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.


A Long-Overdue Post

Art is the product of human creativity and imagination. So what does this mean to designers in the interactive medium? There have been many arguments against games as an art form, saying that games can’t express an artist’s opinion because the interactivity of the medium takes that self-expression away. And then there are those who argue that games involve art such as music, 3d images, and dialogue scripts, therefore since they include art they become art. I am not going to join in this argument, because frankly, I think it’s stupid. Art isn’t some standard that’s defined by the French; art is art. Come on, Shakespeare would agree with me.

I think the more important question is, what is the purpose of art? Expression? Entertainment? Education? Evangelism? I read a very thought-provoking article, which provoked the thoughts that eventually led to this post. The article discusses the Christian game industry, and how it has suffered in the past, and its weaknesses as compared to the secular game industry.

A great deal of the article discussed how many Christian games tried to evangelize, and because of this, many non-Christian players wouldn’t touch them with a wireless controller. Does this mean, however, that Christians shouldn’t make evangelistic media, such as games, movies, or books? If not, what should they do with these mediums? What should anybody do?

No story should be preachy. The moment the main character gets on his soap-box and begins preaching to the audience, the audience loses interest in the story and possibly turns away from it. Rather than tell the audience what is right and wrong, the story should show the audience some truth in a way that allows them to discover it for themselves. Stories that do this are the most rewarding.

The article then went on to talk about how many Christian games aren’t honest about how the world really is, how they avoid edgy topics, and focus on happy, fuzzy feelings. I have noticed that many Christian movies and books are this way as well. I am excluding, of course, Ted Dekker and Frank Perretti. My opinion is that as a Christian, I must ask myself how I can be honest about the topics I’m addressing in my story, and yet how I can also show truth. A Christian story cannot come to the conclusion that life is hopeless, or that we must always give into temptation, or that revenge is justice. Being honest does not mean that we must sacrifice truth.

Christian stories should show a fundamental truth about the world we live in, and the God we serve. How the story does this is completely up to the storyteller.

The strength of the interactive medium is that the player is faced with choices that allow them to explore a topic in a way that is impossible in any linear medium. This does not mean that interactive stories should allow the player to wreak havoc on the storyworld; this isn’t Grand Theft Auto. The storyworld should react to the player’s actions, reward or punish them based on what they do. How the storyworld does this is again up to the storyteller.

Why I Want to Create Interactive Stories

Since I have finished my little shpeel on art and whatnot, I would like to take the rest of this post to talk about why I want to create interactive stories. So there you go; two posts in one! I figure I owe it to you, since I haven’t written in so long. Shame on me.

Story seems to have become somewhat of a novelty in games. I think it’s funny how game developers are touting their “story-driven” games, as if that’s just another feature that the programmers tacked on. I’m always disappointed by these games, though, because the story is just that; tacked on. The story is nowhere near as important as the gameplay, and during the important story points, control is usually taken away and you are forced to watch a cut-scene.

I mean, did you see the Battlefield 4 trailer? Warning: it contains strong language. But it does illustrate my point quite well, and I could point out a million other games that tout “storytelling” and “emotion” as features. I’ll be honest, I watched the trailer, and the first thing I thought was: wow, that’s pretty good. But then it went from one impossible situation to another, and I read this article, and I thought, man, that just shows how low my expectations for video games has fallen.

The Assassin’s Creed games are the same way, but there are other reasons why those games annoy me. I mean, will they ever end? Come on. They’re just doing the same thing over and over again. Is this what playing Call of Duty Black Ops 2 feels like? Creating the longest FPS series isn’t a good thing, Infinity Ward.

Sorry, I got all worked up there. I apologize, and promise to move on. The point is, every time I see a trailer for a game that is supposedly “story-driven,” it gives me this itch in my soul, and I think, I can do better than that. I don’t want to create pulse-pounding action experiences with amazing graphics and destructible environments, I want to create genuine, honest stories about real people doing real things. I want to show the world that the interactive medium is a powerful medium. I just don’t see games ever doing that.

A Little Update

OK, I think I also owe you a little update as to what I’ve been working on lately. I haven’t really written about interactive stories for a while, but I have been working on them. After looking at InkleWriter and Versu, I started working on a simpler, text-based approach, which will probably be web-based. However, I haven’t started coding anything yet, so don’t hold your breath. I’m still pondering some of the fundamental decisions I will have to make before I start. If any of you have looked at InkleWriter or Versu, or other interactive story technologies, and have opinions on them, let me know in the comments. I am fascinated to know what others think of them, and maybe get some ideas.

What are Games?

