You know why everyone's up in arms about Mass Effect 3's ending? Because it doesn't mean what they want it to. But, whether you liked the ending, hated it or lobbied to have it changed, BioWare's sci-fi franchise does means something because it aims to be a metaphor. And I wish more games would do that.
Games do a bang-up job with power fantasies and they try to take you to imaginary places. But there's not enough urgency when it comes to saying something about human nature. You save people, planets and universes all the time in games but ideas about humans confront each other or cope with life's ups-and-downs remain frustratingly infrequent.
Let's talk about zombies for a minute. Colson Whitehead's Zone One came out last year and focuses on a New York City just beginning to rebuild after an apocalyptic outbreak of zombie plague devastates the world. Whitehead's novel lives in the small details, showing how soldiers find new ways to break up the boredom of killing zombies day after day and how the way people talk to each other changes. As the book goes on, you get a sense of just how hollowed-out people's lives are, even if they're deluding themselves otherwise.
When I finished Zone One, one of my first thoughts was that I hoped someone at working on The Last of Us was reading it. Post-apocalyptic similarities aside, Zone One stretches the space inside of its conceit to make the reader reflect back on the real world. While we still don't know much of what The Last of Us will offer, I'm still hoping the developers inject some kind of symbolism into the game's action.
Now The Last of Us isn't out yet but other recent games show how embedding larger themes doesn't necessarily have to mean you get a dull experience. Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake games may be big, ham-fisted metaphors about light and darkness—executed through gameplay—but they still provide a point-of-view on creativity and the dual nature of humankind. Bastion talks about how we deal with loss. What you do at the end of Supergiant's first release can tell you something about yourself and how you move on from tragedy. Journey's quiet triumph comes directly as a meditation on loneliness and companionship. All very different, all very enjoyable and all pretty good metaphors.
Going back to Mass Effect, the action/RPG series achieves meaning in multiple ways, from the way that its fictional universe was constructed and how it lets players steer a saga with decisions. The Mass Effect games can be read as a metaphor for cultures clashing and how individuals change inside the big moving socio-political systems we exist in. The fact that it's a big AAA corporate franchise doesn't preclude it from having metaphorical depth.
Games can be a product—and, yes, that's an ugly reality—AND have meaning. If you're spending 10, 20 or 100 hours inside a piece of fiction, whatever you take away from it and back into the real world can be incredibly powerful. Or the opposite can happen, where you find slices of well-observed behavior That's the kind of ending I want from video games.