Into the video-game universe of car crashes, blood-spattered slugfests, invincible aliens, and killer bots comes an ordinary little boy in tattered clothing, stranded on an island that turns out not to be what it seems. In the end, instead of fist-pumping, players have been known to weep.
Released in May, RiME requires gamers to step into the role of the child wandering through a strange land, and in the process to consider their own place on earth and in heaven.
"It was emotional," said Thomas Sharpe, 24, a 2016 graduate of Drexel University and a budding game designer. "The music, aesthetic, and how hard I had to work to get to [the end] made it a powerful experience."
RiME is part of an emerging niche of artistic, narrative games based not so much on mastering skills or scoring victories, but on exploring moral, ethical, and spiritual issues. Life and death, responsibility and purpose — try finding those in Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.
High-concept and often theologically tinged, the burgeoning genre has produced Journey, in which a caped, armless figure treks through a desert landscape, perhaps toward enlightenment. Players of Papers, Please become virtual border patrol agents who must decide who can and cannot enter the fictional communist state of Arstotzka. That Dragon, Cancer follows a child's battle with the deadly disease.
Experts say such games are the result of the democratization of the industry. Design tools for creating games used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving their development to big companies such as Nintendo and Electronic Arts. Not only could those giants afford to create ever more intricate games, but they also controlled their distribution to retailers worldwide.
Since the mid-2000s, however, advancing technology has opened a back door to the solo nerd. The cost of design tools has plunged; many are free to download online. Distribution is now as simple as the click of a mouse through online platforms such as Steam. Those changes have allowed independent designers to present a more personal vision, said Frank J. Lee, a professor of digital media at Drexel University and cofounder of the school's prestigious game-design program.
"They have stories to tell, and they have the freedom to explore those issues without having to worry about how to recoup millions of dollars," said Lee, who also founded Drexel's Entrepreneurial Game Studio, a start-up lab for designers.
Erik VanHorn, an associate professor and program director of game arts at the University of the Arts, calls them "thinking person's games" that also pull on the heartstrings. They might not challenge hard-core gamers, VanHorn said, but they have the potential to expand the market beyond the 18-to-24-year-old male demographic that dominates gaming.
By plunging players into an immersive experience that makes them part of the story, the games can have more emotional impact than movies, television, or books, whose audiences are merely observers, said Christopher Grant, of Philadelphia, editor of Polygon.com, a website that covers video games.
In That Dragon, Cancer, the player becomes the parent of a child fighting the disease. It was created by Amy and Ryan Green, devout Christians from Loveland, Colo., who based the game on their experiences with son Joel. Found to have brain cancer at age 1 in 2010, he died four years later.
Even though the game allows players to explore the terrifying subject in what psychologist and video-game researcher Rachel Kowert calls "a free space away from real-world repercussions," Grant says that "as the father of the young boy, I haven't been able to bring myself to play it."
Unlike games in which choices affect the outcome, there's only so much a player can do in That Dragon, Cancer.
"Video games are all about being in control," said Jake Carfagno, 20, a Drexel sophomore and budding game designer. The loss of it can make a game "so impactful."
For designer Sharpe, games that explore life's questions can inspire. His Gossamer Games is the creator of Sole, whose name is meant to evoke several meanings: the feeling of being alone, a person's spiritual nature (soul), and the sun (sol in Spanish). The company is a finalist in the "Just Plain Cool Idea" category of the 2017 Stellar StartUps competition, sponsored by Philadelphia Media Network, parent of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com.
In Sole, players take on the role of a ball of light moving through a dark,desolate landscape on a journey to restore life to an abandoned world. It is about "trying to figure out who we are, and what we want to do, and who we're supposed to be," Sharpe said.
When players are dropped into such open-world environs, rather than structured surroundings, the game can become a connection to spiritual, said Corey Arnold, program manager at Drexel's gaming studio.
As the architects of those open landscapes, the designers become "gods" of the worlds they develop, controlling the creation, its manipulation, and how players move about in it, said Richard Bartle, a pioneer in game design and author of Designing Virtual Worlds, a seminal book on the subject.
In 1978, Bartle cocreated MUD1 (Multi-User Dungeon), a computer game that two years later became the first internet multiplayer online role-playing game. In MUD1, a virtual relative of the board game Dungeons & Dragons, players engaged in fantasy war games, pitting survival against moral decision-making. Virtue further tiptoed in with games such as Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985), Ico (2001), and Passage (2007).
In contemplating the cerebral crop now proliferating, video-game journalist Chandler Wood draws the comparison between serious movies released at Christmastime and the popcorn blockbusters of summer.