A recent NPR story has highlighted the growth of emotional, story-focused indie games—a trend that could make gaming increasingly accessible to players who look for more than pulse-pounding action. These games use gameplay to explore intense emotional concepts.

Three Empathy-Inducing Games

In Papers, Please players work at a border crossing and must decide who can and cannot pass. They examine documents for evidence of illegal activities or falsification, and they’re penalized if they allow someone through without proper documentation. Some of the characters trying to cross offer bribes. Players can accept the money and build a better life for their families, but with the knowledge that they might be letting dangerous people into their country. Some characters have compelling reasons—a spouse or a job opportunity on the other side. But, as IGN reviewer Britton Peele asks, “what do you do when the kind ones come through hoping to find a better life in your country, only to find that their paperwork isn’t in order?” Over the course of Papers, Please the player experiences the grind and monotony of border inspection, with all its bureaucratic and human flaws. It’s difficult to handle, and that’s part of what makes it special. Papers, Please makes us consider a different reality, and it does this simply and effectively.

We’ve written before about Gone Home, another game that encourages empathy. The player-character Katie comes home to an empty house in the middle of a storm and finds an enigmatic note from her little sister telling Katie not to look for her. The house in Gone Home is dark and sprawling—beautifully detailed, but still and empty. NPR likens the visuals to first-person shooters, where the player progresses down uniform hallways towards a single goal. But, as the article notes, “that’s where the similarities end.” The hallways and rooms in Gone Home are filled with artifacts of the family’s life. The house is a vessel for the player’s worries as Katie looks for evidence of where her sister has gone.

A third game, That Dragon, Cancer, is an autobiographical game about Ryan Green’s experiences as the father of a child with cancer. It takes place in a hospital. The player controls Green as he watches over his son. NPR says Green hopes that That Dragon, Cancer, “won’t be limited to people who already play video games frequently.”

Games as a Springboard for Talks

For families with children, games like this can serve as introductions to difficult topics and necessary conversations. Gone Home, for example, reveals that Katie’s sister Sam is coming to terms with being a lesbian and experiencing difficulty in school and at home. Pixelkin writer Keezy Young reviewed the game and said, “I saw myself in Sam. But more importantly, I saw what my troubled teenage years might have looked like through my parents’ and siblings’ eyes.” Papers, Please may take place in a fictional Communist country, but the immigration and terrorism issues that it deals with are prevalent in the United States today. And for families who have been affected by illness, That Dragon, Cancer can be an emotional outlet for people uncomfortable speaking about their experiences—or an avenue into a discussion that needs to happen.

A Broader Change in Gaming

The creators of Gone Home and Papers, Please are part of a generation that grew up playing games, a generation that sees the full potential of the medium. Especially in the indie community of game designers, developers are increasingly expanding the definition of “game.”

NPR cites Sony’s Nick Suttner, who calls these games part of a “broader change.” The focus isn’t on the mechanics (on what players do). Instead these games focus on what players feel and what they take away from the experience.

The three games we’ve mentioned are among the most well-known, but they are not the only games that incorporate emotional journeys. Indie Statik has put together a list of other insightful games. Not all are appropriate for children, but all are worth a look.

This article was written by

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.