Emotion in Games


I have mentioned in the past that games are trying to become more emotional. I have seen many attempts at this, and I have read a few articles about games that are emotional, and even cause the player to cry. Here’s my issue, though: the parts of a game that are emotional are mainly cutscenes. Games rely on the same techniques that movies do to evoke an emotional response, rather than creating emotion through the gameplay. A lot of emotional cutscenes are when a character dies, and in my opinion, these cutscenes aren’t as sad as they are frustrating. A character is dying, and since it’s a cutscene, I can’t do a darn thing to stop it. What’s the point in working hard to get to the end of a game if you’re rewarded by a great character’s death, and there’s no way around it? This frustrates me.

If emotion is going to be integrated into a game, it should be integrated into the gameplay, not some uninteractive cutscene. Allow the player to change the emotion of a game, or even use emotion as a gameplay mechanic, but don’t throw in some emotional cutscene and call it an emotional game. It’s not; it’s a game with some frustratingly emotional cutscenes.

Oh man, I’m rambling again. I did want this post to be constructive to those of you who are involved in game design, so I’ll try not to bash games anymore. I think that some more recent games have done quite well with adding emotion, but still, they are in cutscenes.

At the end of this post I will give a few ideas for integrating emotion into games, but first I want to talk about traditional story in games.


Games that have emotional cutscenes usually also have linear storylines, or perhaps a branching narrative that allows the player to choose one of three endings. I’ll be honest up front: I hate linear stories in games. I hate most stories in games. I don’t play games for great linear stories, I play them because they’re fun, and the gameplay is what makes games fun, not a linear story.

I’m probably sounding a lot like John Carmack right now, but I’m starting to see what he has against story in games. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think story is a bad thing; if you think that, then obviously you haven’t read much of my blog. I love story. I’ve written three books. I’ve read hundreds. I love TV shows that are written well. But games; games aren’t stories. They’re games.

Let me put it another way; games shouldn’t have stories, they should have backstories. Another word for this is scenario. You’ve crash-landed on an alien planet, and it’s up to you to destroy the alien’s big gun and kill the alien leader before earth is destroyed. You find yourself in a strange science lab, and have no choice but to go through a series of unusual experiments before you can escape. You and your friends are stranded during the zombie apocalypse, and you must fight your way to safety. These are all scenarios–backstories–but they are not stories. They just set the stage for a story.

I think it’s interesting how the gaming industry has gotten away from pure games like pong, asteroids, and doom. Games used to be just games; pure gameplay. You played, but you rarely watched, if at all. Now there are five minute stretches in games like Mass Effect where you’re just sitting watching a cinematic, and it can get a little boring.

Three Paths

The way I see it, there are three ways games could go in the future. They could keep going the way their going, they could completely change into interactive storyworlds, or they could integrate emotion into the gameplay.

Now, what do I mean by integrating emotion into gameplay? Simply this; emotion of the NPCs or even the player affect how the game is played. In FPSs enemies throw themselves at your bullets like they want to be killed; but what if they had personalities? What if they had emotions? What if they were afraid of dying, so if they saw people around them being slaughtered they would run and hide? What if they begged for mercy before you killed them? Would that change how you played FPSs?

The first person shooter is such a narrow genre now, that it is difficult to use as an example; honestly, most genres are narrow. Open-world RPGs such as Fallout or Skyrim would be the obvious games to integrate more personality and emotion, but I’m not sure it would have the right effect. There are a few games that have tried to integrate social aspects into the gameplay other than multi-choice conversations. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an interesting example. How you talk to people does contain some interesting mechanics, but it’s not as advanced as I’m talking.

I love the TV show Lost. It’s a great show; great characters, great writing, and some spectacular visual effects for a TV show. But one of the more interesting aspects of it were all the mind games that the characters played with each other. They were always deceiving each other to get what they wanted, nobody knew who was telling the truth, nobody knew who they could trust, nobody knew who had the guns. Some of the smarter characters would say things that were designed to create distrust in other groups of characters.

I think a game that incorporated even a small aspect of this could be very interesting. Trust and Betrayal: the Legacy of Siboot by Chris Crawford is a good example of something like this, but it was made in the eighties. Today’s gamers need something like this.

Interactive Storytelling?

If you’ve read much of my blog up to this point, you’re probably think that this is when I’ll start saying how great interactive storytelling is, and how that’s what games need to become, blah, blah, blah. Well, to some extent, you’re right, and to another extent, you’re wrong. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Interactive storytelling is immensely complex. Chris Crawford has admitted this; I mean, he’s been working on the problem for thirty years and still doesn’t have a commercial product to show for it. I think before we can create true, pure, holodeck-quality interactive storyworlds, we have to take baby steps. Chris Crawford has taken a few; Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas have taken some; even some people in the game industry have fiddled with a few interactive storytelling techniques in games, but we’re far from anything we can with good conscience call interactive storytelling.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t make something that’s at least going in the right direction. Maybe the first attempts won’t have very advanced personalities, maybe they won’t have fancy graphics, maybe they won’t sell very many copies, but at least they’ll take us a step closer.

Closer to what? Well, what did filmmakers strive for when film was just starting? Filmmakers are on a constant journey to tell better and better stories. When filmmaking first started, they didn’t really know what to do. They tried filming plays, but that was a failure. The recordings were always at a wide angle so the entire stage could be seen on camera, but the viewers couldn’t see the actor’s faces at all. Eventually it took a failed theater actor to approach film from an entirely different angle and say, “Hey, let’s stick the camera right in the character’s face so we can see their emotions.”

The interactive medium will have to make the same kind of leap before it can tell powerful stories.


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