Any reasonable person would believe that we play video games to escape the mundanity of daily life, and rightfully so. Here’s why we shouldn’t.
Ever since their inception, games have been viewed as a form of escapism. You can’t rob a bank in real life because it’s, you know, bad, so you plan a heist in GTA 5.
Sadly, it’s impossible to become a supernatural assassin, but Dishonored’s there to fulfill this fantasy. You can’t hunt dragons in real life because that would go against the Endangered Species Act or whatever, so you boot up nearly every RPG released in the last 30 years and get to the slaying.
But escapism can only go so far. There are only so many banks you can rob, fantasy realms to explore or baddies to shoot up until the formula becomes stale and people start looking to titles with themes outside of the usual gaming canon.
While Planescape Torment broke away from gaming conventions way before they were clearly established by focusing almost exclusively on narrative, only recently has the industry experienced a noticeable shift.
A Noticeable Shift
Games are no longer required to feature dragons, extraterrestrial beings, an archetypical good vs evil story, a fully-fleshed combat system, and even a straightforward plot, for that matter, to have a chance at success.
After all, the beauty of games lies in their interactive nature, so why should they limit themselves to settings far away from the real world? In the right hands, even a game focused on something as mundane as local politics (no, Urban Empire, we’re not talking about you) can turn out in an interesting, if not compelling, experience.
But wait, we play games to escape the perils of daily life, so why should we let banality enter video games as well?
For the last hundred years, the mundanity of day to day life has been a hot topic both in academia and fiction. From critically acclaimed shows such as The Sopranos, which had a knack for portraying the minutiae of daily life in its most gritty and mundane details, despite its subject matter, to Curb Your Enthusiasm which took a more absurd and humorous approach, focusing on Larry David’s faux pas and his problems with many social conventions.
The minutiae of daily life has been portrayed again and again in pop-culture because, to be totally honest, the average person is more likely to experience the awkwardness of the double goodbye then be unwittingly drawn into a millennia-old conspiracy involving templars and other wacky stuff.
This is what makes characters like Larry David, Jesse and Celine from the Before Series and even mob boss Tony Soprano relatable in the truest sense of the word. This is not to say that characters from fantasy and Sci-Fi settings can’t be relatable.
But even then, it’s those exact mundane things resembling our world – Geralt going wrestling with the bureaucratic system to collect a meager inheritance or Commander Shepard sweet-talking – or extorting – the vendors on the Citadel to get better deals (saving the galaxy is an expensive ordeal, after all) that attract us to those stories.
Side Note: There are two papers I especially recommend. The first one is Hannah Arendt’s breakthrough paper The Banality of Evil, which we’ll reference later in the article. Arendt found Adolf Eichmann, one of the key figures behind the Holocaust, not monstrous, but a rather bland, ‘’terrifyingly’’ normal bureaucrat who committed evil deeds without evil intentions. In his paper titled The Banality of simulated evil: designing ethical gameplay, Miguel Sicart took Arendt’s findings and applied them in the context of modern video games.
The Potential of Mundanity
Because they have tremendous potential in terms of interactivity, even an action as simple as picking and pouring a glass of water can make for satisfying gameplay experience. Not thanks to the act of doing so itself, but because it’s a great way to immerse players into the game world. If that weren’t the case, I don’t think Death Stranding would’ve made peeing a gameplay mechanic.
There’s only so many ‘’the world is in danger, you’re the hero, save it’’ stories devs can throw at us before it becomes boring. There’s so many of them that, paradoxically, saving the world from some unspecified threat becomes as banal as washing your teeth in the morning before heading off to work.
Again, this is not to say that games with ‘’conventional’’ premises are boring or creatively bankrupt, and to their credit, the majority of developers are actively trying to put an interesting spin on their work.
Divinity: Original Sin 2, for example, features a relatively bland premise – you’re basically a demigod who’s working towards ascending to divinity and become a true god -, but it has a great cast of complex characters, good humor, a healthy degree of self-awareness.
In other words, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, as proven by some of its side-quests, which are quite low-stakes in the whole scheme of things.
Texture and Tactility
When it comes to the issue of mundanity, there are two types I’d want video games to feature more. The first one has to do with what games academic and designer Ian Bogost calls ‘’texture’’. In his intriguing piece for Gamasutra, he talks about Go, a game whose main pleasure stems from grabbing the pieces and playing around with them.
For obvious reasons, this sense of tactility is quite hard to replicate in virtual form because the players are a few billion-pixels removed from the action. The game that managed to come closest to replicating, according to Kotaku – who’ve also cited Ian Bogost’s piece about texture – is Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar did this not through the use of ground-breaking technology, but through a series of minute, repetitive chores that ‘’give the game some sort of texture’’, in that everything is ‘’rough, gritty and breakable’’.
Guns degrade and get dirty, and the player can always stop whatever they were doing and clean them. Another thing players can do is set camp and have Arthur Morgan and craft ‘’split-point’’ bullets, a type of ammunition that offers a slight damage boost. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with seeing the dirt disappearing from the surface of the gun, or stopping and oiling your weapons.
