on, thanks.
I’m certainly not planning on having kids anytime soon, but if I did, I would want them to be able to play games that speak to their maturity as they age, while still remaining age-appropriate. I would want them to experience that same sense of adventure and fun you get from the aforementioned books, just, you know, in game form. Hell, I want that for myself right now.
Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.