Most people think of video games as a medium designed purely to entertain the end user. But in recent years, it's become much more complex than that.
With the rise of the Internet aiding distribution of independently-developed games and the introduction of easy-to-learn game creation packages such as Twine and Stencyl, it's never been easier for people to experiment with making their own games.
A side-effect of all this experimentation is a noticeable growth in the number of people who are using video games as a medium of creative expression rather than specifically attempting to entertain people, and a corresponding growth in people making "autobiographical" games based on experiences they've had in their lives.
A recent example is the work of one C.Y. "Failnaut" Reid. Going by the name Dear Mother, it's a Flash game about Reid's complex relationship with both religion and his mother. You can play it over at Newgrounds.
Mechanically, the game is extremely simple -- perhaps overly so. In the first part of the game, the player is warned by the "mother" figure to avoid sin and to embrace the Lord God. This is reflected through the player character having to run and jump from side to side, collecting pixelated angelic figures that are falling from the sky while avoiding bright red demon figures, constantly under the watchful eye of the mother figure in the background. As time passes, more and more demonic figures fall from the sky to a point where it is impossible to avoid them; the more "sin" the player character collects, the more a heart icon at the side of the screen breaks and shatters.
After reaching breaking point, the player character decides to leave home, and the second part of the game begins. Here, the player must simply catch characters that are falling from the sky; the more they collect, the more their heart heals. When the heart is fully healed, the game ends. There's no score, no pithy final words; just back to the title screen.
Speaking with Indie Statik, Reid explained that the first stage of the game reflected his troubled relationship with his mother.
"I have a very religious mother," Reid says, "who I am now unfortunately estranged from due to the fact that it slowly became impossible to cope with someone who saw sin almost everywhere, regardless of logic or the compassion you'd expect from a parent."
Knowing this, Dear Mother makes a lot more sense; the ever-growing amount of on-screen sin in the first half reflects his mother's increasingly overzealous perception of sin being everywhere; catching the people in the second half represents Reid breaking ties from his mother and surrounding himself with people who do care about him, and who don't enforce their beliefs on him. Every person in the second half of the game looks the same -- they're just people; they're not "good" or "bad," and they can all help in their own small way.
Without that all-important sense of context, though, Dear Mother is little more than a scoreless take on Activision's Atari 2600 title Kaboom; with it, it's oddly poignant. Needless to say, the one- and two-star reviews on Newgrounds appear to be missing this important part of the puzzle, criticizing it for being simplistic and for players having no control over the eventual outcome.
This raises an important and interesting question, of course: in games such as this, where much of the meaning is derived from context, is it the creator's duty to explain things explicitly to their players? Or is it up to the players to seek out that information for themselves?