When it comes to video games, it’s these tiny, minute details that make a fictional world truly believable, even more so than the writing and the characters. The second, and final issue I want to address is designing games around mundanity. Though such games are more widespread nowadays, the titles that best executed this concept are Papers Please, Gone Home and This Grand Life.
This Grand Life is essentially a ‘’personal finance simulator’’ that has players create a character and manage their day to day lives. The core gameplay consists of balancing short-term needs – hunger, fun, hygiene, health – and long-term goals – happiness, education and wealth. As you play it, the line between real life and the game world gets blurrier, as the game is designed in such a way that your strong points, as well as your biases and flaws, are reflected directly in the game.
For example, if the player lacks the ability to manage their personal finances, their in-game progress will be reflective of that. This Grand Life is one of those rare titles that creates a direct feedback loop between the player and the game and, in some cases, can be a real eye-opener.
The Genius of Gone Home and Papers Please
Speaking of eye-openers, there’s no talking about mundanity without mentioning Gone Home. Released in an era when walking simulators were in full-swing, Gone Home brought something fresh to the already-stale genre.
You assume the role of a young woman who just got home from a year abroad, only to find the house empty. As you’re rummaging through your family’s personal effects, you uncover, piece by piece, why the house is empty.
The real hook of Gone Home is how the developers, through good writing, world-building and a high degree of interactivity, a seemingly mundane premise into something truly unique. At its core, Gone Home can seem nothing more than an overly-pretentious walking simulator that exploits mid 90’s nostalgia. And believe it or not, its mundanity is probably its strongest point.
Even though the game doesn’t shy away from throwing a few red herrings, there’s nothing special about the Greenbriars – they’re as mundane as a family can get.
There’s no satanic cult, no dark secrets – except a history of mental illness and abuse that is slightly hinted at but not fully developed. They’re normal. And that (the mundaneness) is exactly what makes gradually discovering bits and pieces of their stories and personalities so satisfying, even though you never discover that the father was a warlock all along (maybe in a sequel, but don’t get your hopes up).
But no game nailed the mundanity as gameplay better than Papers Please. This game is the clearest representation of the banality of evil. You assume the role of an immigration inspector in the fictional country of Arstotzka, a fictional totalitarian regime located somewhere in the Eastern Bloc.
There’s nothing fancy about your job – you’re just a low-level bureaucrat whose task is to inspect the papers of a plethora of miserable people lining up to escape their miserable countries and start anew in an equally miserable state. Your day consists of weeding out spies, insurgents, smugglers and various (real and perceived) enemies of the state by checking for discrepancies in their documents.
From time to time, you’ll be approached by various people, both dubious and innocent, who plead you to turn a blind eye to their sketchy documents. Thing is, you got your own stuff to deal with.
At the end of each day, you get a meager salary which is spent on food, medicine, rent, and utilities, and every mistake (both intentional and unintentional) will be subtracted from your wage. So, technically, you could be lenient and let them through, but is your family’s well-being worth risking for a sob story?
There’s nothing stopping you from seeking your own interest and doing the job by the book. The scariest part of all is that, despite the misery and bleak setting, your ‘’gamer instincts’’ kick in and perfecting your skills comes with a great sense of pride.
You become desensitized to the misery and desperation surrounding you, and it becomes less about deciding their fate and more about solving the ‘’puzzle’’.
And if you do get struck by a sense of guilt, you can always think of yourself as yet another cog in the machine.
As the Milgram experiment has aptly demonstrated, most people are capable of committing the worst atrocities as long as there’s an authority figure directing them, after which they can claim they were ‘’only following orders’’.
Papers Please is a genius exercise, both in game-making and demonstrating that the devil truly is in the mundaneness.
Throwing people into jail for no reason, or rejecting a political refugee for a typo are not extraordinary circumstances – they come just as natural as getting a glass of water from the cooler. In other words, it’s just another day at the office.
It’s Time For Video Games to Catch Up
Films and TV shows had already moved on to more experimental and existential grounds by the time video games were gaining mainstream traction, so this relatively new medium had a lot of catching up to do. With titles like Gone Home, Papers Please, Undertale – which is in itself a great example of post-modern video gaming – I truly believe the industry is ready to move to more experimental projects.
Mundanity, both as a premise and gameplay mechanic, should be more widely explored because it can contribute more to immersiveness than other components. Blurring the line between real life and the game – either through quests or mechanics – can make the world feel even more believable.
Plus, it makes sense – don’t tell me Commander Shepard never had a day of just sitting down and getting bored. There must’ve been some days when nothing was happening and the Commander spent them chilling with Joker in the cockpit. If not, at least let me craft ammo through tediously detailed animations and I’ll be happy. Who are you to judge me?
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I really don’t understand what you’re asking for here that you think doesn’t exist widespread in games already. You cited Gone Home, Papers Please, and Undertale, so you’re not looking for realistic graphics. Is it ‘serious’/gritty mundanity? As opposed to simulation games where the mundanity is still a form of escapism because it’s a life you control? Is that why you’re using The Sopranos as your tv example instead of any more recent family/workplace comedy or slice-of-life animation? But why not make that point in the article, instead of just using big action games in comparison?
If you’re really just looking for ‘mundanity’ in general in non-experimental/indy video games, I have some excellent news for you from the 90s onward.