There are many ways to do philosophy. One interesting and under-explored medium are computer games. I’ve compiled a list of computer games that have philosophical substance, either in their plot lines or in the mechanics of their game play.
This list is idiosyncratic. It contains mainly games I’ve played myself (at least partially, or all the way through) so it reflects one person’s taste, and leaves a lot of excellent games out. I like puzzle games, and I don’t do multiplayer games. I don’t have a game console so the platforms are restricted to Windows 10, MacOS, and iOS. Because I made the list to brighten your day, I did not include any games that are overly sad, so no games about a child dying of cancer or about a person about to fall off a cliff in her car (both are philosophically very interesting).
You can see more examples of cool philosophical games in the responses to this tweet, some of which I bought and ended up in this list. My descriptions contain some minor spoilers, but I’ve avoided major ones.
1. The Witness
Open world, first-person puzzle game. Thekla, 2016.
You’re on a desert island, the only sign of life is your own shadow, lush vegetations, and sculptures of humans who seem frozen in time. You encounter puzzles in the landscape you need to solve. The principle is always the same: you need to draw a continuous line from beginning point to end point, if you do it correctly, the puzzle activates other puzzles on the island.
This may not sound exactly riveting as game dynamics go, but the developers have done an excellent job making this task never boring: you need to look in the environment (shadows, reflections, patterns in the foliage, even sounds) for clues. The symbols found throughout the island present a set of consistent rules and thus form some sort of symbolic language, which you learn as you explore.
Throughout the island you can find and listen to audio recordings of quotes by scientists, philosophers, and theologians. They are not just the usual suspects such as Einstein and Feynman, but also thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa, Niffari, Augustine and Clifford–his parable of the shipwreck is located, fittingly, in an abandoned ship.
These fragments alone would make the game philosophically interesting. But the game dynamics also present a philosophical picture, which made me think of the Daoist ideal of non-action or wuwei. In this open world game, you solve puzzles as you go, but sometimes the best thing to do is not to try to solve the puzzle, step away, and come back later equipped with a better understanding of the rules.
The “real” solution to the game is a masterstroke and without spoilering it too much, exemplifies the ideal of wuwei: the simple solution that was there all along, but that you can only see once you’ve gained a deep familiarity with the game and the several levels on which the puzzles operate.
[This game reminds one of the classic game Myst, a graphic adventure puzzler game from 1993 (designed for the Mac OS originally) by Cyan. Like in The Witness, you are all alone on an island and solve puzzles. In addition, you travel to several different time periods called Ages which reveal the back story.]
Platformer, puzzle game, Number None, 2008
This game, like The Witness, was developed by Jonathan Blow. It is a game changer, both in the dynamics of the game and the philosophical depth of the background story. Philosophical content and gameplay blend perfectly. The game’s starting point is what would happen if you allowed a player to rewind and undo anything they did. Blow noticed that other developers simply assumed it would make a game uninteresting, because it would remove consequences for the player, typically expressed in loss of lives. Blow wanted to try it out. The result is Braid, where you control Tim, a character who in fact can turn back time. You cannot die. The controls are deceptively simple: arrow keys for moving left or right, spacebar for jumping, and shift for rewinding time. You jump on the heads of creatures to go just a little bit further.
Not everything is affected by the rewind, and this mechanism allows you to reach the puzzle pieces and to go on to the next worlds in the game.
You collect puzzle pieces in your quest for the Princess (who only appears–I’ve been told as I did not reach the end yet–at the end of the game, though she is important throughout).
The game starts with a meditation on time and forgiveness “Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness.” (screenshot below). This game is more ample with forgiveness, a perfect marriage of form and content in the dynamics of gameplay and the theme. The music and graphics are gorgeous.
3. The Gardens Between
Puzzle game, Voxel Agents, 2018
Like Braid, this is a game that uses time rewind, I find it somewhat easier to play (with Braid, timing is often very critical as you make jumps and manipulate the environment).
You play two childhood friends, a boy and a girl, who navigate through levels where they need to light a lantern, and where turning back time is a metaphor for evoking childhood memories. The controls are even simpler than for Braid, you just go either back or forth, spinning back time for back. For the generation X-ers and Xennials among us, the game has a nostalgic feel with cassette players, VHS recorders, and early game consoles as props, bringing up memories of the childhood friends.
4. Baba is you
2D puzzle game. Arvi Teikari (Hempuli), 2019.
This 2D puzzle game with a retro feel and simple but effective and cute graphics presents self-contained puzzles you need to solve in a large number of levels. You are Baba (or at the very least, start out as Baba), a zoomorphic figure (it looks like an elephant to me, but is apparently a rabbit). For each level, you need to reach a given object (often the flag) to win the game. Each level starts out with a set of rules, such as:
Baba is You.
Skull is Death.
Lava is Hot.
Flag is Win.
Or are they? In this logic puzzler, you can change the rules. You can physically move words around on the screen to change the rules. For example, you can make “Skull is Death” into “Skull is Win”, and thus reach a winnable solution that would otherwise be impossible. Is the lava too hot and uncrossable? Maybe if you change the rule from “Lava is hot” to “Lava is you”, and only then can you reach the flag. Though that sounds deceptively simple, the game requires radical Gestalt shifts and flexibility of mind, and makes you ponder the metaphysical implications of changing the game rules. Ultimately, it makes you think about the rules of the game, and analyze their raison d’être.
Text adventure, Emily Short, 2000. Developer webpage here.
This is classic text adventure and a piece of interactive fiction. You start out in a museum hall with a single exhibit, a sculpture come alive made of marble called Galatea, and described as follows “47. Galatea. White Thasos marble. Non-commissioned work by the late Pygmalion of Cyprus. (The artist has since committed suicide.) Originally not an animate. The waking of this piece from its natural state remains unexplained.”
