Gaming, like other mediums, has the ability to trigger emotional responses. Gone are barely discernible 8-bit hyper-pixelated characters and paper-thin stories. We live during a time in which developers and writers create games in harmony, fulfilling their creative visions, and crafting wonderful stories within an interactive medium. That’s not to say they haven’t before: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and many others have certainly swayed the emotional pendulum with amazing stories and powerful music. However, today’s game realism now makes for a far more immersive experience.
Whether you’re aware of it happening or not, games have a powerful effect on our cognition in the same manner as film and art. Mass Effect players can probably think back and describe moments of happiness or sadness they felt throughout the trilogy. Be it a character death or triumphant moment gamers form an underlying emotional pact with their teams. I’ve experienced plots that have completely engulfed me in anger, not because they were non nonsensical, but because of their brilliant delivery. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Bioshock immediately come to mind. Bioshock probably enraged many players when it was revealed that you were actually being manipulated by Fontaine the entire game. Gaming is finally catching up to other creative mediums. It’s a great time to be a gamer.
Love and hate are difficult emotions to evoke in any medium due to the high level of immersion necessary to induce them. It takes excellent writing and character development to make someone feel emotions toward fictional characters. Mass Effect and The Walking Dead both utilize intriguing characters, excellent stories, and a decision-making storytelling mechanic to engulf players. These games thrive off player attachment. Their stories are so organically fabricated they become people with real issues like you and me.
In Mass Effect, you spend countless hours with your crew, exploring an entire galaxy while defending humanity. The game encourages you to explore each character’s back story which typically reveals what makes that individual tick, while also strengthening your crews abilities. Depending on how you play the game, characters become more likable than others. This is due to excellent writing that adds believably and realism to each characters. Personally, I connect with Jack. Her rough childhood and troubled past spurred moments of self-reflection. I was heartbroken when her death came by my hands due to a miscalculation. It was a deep pitted sorrow that followed me even after I put the controller down. This is the connection required in order to create any emotional relevancy, something that’s nearly impossible with a generic brutish soldier (although Dom from the Gears of War series is a rare exception).
Telltale’s The Walking Dead has amassed accolades and critical acclaim, most in part because of its story driven gameplay. Early on, players are tasked with caring for Clementine, a child in a world over run by zombie swarms and opportunist humans. Throughout the game, players make major decisions that impact their group of survivors, all while ensuring Clementine’s well being.
I’ve come to compare The Walking Dead to CBS’ Survivor. Like the reality show, The Walking Dead is all about personalities and choices. Tension-filled moments arise when food is rationed and some folks are left hungry, which creates factions. What makes these moments special are the human element. You begin to build animosity for some and become closer to others. You fall in love with Clementine because the character becomes an extension of your choices; you directly influence how she develops. You can’t help but love Clementine, everything about her is comforting, especially during tense and stressful situations. Her innocent voice, her trademark hat — until the very end she never loses her childhood innocence. She embodies the good left in humanity. Ultimately this love you culminate over five episodes can end with Clementine killing Lee before he re-animates into a walker. Players who finished The Walking Dead can attest for the bleak sadness felt at the game’s conclusion.
Music is integral in generating emotion, too. A friend recently asked me if I ever played a story-driven game in silence. It seemed like a strange question at the time, but after I sat down and played Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater with no sound I realized the cut scene’s emotional significance was greatly diminished. This is especially true for the last scene in the game where Snake is shown visiting his mentor’s gravestone. A mentor who died by Snake’s own hand.
Above is the lengthy scene in question. It’s a perfect conclusion that caps off an emotionally trying story. Notice how stoic Snake is for the first half of the scene. He eventually breaks down at 6:31 and sheds a tear, as the music and narration add power. The scene ends with Snake, now given the title Big Boss, a hardened soldier shedding a tear for the woman he came to love.
I tried playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in silence and I couldn’t — the game loses its charm, its whimsy. Music plays an important role in evoking emotion, it’s a powerful tools used more and more by story tellers to enhance a players emotional response to a situation. The more recent Sound Shapes comes to mind, Beck’s song “Cities” to be specific is a emotional experience in itself.
Of course, emotions are subjective to their host. Journey made this apparent. I finished the game without the emotional break down that many others were experiencing. I’ve heard stories of grown men and women weeping after the games conclusion — this didn’t happen to me. I do recall experiencing joy, excitement, and sometimes sadness from the loneliness you encounter, yet the end didn’t move me . I attribute this to what I call “The Godfather effect”. Watching The Godfather at different points in my life has always led to different emotional connections to certain character. As a younger man, I despised Fredo for many reasons. I thought he was weak, selfish, and untrustworthy, but now as an older, more mature individual I sympathize with the character. I suspect Journey will be the same way. The title in itself is symbolic, it’s a game about life in a way, with the end perfectly symbolizing that this when your character is reborn. The video below explores some of the games deeper symbolism.
The fact that interactive gaming has the ability to do this is quite beautiful. The emotional evocation experienced from gaming can no longer be denied, and that is a achievement the gaming industry can be proud of.