Emotionally Available

When I think about the games I love most, the thing that jumps out is not graphics or story or control mechanism, but emotion. Because that’s what it all adds up to when it’s done right. And that’s what I think a recent Atlantic article that focuses largely on Façade is getting at, too. It suggests the way forward for games lies in finding ways to connect with players on a more deeply emotional level, the claim being that this is when games will approach art. (I’d argue that a few games have already archived the status of art, but let’s not go there just now.)

It’s a beautiful notion and certainly, in the abstract, the sort of connection that all games should shoot for in their unique ways. The article discusses two approaches to eliciting emotion that show promise: making characters more emotionally intelligent (Façade) and creating an environment where players can experience the “magical delight of creation” (Spore).

But there’s more. What we are really talking about is no longer letting players take the easy way out. There’s no “You Win! Thanks for playing!” but rather lots of hard questions and no easy answers.

November’s Edge captures it well:

Like books and movies before them, games are losing their fear of leaving players in conflict, their feelings unresolved. Moreover, they’re willing to toughen progress on ever more personal levels. Those who were shellshocked by Call of Duty 2, suffocated by San Andreas’ Los Santos, frozen by Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 2 or shamed by Shadow Of The Colossus will attest to that, and vouch for it. In gaming’s great quest for maturity, this is the all-important step.

So where can others go that wish to follow? What can other games do to make players almost not want to play them? As ever, the answers are all around, in the stories we hear and the world in which they’re told.

Almost not want to play them.” What we seem to be hearing here is that the future of traditional games is starting to have more and more in common with serious games. We’re heading for a place where traditional games are no longer simple escapism but complex, even uncomfortable, experiences that give us insight into the real world and ourselves. In doing so, they put us in situations designed to foster that endlessly terrifying outcome: learning. Serious games do the same.

The problem, of course, is that traditional gaming is supposed to be escapism. Serious games are anti-escapism, that is, they don’t take you out of yourself but into yourself and, in some way, into the real world. So, the question then becomes: how will these future games be fun? Certainly, that is the challenge for serous games. And, from the sound of things, it’s becoming the challenge for the rest of gaming, too.

We last wrote about serious games in Serious.

7 Responses to “Emotionally Available”

  1. 1 Gareth

    Maybe they don’t need to be fun? I think you answered this question in your first sentence – an emotionally engaging experience is the most fulfilling thing you can expect from a game, and fun is just one emotion.

    I think an educational element would be a worthwhile addition to many games – mainly through information about the scenario and events that happen within it. The Darfur game is effective, but while the gameplay suits the theme it’s still fairly traditional – the presentation is the important part.

    The thing that really matters is what’s going on inside the player’s head, and this can be influenced by many (often non-interactive) elements. I’d like to see serious games move away from being a repetitive series of skill based challenges (walk down a corridor shooting guards), instead putting the emphasis on a smaller set of more meaningful choices and making the player feel a certain way. Non-interactive movies can make you feel all sorts of emotion and games should be careful to use their interaction for a reason and not just to pad things out or keep the player busy. Cutscenes are a pain, but the player doesn’t always have to be manually doing something, so long as they understand their goals and motivation, are in control of their character and feel part of the gameworld. There will always be plenty of room for shooting games and the rest, this is more about expanding things into a different area that can exist alongside the current stuff.

    I’m gambling my tuition fees on this kind of change and I do think it’s only a matter of time. These kinds of games will require larger design teams to put more thought into the implementation of each moment and its effect on the player. I think it’ll be a gradual evolution as hardware becomes more stable (it’s already ‘good enough’ for Nintendo) and dev tools become more flexible/user friendly. Then the challenge should become less about building a camera and more about where you point it, sort of thing.

  2. 2 Gareth

    Weird, I’m sure that had spaces between the paragraphs when I posted it! Probably a load of bollocks as well, but this is only my first year :-P

  3. 3 Jason

    Not bollocks at all — interesting points! While most games seem to aim for “fun,” perhaps you’re right that the term is a bit narrow to describe all the ways games can engage and motivate players. And certainly we should all hope that the maturation of technology will help focus more effort on “the right things.”