I’m not a huge fan of welcome messages on homepages, but since this is the first post, I figure what the hay!  Welcome!  Now, onto business.  If you haven’t read the About page or Interactive Storytelling page, I highly recommend it, just to familiarize yourself with the topics I will be covering and the reasons I will be covering them. So, what are games?  I think this is a question every person, not just a gamer, but everyone, should ask themselves.  What are games?  What do they do to people?  How do they affect people?  What does an extended period of time playing a game do to someone?  Do you know the answers?

Well, I ask you to think about it.  I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to these questions, and I think that is very dangerous.  Gamers don’t care because when the government wants to take away their right to buy M rated games they get defensive, and act totally irrational.  Most politicians and parents, on the other hand, don’t know much about games so they assume some things they shouldn’t, and then attempt to get rid of games completely. I don’t think either of these reactions are right.

Now, I admit, some games should not have been made.  But I don’t think it’s the government’s place to ban these games, it’s the gamer’s choice whether they want to play them or not.  Movies today are much worse than games, and yet, the government does not attempt to ban them.  Why?  Because everyone understands movies, but not everyone understands games.

It’s very important for this problem to be cleared up, but that’s not the purpose of this blog post.  This blog post is to make you think about the problem, and try to come up with your own solutions. Now, I’m not saying that there is no right and wrong.  There is.  But gaming can be seen as drinking—some can drink a glass of wine and be okay, but other’s can’t.  Some people can play games for an hour and it doesn’t affect them, but others can become rude, irritable, and downright nasty.  Apparently if one plays games for longer than two hours a day, they start to experience adverse affects. Some of you may be getting a little irritable reading this right now.  Well, I understand where you’re coming from.  I was there too.  But think about it—do you want a game controlling what you do or how you act?  Is it really that important?  Would you risk relationships for it?

I’m not saying all games are bad.  I’m saying all games affect us adversely if we play them for too long.  In fact, TV does the same thing.  Even reading.  If we read books all day long, then when someone comes along and tries to tear us away, we get angry!  It’s natural to become attached to something we’ve been doing for hours on end, especially if we enjoy it.

Since this blog is supposed to be about interactive stories, then why am I talking about games?  Well, I think that interactive storytellers can learn a little from games, but they shouldn’t try to copy games.  Well, really, games shouldn’t even try to copy each other, but I mean on a more basic level.  How the player interacts with the world, for example.  Will the controls be like a first person shooter?  Or more like a point-and-click game?  Should the player have to hit a million keys to do some sort of action, or should they just hit one key and the computer takes care of the rest?  In future posts I will talk more in-depth on these subjects, but for now, I just want to talk about what games are, and then in the next post, I will talk a little about what interactive stories are and maybe even show a few examples.

OK, so what are Games?

In one simple, concise sentence, this is what games are:

An interactive experience in which the player collects things, shoots things, and interacts with things.

You see, games are about things, money, weapons, ammo, even enemies or allies.  In a video game, the player shoots things and collects things, but he rarely interacts with people.  If you want the player to truly interact with the characters in the game, allow them to do more than just choose a few dialogue options.

For example, let’s take a look at Deus Ex.  This game has been known for it’s great story, so wouldn’t it be more about people than about things?  Well, most of the levels are based around how many lockpicks you have, how many credits you have, or how many multitools you have, but not about your relationships with the other characters.  Things you do early on in the game do affect how people react to you, but you can’t really change the overall story, and you don’t have all that many options when interacting with other characters.  You can ask them questions, and you can kill them.  That’s about it.

For the fun of it, let’s take a look at another game: Mass Effect.  This is another “story-based” game, but is it really?  Much of the game still revolves around collecting armor, weapons, and credits with which you can purchase more armor, weapons or upgrades.  When you do interact with characters, which is quite frequently, you are still limited by what you can say and do.  First of all, unlike Deus Ex, you can’t just kill anyone you want to, the game doesn’t allow it.  Your dialogue options are usually split up into four different categories: investigate, nice, neutral, or rude.  However, the nice neutral and rude options are pretty much all the same, it’s just how you say them.  Sometimes it allows you to say “yes” or “no”, but this is pretty rare.

In general, a lot of shooter games say how great their story is and how it was written by some famous writer, but first of all, it was usually written after the premise and basic storyline of the game was already created by the designers, and second, the story is always exactly the same every time you play it.  If your mission is to assassinate someone, you have to assassinate them, otherwise the game reloads from the last save point, so there really isn’t much choice.  And you don’t ever choose what you say to other characters; if you do, it’s probably a FPS/RPG hybrid.

In the next post I will talk about what interactive stories are, and of course provide a few examples of what they should be and what they shouldn’t.  Once I do that, it will be easier to compare them to games, and see how they are different.

Feel free to comment and continue the discussion on what you think games are.  Disagree with me or agree, but at least say why.  And come back regularly to see my new blog posts.