LOS ANGELES — Miguel Oliveira is developing a video game in a tiny apartment near the University of Southern California, worlds away from the high-tech studios of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. He works on a laptop surrounded by folding chairs and red plastic cups. The forgettable surroundings belie his ambition: to design a game that changes the way we play.
In Oliveira’s game, “Thralled,” set in 18th-century Brazil, players explore jungles and ships to help a runaway slave reconnect with the life that was stolen from her.
The Portugal native grew up on games where guns played the starring role. Now, he wants something more — to create work that has the same cultural resonance as the best in film, literature and music.
“What’s blocking interactive media from being considered art is that most video games focus on primitive feelings of aggressiveness and competitiveness,” said Oliveira, 23, a lifelong gamer who graduated from USC’s interactive media program last spring. “Art is introspective. It makes you see the stuff that makes us human.”
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“I want to believe I’m in the business of making people better,” he said.
Oliveira is among a new generation of designers who are re-imagining the role of video games, injecting a dose of realism — from everyday moral dilemmas and economic struggles — into a medium that’s generally relied on two extremes: save the princess, or save the world.
“Papo & Yo” follows a young boy who must tread softly around an abusive monster, a metaphorical father who is struggling with addiction. “Prison Architect” calls on players to build and manage detention facilities while navigating issues such as race and capital punishment.
“Gone Home” spins a tale out of the feelings of loneliness and banishment that consume a teenage lesbian.
“Papers, Please” asks players to imagine life as an underpaid, overstressed immigration officer in an Eastern Bloc country.
“Games don’t have to be a happy, fun thing,” said “Paper, Please” designer Lucas Pope, a 36-year-old American now living in Japan. “Our generation grew up with games, and we express ourselves through games. Games once had to be entertaining, but now games are another way to talk to people.”
Most of these character-driven games are being developed on shoestring budgets by independent designers. But big video-game companies are seeing the potential in tapping a demographic beyond the GameStop crowd.
Ubisoft Montreal, best known for blockbuster brands such as “Assassin’s Creed,” will release a game later this year called “Watch Dogs.” Set in a crime-ridden Chicago, the game deals with government and corporate surveillance, with players grappling with the balance between personal privacy and urban safety.
Designer Jonathan Morin said his goal is “to bring a shade of gray to the gaming world.”
David Cage of Quantic Dream, a Paris-based company, is making games that turn seemingly small moments — losing track of a child at a mall or feeling uncomfortable at your first high-school party — into grand, anxiety-filled set-pieces. “You can do more with this medium than make toys,” he said.
Richard Hofmeier’s independently produced “Cart Life” offers a snapshot of what it’s like to be poor in America. “Cart Life,” which has been downloaded more than 3 million times, puts players in control of various street vendors, such as a Ukrainian immigrant trying to sell newspapers, or a single mom who hopes to start a coffee stand.
“Cart Life,” with its crude block-style art and blip-and-bloop sound effects, looks straight out of the 1980s. Its thematic maturity, however, is very much of the moment. What the game lacks in technological prowess, it makes up for in character depth.
Melanie Emberley, the game’s struggling entrepreneur, is getting divorced and battling for custody of her daughter. Here’s a puzzle players are forced to confront: Can Emberley spare the time, financially, to converse with her child?
One doesn’t necessarily win “Cart Life,” since a character such as Emberley is never really out of debt.
Big studios, too
It’s not just indie games getting existential. Sony’s 2013 zombie-themed hit “The Last of Us” included a realistic underlying theme: coping with the loss of family members.
“We’re in a place where it’s OK to fiddle with people’s emotions,” said Adam Boyes, a vice president at Sony Computer Entertainment. “Video games were always a way out, but nowadays we can have deeper conversations, whether it’s around the NSA or our relationships with our parents.”
Expanding the game genre is also seen as a way for the industry to keep players buying games long after they’ve grown tired of narratives built on men with guns.
Nearly two-thirds of players are under age 35, and 55 percent of players are male, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The trade group defines video games broadly; it counts avid users of more casual titles played on handheld and mobile devices.
Sales data for the most popular games point more forcefully to a younger male demographic.
Seven of the top 10 selling video games in 2013 were combat, sports or action titles, according to the NPD Group. “Grand Theft Auto V” and “Call of Duty: Ghosts” claimed the top two spots.
Video games have yet to win broad appeal across age, gender lines in the same way that blockbuster films or top-rated TV shows have.
“The game industry likes to say we make more money than Hollywood, but more people saw ‘Toy Story 3’ on opening weekend than have played a ‘Call of Duty’ game,” said game designer Warren Spector, whose credits include “Deus Ex,” a sci-fi combat game with complex narratives and political overtones.
“The movie industry isn’t charging $60 to see its product. We sell a lot of copies, but there are probably 2 million core gamers really into this stuff,” Spector said.