Papers, Please is not a violent game, but is far more mature than many other games that might be. Image: Lucas Pope
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Violent games may be meant for "mature" audiences, but truly mature themes in gaming are rare

The ratings labels on the boxes may say a game is only suitable for older teenager or adults, but that's usually only about violence or gore - real maturity in games is often rarer, and harder to define.

The age ranges for games these days seem, in large part,  to be decided upon somewhat arbitrary values. Games designed for children are often sweet, cuddly, and unchallenging. Meanwhile the games aimed at mature audiences, as far as their PEGI ratings would have us think, are usually simply characterised by violence. I make no judgement of the violence but it’s the most common route for games to incur the apprehension of the moral custodians.

While many of the games that fit into the PEGI-16, and especially PEGI-18, categories are violent, very few of them are what we might consider to be "grown-up" or "mature" in terms of their themes. If we look at Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor for example, this is a game rated as a PEGI-18 by virtue of the fact you’re chopping off orc heads left and right, but the actual story is hardly mature at all. It's a heroic power fantasy drawn around a very simple revenge plot. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but there is a sense that the only thing really grown-up about the game is the bloodletting and the headlopping.

This kind of narrative is par for the course with video games - the details of the plot might vary from story to story and setting to setting, but, essentially, if the story comes down to simply killing or destroying everything that comes between you and a favourable resolution to the story, then it's likely that we’re not dealing with mature storytelling. Even the violence in such games isn’t portrayed in a particularly grown-up manner. Blood splatters and graphic torture do not bestow maturity upon a portrayal of violence, consequences do. There are few consequences for the heroes in such games, they can generally walk off a severe injury in a few moments and, should they die, they just go back and try again.

Strip the large majority of games of their gore, their swearing and the occasional bit of sex or nudity and there’s usually nothing much in them that would make them particularly grown-up, nothing past what you could reasonably expect to find in a children’s movie like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark anyway. But this begs the question: what does make a game mature? What does a grown-up game even look like?

To answer this question, perhaps it's best to look at the bigger question of what defines a mature human being, and what would we consider to be "childishness". It's arguable that maturity requires responsibility, an appreciation for the consequences of ones actions and selflessness. Childishness can, by contrast, err on the side of selfishness, of a refusal to accept consequences or responsibility.

Thus a list of games that could be said to fit this profile of maturity would include Papers, Please, which is largely concerned with carrying out an unpleasant job in order to support your family; or the Shelter games, in which you play an animal trying to raise a litter of cubs. These games have the player directing their efforts towards entities over which they have attachments but little control. While these other entities thrive or die based on your efforts, there is little direct reward for your own character. Another example would be This War of Mine, which is a game essentially built in and around the consequences of violence and which deals with surviving them.

There's also an element of responsibility in the medieval grand strategy game Crusader Kings 2, given how you pass control through your family dynasty. A great deal of care has to be taken to leave your affairs in order before your current character dies and another takes over. The player has to actively plan for the death of a protagonist, and the continuation from that.

What these games tend to have in common is a mechanical mean streak in how they treat players. If you don’t do well in Papers, Please then your family are financially squeezed. Play too safe in Shelter, and your cubs could starve; take too many risks and they might get lost or eaten. Try to play This War of Mine as if your survivors are steely-eyed killers, and they’ll fall into a possibly-suicidal spiral of guilt and misery. Live too much for the moment in Crusader Kings 2 and you might wind up dead before your time, plunging an unready successor in at the deep end with nothing more than a hobby horse and wooden sword with which to rule the kingdom.

These kinds of consequences can pack more punch than merely forcing the player to return to the last save point and complete a given challenge properly. These are games that address real fears that adults have to deal with - not being able to pay the bills, not being able to be everywhere at once to watch the kids, not knowing what’s going to happen to your family when you die. These are the grown-up monsters under a grown-ups bed.

This is perhaps why games with a more mature sensibility are so rare. Being an adult means dealing with the big problems, mastering the big fears, and often these are the very things that we’re diving into a video game to escape.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear