There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.
But the game stories we’ve been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.
The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitise violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.
Now, to be clear, I’m certainly not saying stories seriously examining the issues surrounding domestic or sexual violence are off limits for interactive media – however if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach the topic with the subtlety, gravity and respect that the subject deserves.
Though not about the abuse of women, the 2012 indie title Papo & Yo is an example of a game that respectfully deals with the very serious issue of alcoholism and domestic violence against children.
The game does so by telling its story from the point of view of a protagonist directly affected by the trauma of abuse, not someone on the outside coming to their rescue. It focuses on the journey of a figure who is struggling through a traumatic situation and attempting to deal with the repercussions of violence. It makes that struggle to cope and survive central to both the narrative and gameplay – not peripheral set dressing to a story about something else. And critically, the game employs powerful metaphoric imagery to make its point instead of relying solely on sensationalized or exploitative depictions of the abuse itself.
Papo & Yo is an intense and at times gut-wrenching game that doesn’t sugarcoat or glamorize violence. In this way it’s an honest and emotionally resonant experience for players.