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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Agony and Ecstasy of Playing Out Your School Years in Games

George Pigula can’t get a prom date. With roughly 24 hours until the dance, the Sims 4: High School Years lead producer is reliving one of the most mortifying experiences a teenager can have: rejection, rejection, rejection.

Pigula’s plight is self-inflicted, as both an architect and player, but he’s hardly alone as an adult clamoring to be a kid again. “Teenage years are very important,” Pigula said during a press demo for the new expansion pack. “They’re formative. It’s a time to find friends and figure out relationships. You have the opportunity to navigate through these challenges, the joys of young love, whether it’s a blissful crush stage, the proposal, or the difficulties of a breakup.”

School settings are a long running staple of video games, whether they tell stories about the teenage experience, opt for murder and mayhem, or balance vigilantism with doing your homework. Adolescence is a crucial time when people learn who they are, but it’s also rife with heartbreak, embarrassment, loneliness, and scores of other triumphs and traumas. And the genre that’s sprung up around it is thriving. In addition to High School Years, which drops July 28, there’s Persona 5 Royal’s impending Nintendo Switch release and brand-new titles like Necrosoft Games’ recently announced Demonschool.

Necrosoft’s approach, though, has a far more mature tone than that in The Sims. Demonschool pulls influences from Italian horror cinema and Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series. The game is set on an island with two defining locations: a university and a prison. This particular school is a last chance for the students, who will either graduate or wind up in jail. Faye, the game’s heroine, is the last in a long line of demon hunters. One small caveat—no one’s seen demons for hundreds of years. They’re myths, until suddenly they’re not.

A school setting holds interest for many people, Demonschool director Brandon Sheffield tells WIRED, because “for a lot of people it represents a time of freedom—intellectual freedom, where you are not constrained by certain social ideas, you’re not stuck on a job path yet. There’s a lot of hope and possibility in front of you.”

Demonschool’s more mature setting also put the characters into different scenarios than their high schooling Sims counterparts. “We particularly chose the university because you’ve got characters that can become friends or have romance relationships,” Sheffield says. Sometimes games like Persona let you get involved with adults despite being underage. “That’s always kind of made me feel a little weird about all the high school things where you can romance each other,” he says. With Demonschool, Sheffield says, it was important that everyone be “of consenting age.”

Not that these re-creations of youth are all about relationships or becoming prom royalty. In Demonschool, the panic of growing up is matched against actual horror scenarios. Faye and a few friends look into demon appearances while her classmates write essays and do math homework. The game operates on a calendar, where events are paced by a weekly structure and specific events during each day. It’s a more constrained version of games like Persona or Yakuza, which Sheffield notes as influences. He was fond of how series like Persona or Shin Megami Tensei, from which the Persona series spun off, use negotiation to persuade demons to join your party. “There’s some push and pull there, rather than just a faceless mass of evil that you have to destroy,” he says.

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In Demonschool, the human and demon worlds intersect in a visual way, where one is 2D and the world of the fantastic springs to life in 3D. That gave the team room to play with aesthetic. For Sheffield, it’s important to use the freedom of creative mediums like video games—where nothing is real—to create something otherworldly. He’s fond of Italian horror films and physical, practical effects: Think DIY gore like guts spilling from an open wound in a zombie flick. Not CG, but pig organs. (Though to be clear, “I'm a vegetarian, so I don't really approve of that,” he says.)

There’s something about combining the uncanny with the banal. The Sims has a slapstick sense of humor fit for gawky teen years; a Sim can get dumped in the hallway, strike a T-pose for a viral challenge, and then slink away for class in the span of a minute. Demonschool leans the opposite direction. A violent act set to beautiful simple music, for example, “kind of softens the horror of it and turns it into more of what feels like an art piece rather than something that is terrible,” Sheffield says. Real violence makes him physically ill. But creative mediums offer something else: “I can feel removed enough from it, but also connected to it in some way because of the dissonance between what I see and what I hear.”

Demonschool doesn’t lean into violence—no pig guts here—but seeks to find that balance of a literal hell world knocking against something as ordinary as a local university. Schools don’t just denote an open mindset. “It’s a good structure to rail against as well,” Sheffield says. There are teachers to be angry with and class schedules to juggle. It’s a series of “micro pushbacks” that prepares you for the difficulties of adulthood.

Like most school-based games, its lessons are more universal than its fantastical elements suggest. “The main thing we want people to take away from this story is something along the lines of being able to choose your own family and pushing back against institutions that are trying to keep you from progress, from being who you are,” Sheffield says.

In video games, it doesn’t matter where the classroom is set or how ordinary the story’s students may be. It’s a simpler lesson than one found on a chalkboard. There’s no more powerful fantasy than growth.

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