The office of Funomena, a small video-game company based in San Francisco’s SOMA district, has all the creativity-enhancing knickknacks you expect in a Bay Area startup: clumps of clay, hydrophilic sand, a Lego mermaid, and what cofounder Robin Hunicke describes as other “stupid things we fiddle with.” The idea is to set an atmosphere that’s “more like a Montessori school than a game development studio,” she says.
That makes sense: Funomena isn’t like most other game companies. Its first commercial project, Luna (which is not yet scheduled for release), will offer no high-caliber weapons, no alien-zombie invaders, and, most surprisingly, no scorekeeping of any sort. Instead, it will be an allegorical, grown-up fairy tale that explores how we might understand and integrate past traumatic experiences in order to grow and accept who we are now. Heady stuff for a video game.
Funomena is part of the emerging “deep games” movement, where players “win” by becoming more enlightened, empathetic people—a radical idea in an industry that has traditionally catered to trigger-happy teenagers. In the past few years, a new crop of mostly small studios has released wildly inventive games that focus on narrative, aesthetics, and the exploration of intimate emotions rather than fast-paced action, competition, and tricky game play.
As the industry scrambles to keep up with evolving tastes and technology, this new sensibility could herald a big shift in the way the developers approach their product. “A perfect storm of distribution channels, game literacy, and appetite for content has led to an explosion of aesthetic games that deal with quieter emotions,” says Katherine Isbister, a professor in NYU‘s gaming program. “There’s now a robust, diverse market for games that may not be blockbusters, but can be profitable because they have much lower production costs.”
Deep gaming is also a response to a fast-changing marketplace that no longer represents just one narrow slice of the population. “There’s been an odd reinforcing loop in the industry that the audience is all young boys and all they want is mayhem and explosions,” says Isbister. In fact, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is now 31 years old. Nearly half of gamers are women, and the number of female gamers ages 50 and older increased by 32% from 2012 to 2013. Last year, for the first time, adult female gamers outnumbered boys under age 18 as the largest video-game-playing group in the U.S.
If anyone understands how to make grown-up games that are both smart and lucrative, it’s Hunicke. One of a handful of powerhouse female executives in a testosterone-dominated industry that can be shockingly hostile to women (see the recent “Gamergate” controversy), she developed innovative games for the Wii while at Electronic Arts. She was also a key part of the team at forward-looking developer Thatgamecompany that created the pioneering deep game Journey, which became the fastest-selling title on Sony’s PlayStation Network when it was released in 2012.
Journey‘s success helped open the market to subsequent titles like Fullbright’s Gone Home, which lets players explore an abandoned house to figure out what happened to the family that once lived there. Steve Gaynor, a former designer on the blockbuster Bioshock franchise who is a cofounder of Fullbright, says Gone Home was designed to lure inexperienced gamers who might not have the time or interest to master the finger-twisting complexities of traditional action titles. “What drives a lot of people away from games is that they are so skill-based,” he says. “Our starting point was, What if we take out everything except exploring and the story? Could that be the whole game?” Gone Home has sold roughly 750,000 copies—modest by the standards of multibillion-dollar blockbuster series like Call of Duty, but impressive for a cerebral indie game.
Psychedelic nature simulation Proteus and Mountain, from artist David OReilly, go even further than Gone Home, stripping away nearly all game conventions to create an experience of relaxation and epiphany. Other new games leverage new technology to create immersive experiences. SoundSelf, for example, uses a player’s chanting to generate trance-inducing sounds and images projected via Oculus Rift. “Video games as a medium are maturing,” says Michael Highland, a designer for Thatgamecompany, “and at this point designers want to ask more complex questions.”
With Luna, Hunicke and her cofounder, Martin Middleton (who also worked on Journey), will be exploring the viability of this relatively new market. When they started Funomena together, in January 2013, it was with clear ideas about what they didn’t want to do. “If we were going to put all this energy into making a startup happen, we were going to have some real boundaries and values,” Hunicke says. They had no interest in developing Candy Crush–style casual titles, despite having been approached by “all these people offering us VC money to make free-to-play games.” Instead, they decided to put their reputations and savings at risk to launch a collective of adventurous developers. “We want to build things that encourage creativity and exploration,” says Hunicke. “We’re working to build a company focused on sustainable, creative, and fulfilling game development. It’s aimed at making a positive difference in our lives, as well as the lives of our players.”
Part of Funomena’s strategy is to leverage corporate partnerships to enable technically ambitious work. With Luna, they are teaming with Intel to include an option for playing the game with a cutting-edge depth-sensing technology called RealSense. Intel is also providing funding to complete the project. “We get the support of a partner that really believes in us, without the constraints of VC investment or a straight-up publishing deal,” says Hunicke. “In my dream, that’s what the future of indie development looks like.” Still, Hunicke knows that the biggest challenge isn’t just funding and building games, but making people fall in love with them. To really make a difference, deep games can’t just be arty and experimental; they have to be fun to play. Thanks to technology, Hunicke says, “if you have an artistic or spiritual vision, you can put it into the computer with amazing ease. It’s still always hard to resonate with a broad audience. But that’s the struggle of all creatives.”
The Unfinished Swan (2012) In a visually stunning experience, players follow a runaway swan through a surreal world where they must splatter paint on an all-white surface to reveal their true surroundings.
Actual Sunlight (2013) This “depression simulator” is a minimalist role-playing game that puts the player in the shoes of a young professional with a soul-crushing job who tries unsuccessfully to distract himself from thoughts of suicide.
Proteus (2013) Inspired by Taoism, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Brian Eno, among other things, Proteus allows players to roam a colorful, pixelated landscape and interact with plants and animals to generate music. Think Minecraft without the zombies—or the mining.
Mountain (2014) After prompting players to create doodles in response to words such as happiness and wealth, the game generates a simulation of a mountain spinning in midair. Artist David OReilly, who made the “alien child” game in Spike Jonze’s movie Her, created Mountain to explore our relationship with nature, time, and God.