Why aren’t more mundane tasks mined for fun?

If you live in some bustling metropolis like New York City or Stockholm or Tokyo, you know that getting to work can be as fraught with danger or excitement as escaping the outstretched clutches of any final boss. Sidewalker: Late to Work is an iOS endless runner where your goal is just that: To be on time. Not exactly the stuff of legend. But most days, just surviving another twenty-four hours without punching a stranger or getting run-over by a Prius feels heroic.

Instead of creating their own world only to blow it up, why don’t more developers mine the world around them?

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Classic arcade games often gave players fairly mundane tasks based on real-life. Tapper made you a bartender, serving up suds to thirsty patrons. Paperboy gave you a bicycle, a newspaper route and a few angry dogs to avoid. As technology evolved, our aspirations evolved with it, causing more and more games to shoot highter, go farther. If we weren’t saving the princess, we were saving the kingdom. If we had saved the world in Alien Buster!, we wouldn’t need to save it again in Alien Buster 2: Bustin’ Out!

I’m tired of saving the day. I just want to make a sandwich with a beautiful cross-section. Or walk across the street without getting clipped by a bike messenger. Sidewalker gives you that chance.

Andrew Garrahan, lead designer for Sidewalker and founder of Gutpela Interactive, explained the decision behind this very. ahem, pedestrian setting.

“There is something absurd about being on the street with all these crazy people weaving in and out,” he wrote in an email. “It takes a certain amount of skill to avoid all these obstacles. There is a rhythm to it, which tourists don’t seem to have. This is why they are the villains of our adventure.”

Or you can be the bad guy. You’ll find no dialogue trees or good/evil decisions here. Just the simple purity of moving forward. Writes Garrahan: “[I think] for many frustrated New Yorkers, there is the sadistic fantasy of running though the street knocking everyone out of their way.”

One reason Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain felt so fresh and new is because it asked us to do things that were boring and familiar. Within the context of its interactive mystery, turning the handle on a faucet feels important in a way that pulling the trigger to shoot the bad guy / save the hostage does not. Because we’ve already done that. There’s a rich vein of untapped possibility right in front of our noses.

The “shadow of the axe” looms far more ominously than any cackling demi-god

The WarioWare series of games takes this literally — a recurring microgame in each frantic edition is a successful nose-pick. In WarioWare: Smooth Moves for Wii, another challenge is to lift a glass of water to your mouth. Raise the Wii Remote too fast and you splash the drink over your face. A common event is made surprising and weird and fun by twisting it through the conventions of play.

This fetish for fantastical drama is not endemic to games. Literature does not lack for throbbing romances or blood-soaked crime thrillers. But where we spend 80% of our waking life–at work–is curiously ignored. Joshua Ferris’s 2007 debut novel, Then We Came to the End, is about a group of office schlubs slogging through their days at an advertising agency. It begins,”We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise.” The Guardian’s review continues:

In fact, these people’s whole lives lack promise. Layoffs are imminent at their Chicago ad agency, and everyone is shivering under the shadow of the axe. Work is scarce, yet it’s more important than ever that everyone look busy.

Who has not felt this foreboding pressure? For many of us, the “shadow of the axe” looms far more ominously than any cackling demi-god.

One of my favorite games I played last year was Let’s Catch, a 2009 WiiWare game by Prope, Sonic creator Yuji Naka’s studio. In it, your character throws a ball back and forth with another in a park. That’s it. You catch, then you throw. All the while, your partner discusses their life–kids talk about homework that’s due, adults talk about the pressures of family, the drudgery of office work. You notice the boy refers to his father being gone all day, overhearing arguments with his mom. Later you’ll play catch with his father, who speaks of wishing he could see his boy more, but he has to stay late; there may be a second woman, but it’s ambiguous.

I caught the ball and threw it back, listening to the simple problems that make up our complicated lives, my attention rapt. I couldn’t save them. But I didn’t need to.