"How can I create a deeper emotional impact with my game?"
This question has always been at the core of how I design my games. (Or at least strive to) Often game designers do not explicity set this as a goal for themselves, and instead focus solely on the craft or an entirely different result like financial gain, fame, etc. If we view games as an important medium to connect and communicate with others, emotional impact must be a primary and explicit goal.
But how can games evoke emotions from the player?
The answer our industry has always come up with to this question has been the same as the movie industry. Through story. And that isn't an entirely unwarranted answer either. Throughout human history, stories have served as a means of relaying important information whether it be imperative to our survival or our culture. Because of this we humans have developed an incredible sense of empathy within our minds when we hear a story. We can place ourselves into the character's situations and create a sort of mind-simulation so that we feel the same emotions that the story's context/meaning provide to the character. And with so many good stories to point to in gaming (The Last of Us, The Walking Dead), it's clear that stories can succeed at bringing emotion to games.
But how can GAMES be different/better at this?
Since games is an entirely different medium shouldn't we seek other ways to create this effect? If so, what is the most effective means to do so? Already, we know that games have the unique characteristic of being "interactive". This is achieved by giving the player direct control over certain aspects of the game. Thus the player is not simply watching the mind-simulation occur within his brain. He/she is helping to create it.
You can think of games as a sort of Holodeck (for the Trekkies out there), or a more direct portal to the mind-simulation going inside a player's mind. In order for a player to feel deeper and more realistic emotions, the player has to feel that their decisions within this world matters, and this meaning can only be achieved by creating the cause/effect system that we call game mechanics.
Movies have the unique ability of using cameras to directly capture images from our reality. Thus, they have a visual advantage of better creating this simulation. But Games have the unique ability of creating the metaphysical reality by which value, meaning, and purpose can be given. And I would argue this is way more impactful than simply simulating what one's eyes see.
Games give meaning.
One of the main purposes of philosophy, religion, and metaphysics is to explore who we are, by defining what reality is, and how we relate to it. Without this understanding, there can be no meaning or purpose to our lives.
Game mechanics essentially create this metaphysical underpinning. It tells the player, what they can and cannot do. The limits of the reality they are exploring, and what truly matters in this reality. Without knowing what is valuable, one cannot experience a feeling of loss. Without experiencing failure and struggle within a game system, one cannot get a feeling of true achievement or pride.
Many games have already demonstrated this emotional impact through game mechanics. In Shadow of the Colossus, your horse is the only means by which you can travel to your destinations. And is essentially the only other living entity that is with you the entire game. The world around you is completely empty, except for the giants that you seek to destroy. Thus, you gain an incredible amount of affinity for this horse and experience stronger emotions regarding it. A similar technique was used in the indie game, "Passage" where you literally experience the life and loss of a character only through a linear walk. Or in the game, Journey, where the only social interaction you have is one button with another stranger playing the game with you.
All of these games create an intrinsic value through their game mechanics that can be then earned or taken away. It is a value that the player personally gains through their direct experience, and so when they feel an emotion related to it, it is no longer a simulated emotion. It is a real one.
That being said, stories and text can still provide additional context and deepen the emotional experience for the player. But it can never give the player the "values" that are essential to emotion. Simply telling the player that a character or object is valuable does not make it valuable to the player. (Arguably this is why the horse in Shadow of the Colossus is more valuable to the player than the actual girl you're trying to save in the story)
So if you are hoping to make players truly care about something in your game, or feel an emotion, the most effective means is to make it apart of your game mechanics. Don't just slap a story onto it. By creating intrinsic value, you give the decisions in your game meaning/purpose. And this is what ultimately matters in any reality.
Author: David Ngo
David is an indie game designer currently working on a wizard academy simulation game called Prestige, with his friend Don. They are currently seeking beta-testers.