    Have you played Façade? In some ways, I think it’s not as accomplished as the fantastic “interactive fiction” Infocom produced, but it really does seem to push the state of the art in terms of context and goals.

    (And sorry about the formatting issues. Should be fixed now!)

  4. 4 Gareth

    Yeah, I played Façade a while ago. Thought it was great to play something based on a more down to earth situation I could actually relate to (not something you find often in games) and I hope that’s something we’re going to see a lot more of!

    I’d be surprised if that kind of conversation system gets used in a retail game anytime soon though. Even the conversation tree system from a game like Mass Effect (where it displays abbreviated speech options) has severe problems and isn’t suitable for a more hands-on style of game. I really like the positive and negative responses in San Andreas (underused in that game – left and right on the dpad). The actual line spoken varies, but it gives the player the ability to make a clear and consistent choice when responding to a wide variety of situations.

    I’m interested in ways the player can communicate through their standard movement controls – body language and gestures. In first person games, eye contact with other characters could have a variety of effects – a glace could be interpreted as flirting or suspicion, a stare a threat or challenge and avoiding eye contact with enemy characters while in disguise could help maintain your cover. Conversations are not made any more believable when NPCs stand rooted to the spot and stare vacantly into space – it would probably make sense to work on having these characters react to the player’s limited range of actions before trying to get them to talk!

  5. 5 Jason

    Agreed on the on the Façade conversation system. One thing the 8-BIT documentary highlighted was that often games attempt to create the illusion of freedom within the game world. The degree to which they manage to obscure the necessarily strict rules that govern that world plays a strong role in how enjoyable the game is.

    I feel like the dialog system in Façade achieves that for maybe 5 minutes — until you realize that it seems to be responding to keywords rather than really understanding what you are saying. I ended up trying to game it a bit but never quite got the response I was hoping for.

    So, I definitely like your contrast with GTA:SA. That game goes the totally opposite route by fully revealing the conversation system and not pretending to be more than it is. It’s limiting but that doesn’t keep it from being fun.

    I like the idea of using body motion as another dimension of communication. I suppose the trick of it is doing it in a way that the player can grasp relatively easily. It would be fun to build a game that relies entirely on gesture, facial expression, and gaze. Reminds me of the Digital Domain short Tightrope, which was the first CG short to really push the envelope in terms of body expression (the characters don’t speak).

  6. 6 Johny Zuper

    What about “pleasure” and “joy” instead of “fun”?

    Aren’t those also qualities associated with great art?

    I don’t think games need to choose between being fun and being serious. I believe that interactive media offer the opportunity to increase both through each other. We have the potential of creating an art form that is both very accessible and very deep.

    Making the audience feel uncomfortable is just one of the many paths that art can take. And, in my opinion, it’s an increasingly tedious and dull one as contemporary art has been relying on this tactic for so long that it has become the new norm.

    Modernist art had a tradition of being negative. But if we look beyond that recent history, we find a much wider and more subtle spectrum. Negativity is not the only way to be serious. You can make seriously uplifting games as well, about the things that make life worth living.

  7. 7 Jason

    Johny: Thanks for the thoughts. I’m reminded of Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, which deals with the horrors of genocide but still manages to find much beauty in that horrific environment through rich interpersonal relationships. In fact, those relationships are perhaps heightened by the extreme circumstances. The value of life becomes so clear.

    You’re right that we don’t need to give up fun to be serious. The line I drew in the initial post was probably a bit too strict. On reflection, my question is really this: How do we get folks to accept games that have more “serious” content than the typical mainstream game? Is there a market for a game about the genocide in Bosnia, for example? I, for one, would love to see a game with the richness of Sacco’s graphic novel. But I fear that most of the gaming world comes to games for a certain amount of escapism rather than being pulled into real world issues. Even when engaging those issues on a deep level might bring more beauty and joy into one’s life, I’ve seen many people turn off the instant I mention the subject.

    How do we overcome that? Is it reaching out beyond the existing market? Is there a game mechanic we can use to engage the existing market? Something else entirely?

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