The gaming experience is being reinvented to explore the complicated emotions of childhood and adolescence.

Computer games used to promise escape from adult life with magic tokens, pixelated slain dragons and a myriad repetitive, upbeat soundtracks. But now a new generation of video games is using gaming techniques to help players grow up.

Butterfly Soup stars four Asian-American teens who are exploring their queer identities and shifts narration so players can understand all perspectives. It is designed like a visual novel, where viewers can make small dialogue choices which feel meaningful and engaging, though they don’t control the outcome of the story.

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Butterfly Soup
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Wolves in the Walls, a virtual reality (VR) adaption of Neil Gaiman’s children’s book, is an interactive game that takes the player on an adventure with Lucy, the main character. It is focused on developing what producer Jessica Yaffa Shamash describes as “curated intimacy” between player and character, as the player helps Lucy overcome her fear of wolves.

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Wolves in the Walls

Other games explore key coming-of-age experiences like first love. Florence, a mobile game released in February, explores the ups and downs of a new relationship and Night in the Woods tells the story of a college dropout who returns home and struggles to accept that the place she remembers has changed without her.

The factor that unites these “adulting” games is that they encourage empathy and emotional investment through allowing players to inhabit and understand different identities. The games employ storytelling and, in contrast to adventure games, they frequently let players interact with the characters and develop connections with them, rather than focusing on instant rewards or advancing to the next level—or requiring cheats and secret tokens.

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Florence
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Why the focus on emerging adulthood? Ken Wong, the designer of Florence, believes it’s a reaction to the new process of forming identity in today’s ever-connected world. (Also, Generation Z is proving one of the most anxious to date, driven, according to some experts, by exposure to technology.) “The journey from a child to adulthood has always been difficult and an interesting story to tell, but there’s a sense that it’s now more complicated than it’s ever been,” says Wong. “How do we process our bodies, our friendships, our identities within this new age of digital, always online, globalized, urban lifestyles, sometimes with queerness to deal with? Naturally video games, the art form of our generation, should be exploring this, and providing identity and narrative frameworks for the next generation.”

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Night in the Woods

What does this mean for the future of interactive storytelling? This is a new iteration of the movement away from linear game constructs that has been a rising trend for the past few years. Creatives have been exploring not only storytelling but also more cerebral approaches to game design, creating games that explore literature, art and more. Rather than focusing on competitive gameplay, many focus on experience. And many are increasingly cognitive, adapting to users’ behavior. For more on this trend, see the Innovation Group’s TEDxHollywood reportage.