Rampant Games' Jay Barnson, who you might know for his frank opinions on the role-playing genre and videogame industry in his blog and for having developer Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon, has taken some time to type an entry about "games with messages", games that try to convey a message or handle controversial themes. Here's a snippet:
But even for games where entertainment is the primary focus – a game intended for the masses (or for the hundreds or thousands, for many indie games): Should games have a message? Should games contain controversial themes? If I’m playing a game for entertainment, am I going to be angry if the game also tries to drive home a politically-charged message to me?
For me – the answer is maybe.
A case in point for me is Craig Stern’s Telepath RPG: Servants of God. Now, I’m a religious guy, and I did feel a little bit of concern about the setting and main enemy group of the game, a theocracy (“The Cult”) with some parallels to Christianity. Now, I’ve not finished the game, so it’s still possible I could come up against some parts that really piss me off. But from what I’ve played, Stern has done a reasonable enough job of leaving the theme open enough to interpretation that I’ve not had a problem with it. As it so happens, I’d be pretty dang terrified of a theocracy, myself – a medieval history class in High School left me thoroughly disgusted with what has been done in the name of Christianity. I feel I have room in my mind to view the Cult as a broader metaphor, this hasn’t bugged me too much. But I could see how mileage may vary for others.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate did kind of the same thing, and remains my favorite CRPG. It’s predecessor, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, broke entirely new ground in its time by rolling in a system of virtues into the RPG formula which made players accountable for not only their results, but the manner in which they acquired them. Again, the beauty of Ultima IV wasn’t in that it was submitting a defined philosophy that the player must subscribe to outside the confines of the game, but rather in that it made players have to think about these kinds of things at all, and balance out their actions and decisions accordingly.