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Saturday Soapbox: Adult Gaming

We're getting older, but are games growing up with us?

As each white strand that blossoms in my hair lets me know, I'm getting old. It's not just in how I look that I can feel the years slowly piling on - it's in how I act too. Evenings once spent chasing down one last drink afterhours in dark-lit, cut-rate indie clubs have given way to early nights with a hot cup of Rooibos and a lamp-lit paperback; weekends spent sprawled under a thick, still cloud of smoke with a PS2 controller in hand have been replaced by long cycle rides in the hills and keeping on top of countless domestic chores.

Tastes evolve with age - a diet of out-of-date Minstrels washed down with a crate of cheap Brazilian beer doesn't have quite the same appeal anymore, and I'll admit to being a little red-faced about how much of my early twenties was wasted in a haze. Did I really have to watch Trapped in the Closet that many times?

I'm older, if not necessarily wiser, but I've certainly moved on. Games are the one thing that have been constant since that era, and I'd be lying if I said they don't delight me now as much as they ever did back then. But I can't help but worry that they're not growing up with me. Worse still, at times it can feel like I've returned to one of those awful indie clubs, squirming at the side of the dance floor and looking on in sad confusion as I start to wonder if I'm a little too elderly to still be doing all this.

Dark Souls - it's proper adult.

It's a problem down, in part, to the fact that the biggest, noisiest games are the ones that are aimed squarely at that younger me, sat slack and glassy eyed waiting desperately for something to shoot in the face. As a way of assessing the state of the medium, I'll admit that's a little skewed - take the temperature of contemporary cinema by simply hoovering up that which is advertised on billboards and TV spots and you'd be convinced that the film industry's there exclusively for sweaty over-sexed teens sporting semen-stained joggers. Which it is, to an extent, but there's obviously so much more on offer than that alone.

And so it is with games, but a problem remains: beyond some of the further reaches of the leftfield, there's little that feels like it's addressing me as an adult - and those that attempt that very feat often leave me squirming in their efforts. David Cage, for example, has expressed a desire to make games for a more mature audience, but as much as I enjoyed Heavy Rain's straying from the norm, its drama was juvenile at best. It's an odd definition of adult, and one that seems more in tune with a late-night, schlocky TV drama than anything with any real depth or resonance. Other, more recent and similarly intentioned games have left me sitting uncomfortably through them.

In fairness, they're crimes conducted largely with a writer's pen, but it's a problem that can extend to the mechanics as well. I'm an adult, and I've been playing games for well over 20 years - so I'd love to be afforded a little more respect every now and then. Respect the fact that I don't need to be told how your cover systems work, and that I don't need to sit through a half-hour tutorial. Respect the fact that my time is finite, and I don't need to be strung out across endlessly looping levels designed to pad out an already bloated running time.

I've played through a fair few games with pretentions of providing a more adult experience this year, though there's only a small handful that haven't at times left me feeling patronized or flat-out offended. Spelunky and Fez are an exceptional pair - they may be traditional platformers in a sense, but here there's a mutual respect between myself and the game that's rare, and one that makes me love their challenge all the more.

The splash screen for Spelunky, showing several heroes jumping over lava and avoiding a snake
Spelunky's the kind of game I can imagine being obsessed with as a 12-year old - and I imagine it'll still be an obsession when I reach 60. | Image credit: Mossmouth

Dark Souls is another (yes, I know it came out last year, but it's kind of tough and I'm taking it all very slowly), and its high fantasy of dragons, 12-foot wolves and stranded wanderers is painted with enough ambiguity and grimness to make it feel like a genuinely adult game. More importantly, it feels utterly worthy of my time.

And Journey's one last game that not only made me feel some respect towards it - I felt like it properly respected me, refusing to outstay its welcome and working in quiet, soft strokes that helped me forgive some of its less agreeable new age leanings.

That's four games released in the last 12 months, which I'll admit isn't a shabby haul, and that's not including games I've yet to play but for which I've an inkling will I'll get on famously with. But it's more than balanced out by having to sit through the awkward cinema of Max Payne 3, the swollen Dragon's Dogma, the weary echo of Diablo 3 or the over-familiar trudge of Sleeping Dogs, to name but a few. All games I've loved at certain points, I'd hasten to add, but all ones that have at one point or another made me question if there's not something better I should be doing.

It's not that games have changed, or that they've dumbed down in the years between my own adolescence and adulthood. They're still the same brilliant, dumb, smart and thrilling things they've always been. It's me that's changed, and I wonder sometimes if games at large will ever grow up with me.

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