Video games have come a long way since the early days of simple block graphics and straightforward themes of saving princesses or eating ghosts. Modern games feature incredibly diverse and creative themes that go far beyond the typical good versus evil narratives. Here are some of the more unusual themes that have emerged in recent years.
Surreal and Absurdist Humour
Some games employ a highly absurdist style of humor that often leaves players puzzled yet amused. Goat Simulator, for example, is an intentionally buggy game where players control a goat wreaking havoc on a town. The nonsensical gameplay including the ability to lick objects with a comically long tongue creates a surreal humor that became a hit. Untitled Goose Game also found popularity with its silly premise of playing as a troublesome goose annoying townspeople. These games show how absurd humor can resonate when done right.
Mundane Activities as Gameplay
In a technique called “mundane gaming,” some titles have turned seemingly boring activities into full gameplay loops. PowerWash Simulator, as the name suggests, is solely about the satisfaction of cleaning virtual objects with a power washer. Cooking Mama focuses entirely on chopping ingredients and preparing meals. While sounding dull on paper, the therapeutic nature of carrying out menial tasks has proven surprisingly addictive. It shows how interactivity can make even mundane things compelling.
Philosophical and Political Themes
Some games go beyond just entertainment to explore deeper themes of philosophy, politics, and society. Papers, Please puts players in the role of an immigration inspector at a border checkpoint for a fictional authoritarian nation, raising questions about morality and duty with each visa decision. Disco Elysium is a detective RPG that integrates extensive skill checks with heavy doses of ideology like communism and moralism. Games like these prove the medium’s potential for social commentary beyond simple good versus evil conflicts.
Unique Art Styles
Visually, modern indie games have moved far beyond classic pixel art to develop their own unique aesthetic styles such as abstract art-inspired graphics – the linked blog post on what is abstract art goes into more detail on the history of this art movement. Cuphead employs a gorgeous hand-drawn art style inspired by 1930s cartoons. Gris uses delicate watercolor imagery to depict a metaphorical journey through sorrow and loss. Return of the Obra Dinn tells a mystery story through stark, 1-bit monochrome graphics. While large studios aim for photorealism, indie developers are free to create their own minimalist or exaggerated art styles that immerse players in imagined worlds. The diversity of art across genres shows how games can be used to develop highly stylized and personal visual expressions.
Unique themes in modern games range from absurdist humor about performing silly tasks as goats, to the thoughtful exploration of philosophy and society, to artistic styles that build wholly original and beautiful worlds. As games continue diversifying beyond their roots, players can expect even more genres and themes that challenge preconceptions about what the medium can offer. The Era of simple save-the-princess storylines has given way to a renaissance of interactive creativity across both gameplay and artistic presentation.
Games like Celeste and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tackle issues like anxiety, depression, and psychosis in thoughtful ways. They use the interactive nature of games to deeply immerse players in the shoes of characters struggling with mental illness. In Celeste, the platforming mechanics and dangers faced on the mountain mirror the inner turmoil of the protagonist’s anxiety and self-doubt. Players experience those feelings viscerally through the gameplay. Likewise, Hellblade sensitively portrays psychosis through its visual and auditory effects. It aims to build understanding and empathy about mental health issues that are often stigmatized. These games show the potential of the medium to put players in different perspectives and expand empathy through interactivity.
Titles like Disco Elysium and Kentucky Route Zero tell stories in avant-garde, nonlinear ways that challenge traditional narrative structures. There is often ambiguity, open-endedness, and room for interpretation rather than concrete answers. These games may dispense with typical storytelling conventions like cutscenes, instead embedding narrative more seamlessly into the gameplay experience. Players are left to piece together the story through environmental clues and emergent events rather than prescribed plot points.
Weird, imaginative settings are used in games like Journey (set in a mysterious, haunting desert world) and Control (set in a shape-shifting bureaucratic building). These surreal, dreamlike settings become characters themselves, with a strong sense of place. They create distinct atmospheres and invite players to uncover the hidden stories and meanings embedded within these strange worlds. The settings stick with players long after the games are over.
Modern video games feature a range of unusual themes and creative risks that diverge from classic game tropes. These games leverage the interactive and immersive nature of the medium to deliver novel experiences and perspectives that challenge players’ assumptions.
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