Vulnerable games are games that are themselves in front of players. Like seeing a person open up and share themselves with someone they trust, vulnerable games take a chance at trying to connect with the player by “being themselves” rather than hiding their true selves under layers of misdirection. While opening themselves up allows players and critics to easily cut deep with directed (and sometimes valid) criticism, these games take the risk in hopes that they leave a long-lasting impression on someone that plays it.
Unfortunately, a lot of games that try to be vulnerable end up feeling pretentious instead.
What do I mean?
Pretentious tends to be used by gamers to mean “artsy game that I don’t like” which devalues the term. Something that’s pretentious is something that has an unjustified amount of importance placed on it. Pretentiousness can make genuine experiences feel fake and manipulative, like having a friend confide in you only to realize that they were stretching the truth to ease you into them asking for a big favor. The key thing to take away from this analogy isn’t that the “friend” stretched the truth but rather that they embellished it to make it seem more important than it was so that they could get something from you. They were more concerned about making you feel a certain way than connecting with you. I’m not claiming that these games are doing it intentionally, but it’s hard to bond with something that’s putting on airs while “letting their guard down.”
Have you ever seen a couple that looks like they’re trying to live in the honeymoon period forever? That must show how unique their relationship is despite how typical it is? That bring an air of insecurity surrounding their relationship, and must always be doing something to prove how great their relationship is?
When I feel that sensation from a game, it feels pretentious.
Have you ever seen a couple that when you look at them, you just know that they’re together? They may not show public displays of affection that often, or talk about their relationship that much, but you know they’re comfortable with each other? Like they don’t have to prove anything to each other and everyone else?
That feeling is what vulnerable games are.
Vulnerable games are their experience; all of their pieces, no matter how polished or flawed, come together to form a genuine experience.
Vulnerable games have stories, characters, systems, and mechanics that don’t have to remind me why I should care about them.
Vulnerable games make me feel, not because the game is telling me to, or because of virtue signaling from influential people, but because I genuinely feel something from engaging with the game.
And I would love to see more of them.