The game consists of your interactions with this mysterious living statue. The game keeps track of your conversation and branches out into several possibilities, thus you can have multiple satisfying endings. Short and sweet, you can play the game online here in your browser.
Since there are no visuals, I paste some text from the game to give a sense of gameplay.
Large cream letters on a black ground.
47. Galatea White Thasos marble. Non-commissioned work by the late Pygmalion of Cyprus. (The artist has since committed suicide.) Originally not an animate. The waking of this piece from its natural state remains unexplained. You become aware of her breathing — the slight expansion of her ribs, the soft exhalation — natural, and yet somehow studied. “Ah — by the way,” she says, in a way that utterly fails to be casual, “have you seen the artist out there? — My artist, that is.” “No,” you respond, uneasy. You open your mouth and close it again.
>Ask Galatea about artist
A pause. “I don’t know where he is,” she comments. “Or who, or what, for that matter. He sold me immediately after my waking. While he was carving me, there was no strangeness, but afterward…”
6. Device 6
Text adventure game, interactive fiction, puzzle game, Simogo, 2013 (iOS only)
This is a hybrid game that uses some graphics, a bit of animation and atmospheric music, but it is also a text-based adventure and has the look and feel of an interactive novella. The protagonist is Anna, who wakes up (oldest story device ever, but still works) on an unknown island and needs to escape from there. While you do that, you get to solve some puzzles which are not too hard but just entertaining enough to keep you busy for a while. The game draws on philosophy of neuroscience and skepticism.
[Related: another philosophically intriguing iOS game that is interactive fiction but more visual than Device 6 is Florence (Mountains, 2018). You see the budding romance between Florence Yeoh and a cellist and street performer named Krish.]
7. 6180 The Moon
Puzzle platform game, Turtle Cream and Jongmin Jerome Baek 백종민, 2014
This is a clever 2D puzzle game with a peaceful music score. You play as the Moon (a white circle), looking for the Sun which seems to have gone away, plunging humanity into darkness.
For each level, you simply need to move the Moon from its starting position to the exit. If you leave the edge of the screen, you simply reappear at the bottom (or top), you can’t die (though you can land in spikes that cause you to lose some progress). The graphics are as minimalistic as you can get and consist of simple geometric shapes. The game is co-created by a philosopher (Jongmin Jerome Baek) who teaches a course on philosophy of computation at UC Berkeley.
8. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
Open world, Action role-playing (single player), Ubisoft, 2018.
This game is set in fifth century Greece, BCE during the Peloponnesian War. It is the 21st installment in the Assassin’s Creed series (if you include minor installments). You are a mercenary. At the start of the game, you can choose to play as either Kassandra or her brother Alexios. The game allows you to explore a massive open world, where you take on assignments (the signature Assassin’s Creed stealth missions among others). You can have romantic relationships with various characters, including various queer romances.
I included this game because you can meet and interact with and many philosophers. Minor spoiler: you can even change the course of their history (is the hemlock inevitable?) Socrates has an extensive story line. You can also meet Hypocrates, Alcibiades, Sophocles, a young Plato. Fair content warning: there is a plague in Athens (historically accurate), so if you don’t feel like playing a game with an infectious disease as a significant plot element, maybe this is not the game for you now. Your actions have an impact on how the plague plays out.
Socrates not only gives you assignments, you can also talk to him about moral dilemmas and the nature of knowledge. In this Youtube video you get a representative example of the gameplay and of a dialogue with Socrates. The game is visually beautiful and has an evocative Greek-inspired musical score, and thus also requires a lot of processing power.
9. Bioshock: Infinite
First-person shooter, single player, open world, Irrational Games, 2013.
“Booker? Are you afraid of God?”
“No. But I’m afraid of you.”
Thus starts a visually stunning story with beautiful music that examines lots of philosophical themes: American exceptionalism and its relationship to toxic forms of religion, nativism and racism. The game is set in 1912, and you are Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who travels to Columbia, a city in the sky. You need to find a mysterious young woman, Elizabeth. Together, you travel through Tears, windows to alternate realities.
Like in other Bioshock installments, the game explores what happens if certain philosophical and religious ideals are taken to an extreme. Some people’s utopia may turn out to be other people’s dystopia.
[Related: Bioshock and Bioshock 2, the previous installments of this series, also by Irrational Games) are also first-person shooter games. The universe they are set in is different, and there’s no obvious link with Bioshock infinite. In these games, you find yourself in a city under water called Rapture, created by Andrew Ryan, a business person whose name is an obvious anagram of Ayn Rand.]
10. Walden, a Game
First person, open world, survival game, Tracy Fullerton, 2017
This is ultimate social distancing game. Walden is a book of transcendentalist philosophy by David Henry Thoreau first published in 1854. In this difficult to classify book (it is a novel, a diary, a social experiment), Thoreau explores his life in cabin in the woods in the course of two years. The game starts out with the rationale for this experiment (an excerpt from the book Walden):
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Tracy Fullerton created the game with support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It gives the player the opportunity to experience transcendentalist philosophy in a new way. You repeat Thoreau’s experiment, living in a cabin you have to maintain yourself, while finding food, firewood, and other essentials; your cabin needs to be completed by the time it gets cold. Out in the woods you find inspiration, and inspiration affects how you see the environment around you. The game is lush and peaceful; you see animals, receive letters, find arrowheads. You learn about Thoreau’s involvement in the abolitionist movement, the backstory with his sister Sophia. Play at the highest resolution your computer can handle.
One moment where my suspension of disbelief was shattered was when you receive a letter by Alcott in 1845 which reads “… there we are now, writing and living like philosophers. Which is to say, with little but happily.”