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Gaming grows up

As creators and players mature, new releases take sophisticated approach

'Limbo' stars a silhouetted boy trying to navigate a world full of perils. "Limbo" stars a silhouetted boy trying to navigate a world full of perils.
By Jesse Singal
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2011

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Traditionally, video games have showcased the alien or the weird. From Italian plumbers hurtling through oversize green pipes to gun battles set on distant planets, part of the appeal of games has been the escapism they provide.

So it’s surprising, at first glance, that two critically acclaimed, recently released video games deal darkly in the least escapist - and least escapable - subject imaginable: growing up. “Limbo’’ and “Catherine’’ are different in many ways, but their positive reception, and the simple fact that they were made in the first place, suggest that as the people who make and play video games grow up, their subject matter will only get more sophisticated.

In “Catherine,’’ a weird but enjoyable hybrid with action, puzzle, role-playing, and Japanese dating simulation elements, the user plays the role of Vincent, a 32-year-old man whose girlfriend, Katherine, is pushing for marriage. At about the same time he drunkenly sleeps with a hot, ditzy girl named Catherine (the different spelling appears to be intentional), he starts having crazy nightmares every night - nightmares that may be connected to a rumor about a curse that kills male cheaters.

During Vincent’s waking hours, he discusses life and love with the various denizens of The Stray Sheep, a bar where he is a regular. But it’s in his nightmares that the game’s most vivid imagery takes hold. In each nightmare level, Vincent, sporting nothing but boxers, a pillow, and a pair of sheep’s horns, has to climb a giant tower of blocks to survive, pushing and pulling blocks to form a safe path upward. When he stops climbing for very long, he dies. Around him, anthropomorphic sheep are also trying to climb, often blocking his way and forcing him to push them off the tower. (It’s revealed that each sheep, like Vincent, sees itself as human and all the other humans trapped in the nightmare as sheep.)

In the “boss’’ levels, Vincent has to climb the towers while grappling with horrific creatures lurching up at him from below. In one, it’s a huge, fleshy, lascivious “Immoral Beast’’ that lashes at him with a grotesquely long tongue as it moans lustily. In another, at a point when Vincent is grappling with the prospect of fatherhood, it’s a giant baby.

The message isn’t subtle: Growing up means endlessly climbing a ladder while being buffeted by both other climbers and huge, dangerous primal forces. Stopping to catch one’s breath is not an option. So Vincent repeatedly wonders why things - his life with Katherine, his job - can’t just stay the same. His yearning for stasis makes perfect sense given the monumental changes he faces, changes weirdly amplified and distorted in his nightly nightmares.

Alone in the woods “Limbo’’ takes on the idea of growing up in a way that’s diametrically opposed to the slickly produced style of “Catherine.’’ The player is provided with neither story line nor direction: Whereas “Catherine’’ starts with some lengthy throat-clearing about The Themes That Lie Ahead, in “Limbo’’ you are simply dropped into the game world with no explanation, just the image, alone in the woods, of a little boy (or rather, the silhouette of one; there’s no color in the game’s evocative palette of black, white, and gray).

It’s a world full of perils, and almost all of those perils have a connection to childhood archetypes: giant spiders, mean other kids (they’re trying to kill you), pits and traps that you’re just too short or too weak to avoid. You’re a tiny, clumsy being trying to navigate a strange landscape, the scale of which dwarfs you. Once in a while the camera will zoom out, as if to emphasize just how small and alone you are. Later in the game, the forest and marsh landscapes give way to a more industrial setting, to the giant cogs and gears and machines of the adult world, and here the scale really gives away the theme.

Throughout the game, there are dangers you just can’t avoid your first time through, since you don’t know the rules that govern a given antagonist or device. Whereas in childhood the only way to muddle your way through is to make mistakes and get punished or skin your knees, in “Limbo’’ the only way is to make mistakes and get repeatedly crushed or eviscerated or eaten (after which you restart, unscathed, from a nearby point). It’s a weirdly compelling ratcheting-up of the stakes of childhood. The game makes you grow up fast.

Beyond ‘tired formulas’ Both “Limbo’’ and “Catherine’’ invite analysis in a way video games typically haven’t. That’s not surprising, because both are designed for a new sort of gaming audience - one that didn’t exist a decade ago.

“I realized that there weren’t any games that were relatable to me now, as someone pushing past 30,’’ Katsura Hashino, director of “Catherine,’’ told PlayStation: The Official Magazine in May. “We all relate to high school-age main characters through our school experiences, but in our 30s and 40s, we all have different jobs and lifestyles, so there’s not much that binds us together. If there is one thing, it’s relationships between men and women. As adults, things like romance and marriage all affect us or those around us to varying degrees.’’

Nick Williams, director of Gaming Insights at Ipsos OTX MediaCT, a market research company, agrees. “In the last four or five years, more and more developers are looking to push the kind of thematic and stylistic boundaries of gaming,’’ he says. “Not only has the audience gotten older, but so have the developers themselves. And I think they’re trying to move past some of the tired formulas that you see in the industry and look to tackle some more interesting topics.’’

As audiences age, new artistic opportunities for developers are opening up. “There’s no way that 15, 20 years ago these kinds of games would . . . have had a big market,’’ says Williams.

With millions of 30- and 40-something gamers potentially looking for deeper interactive storytelling experiences, developers are ready to spread their wings. So the future looks bright for gaming as an art form: Endlessly eviscerated little boys and giant nightmare babies are just the beginning.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jessesingalglobe@gmail.com.