Hope and Despair in Video Games

I think that people are mostly good. I think the world is — generally — becoming a better place, and that we have the capacity to fix most of the problems that ail our society. I think that one day mankind will take to the stars and that our stories will long outlive our little star. I’m a hopeful person.

At the same time, it’s hard not to succumb to despair, be it the petty kind that you might feel each time Donald Trump appears on national television, or the existential kind that you feel when you’re in a crowded space (Times Square might as well be a black hole on the face of the earth). If there’s a word for the simultaneous feeling of hope and despair, it’s in a language that I don’t speak — or one that I have long forgotten.

There are moments in games that capture the feud waged in ourselves between these two emotions, speaking to this perhaps better than words can.

I recently played That Dragon, Cancer (probably sooner than I should have), which is itself a conversation on these themes. The game is about Joel, a very young child, and his struggle against cancer. It’s a true story. Ryan and Amy Green shared their experience in the form of a game, laying bare their hardships and their desperate hopes.

Hope and Despair are most pointedly discussed in a segment that takes place on a sea. Buoyed by faith, messages in bottles convey Amy Green’s hopes, and we can hear conversations between her and Ryan about their dueling emotions. Meanwhile, Ryan is depicted underwater, drowning in despair, his voice cracking at the thought of hope and what it would mean if that hope proved fruitless.

It’s an earlier scene that stands out more, for bringing up the wicked twins of hope and despair. At one point, you awake in a room with a bunch of cards lying about. Each card contains a message from a real person who lost someone to cancer or who faced it themselves. When you leave the room, cards are hanging on strings everywhere. They’re in other rooms, they’re crowded on tables, they’re on desks, there are too many to count, too many to read, too many lives cut short.

I lingered in what was the most difficult gaming experience of my life. But before long, I too swallowed my tears and moved on, in a singular act of remembering my own loved one lost to cancer, while simultaneously not succumbing entirely to despair.

The tragedy of That Dragon, Cancer creates a despair born of loss. There are, of course, more malicious forms of despair. There is the melancholy that sets in during Papers, Please, the suffering of someone stuck deep within a system of oppression. There is the general malaise that you might escape in games (or recreate in games) that is brought on by the diseases of modernity, the despair David Foster Wallace captures in his description of commercial cruises.

This type of despair is found less frequently in games, where we tend to exert greater agency, perhaps exactly for the reason that we hope to escape the greater dread of modern society. Such despair makes its appearance sometimes in indie games or in oddities like Far Cry 2 and Spec Ops: The Line.

I think it’s the powerful angry form of hope that games lack even more. Say what you will about its political message, but Beyoncé’s latest, “Formation,” carves out an optimistic take on the current political climate without undermining the despair from whence hopeful fruit might blossom. It’s angry. It’s pissing people off.

Maybe it’s appropriate that a great game that plays with aggressive hope is CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA, by Porpentine. It is game that is loud, abrasive, and exuberant. It is playfully optimistic in a way that few games are.

The popular Danganronpa series of interactive-novels specifically portray the battle between hope and despair, with the game’s villain, a murderous teddy-bear, seeking to bring despair to a last batch of hopeful students. One by one the characters murder each other, but for the most part, we can understand their motivations, even forgive them. When failing out of a class trial, the protagonist will shout and point, “I refuse to give up.” Again, it’s an aggressive, forceful hope that is expressed in a game.

This isn’t to say that the kind of hope that we keep mostly to ourselves, the quiet hope that we might see on display in, say, The Last of Us, isn’t compelling. It is. It’s powerfully effective in That Dragon, Cancer. But hope doesn’t have to be the last bastion of the weak. It can just as easily be deployed in games, as in real life, as a forceful call to action to remind people of a different way to see the world, an act itself of change.

When there is so much to despair about in the world, we need more aggressive, offensive, and jubilant hope.