Soma
Soma, from Frictional Games, is a first person sci-fi horrorFrictional Games

Is there really much difference between Duke Nukem and Journey? I don't think so. Video games, especially in the mainstream, are excessive and blunt, so I can empathise with any game-maker who tries to push back against them by eschewing from their own games' violence, sex and other unwholesome subject matter.

But increasingly games feel timid and insouciant, concerned more with deflecting gaming's well-earned reputation for vulgarity than doing or being anything substantial.

Look at Everybody's Gone To The Rapture and yes, it has a modicum of value, insofar as it's a game that will surprise tabloid readers, and wrong-foot a lot of outside world beliefs about video games, but it's nevertheless slight and inoffensive. It looks a bit like art, but only in comparison to the low entertainment that has become video game tradition.

Same goes for games such as The Unfinished Swan, Dear Esther, Brothers, Beyond Eyes, Journey (which our reviewer absolutely adored), Sunset, Flower, Braid – indeed the majority of the precious, independent canon.

In a bid to separate gaming from the admittedly reductive stereotypes that exist among broader entertainment audiences, so-called cutting edge video game makers have exchanged adulteration for sentimentality. Though a noble cause, in trying to elevate themselves out of dull, male fantasy, games have strayed towards infantile pleasantry, pretty little titles telling pretty little stories with pretty little images.

Journey PS4 screenshot
No sex please, we're Journey. thatgamecompany

Even at their best, a lot of today's lauded games trade only in vague sadness without context: the cat dies in Beyond Eyes, the avatar dies in Journey and Tim's relationship doesn't work out in Braid, and although it is different to video game business as usual, it's not at all hard-hitting or resonant.

It's just simple, comestible emotion, vacuum packed for people who wish to merely feel. The prettified, unobjectionable games lauded in recent years will not save gaming. On the contrary, games need more violence, sex and dealings with the ugly world.

I played SOMA recently and was really heartened by it, inasmuch as it takes the exploration game genre, famously populated by prosaic rubbish like Rapture and The Stanley Parable, and chucks in some blood, swearing and real nastiness. It has meat on its bones.

Though it plays like the kind of game I'd normally associate with pseudo-human interest stories, SOMA, in plenty of places, isn't sanitised. It's not twee. It doesn't treat violence, blood or bad language as things that ought to be avoided, lest video games, as a whole, remain forever in squalor.

I like SOMA because it demonstrates that game-makers can involve themselves in unwashed subject matter without backsliding into gratuity, sexism and trash. The idea seems to have formed that in games you can either make, or buy, one or the other: filthy, thoughtless entertainment or pristine, neurotic art. For me, SOMA straddles the border. It features plenty of action and blood but that's approached sensibly and intelligently – embraced rather than misused or avoided.

And that's the point. Violence and sex belong in video games in the same way they belong in books, films and theatre. Instead of shying away from them, they need to be written about maturely.

Violence in video games doesn't have to be low and meaningless, and it needn't always be for gratuitous entertainment, achieved via the en masse slaying of "enemies". Violence can be a dramatic conceit, whereby violent actions by the player have an emotional impact above mere excitement and a narrative influence beyond simply progressing to the next level. Violence in games can – should – mean something, and by that standard, none of gaming's preciously held ideas of fun or inventiveness need be compromised.

Steve Gaynor, designer on Gone Home, lays out a basic metric for representing violence in video games. He says: "Violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual."

Having the player kill only named and formed characters is one way modern games can feature violence while still delineating themselves from the 1990s trash that made "video game violence" a collocation in the first place. The choice, though some games would have you believe otherwise, is between more than gratuity or nothing.

Same goes for sex. Video games can thematically embrace sex without devolving into boorish, poisonous stereotypes. That might seem like an obvious point, and it's certainly patronising to the various game-makers who have created excellent games about sex, such as Merritt Kopas, Nina Freeman, Vaida Plankyte and Robert Yang. But since sexism predominates the mainstream, and the best-known independent games subsist on infantile sentiment, it seems worth pointing out.

Like violence, nuanced and evocative – or at least just not stupid – representations of sex belong in video games. It's something games can be about. It doesn't have to be ducked away from or else devolve into typical video game superfluity. And you don't have to make a prissy, delicate, quaint game in order to distinguish your work from gaming's worst excesses.

I don't think games can be bettered (and they do need to be bettered – don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about) by avoiding the violence and sex that dragged games into the cultural gutter in the first place. Modern games can't go backwards, into simplistic, faux-emotional childishness, in order to go forwards. If they do, they're as bad as the old hat rubbish they're seemingly eager to avoid.

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