Closing the first day of this year's Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival, Edge Magazine editor Margaret Robertson lectured on 'Games That Make You Cry' and just why they might, in a wide-ranging lecture at the annual Scottish cultural event.
The myth that Robertson set out to quash in the session that she said was likely to be embarrassing for her and possibly the rest of us, was that video games are an inferior form of art. The basis of this claim, she said, comes in many forms. Games are charged with not being capable of handling sophisticated emotions, or they are not able to appeal to women, or the mass market. Quintessentially, games are reckoned to be things that can't make you cry.
Observing that the same emotional high watermark is seldom leveled at painting, sculpture or classical music Robertson said: "It makes me
bristle as I know it's not true," proudly announcing: "Hi, my name is Margaret and I cry at video games."
The Experience Of Narrative In Final Fantasy
Robertson began to describe the different ways in which video games have us sniffling and sobbing with, of course, Final Fantasy.
The popular theory about why Final Fantasy is emotionally engaging, Robertson explained, is that it's because of the story, but she added: "No one can ever remember what the story was". What people do remember are individual characters and the impact their stories have on us as players. An example of this is of the character of Vivi, who experiences an emotional rollercoaster near the end of the game.
With Vivi, "...you always had the sense that something tragic was about to happen" Robertson said, but it is important to understand the events in the context of played experience. When we are hit with the revelations about the character the player has probably been with the game for 20 hours or so, usually spread over weeks. In this case, Robertson said "it's not emotional sophistication, it's attrition".
What Final Fantasy does is construct situations that conform to narrative expectations in a similar way to Hollywood movies. Referencing the structure of films like Armageddon, Robertson added: "One thing that is often overlooked is that making someone cry can be a mechanical process".
Sharing Emotions In Ouendan
Although it might not seem like it, the Japanese DS rhythm game Ouendan uses a similar technique. The game looks like it breaks all the rules of emotional engagement in games. The player meets a set of characters, each with their individual story of misfortune. But they do not get to play the characters. Nor does the player get to be a member of the Ouendan cheerleading squad, whose role it is to fortify the characters' spirits. No, players simply get to drum for the team.
Yet Roberson said she found the game highly emotionally engaging, to the point of avoiding certain game situations where she knew she may fail the task and thus somehow fail the characters. What Ouendan achieves is to allow the player to engage in the emotional lives of the characters even though one seems to have a very tenuous impact on their fate.
Relationship Choices In Galleon
In Galleon, Robertson explained that there is a critical point where the player is forced to make a split second decision about which character to save from a fatal rock fall. The act has to be instant and instinctual, but as the player finds out at the end of the game, the consequences impact the characters for the whole of their imagined lives, leaving a situation of potential lost love and uncertain emotional ties.
This game tugs at our emotions because of the unique combination in games of our feelings for the characters and our sense of agency. While the agency aspects often talked about in respect of games Robertson noted that when talking about games we tend to "...sell short the relationship between gamers and the characters they love."
Responsibility In Zelda: Majora's Mask
Next, Robertson talked about how a single screen shot released a year before a game's release made her cry. The shot was of the character Link from the Zelda series. Again, context is all - in the previous game in the Zelda series the character triumphed but was then looped back in time to when they were 6 and knew nothing of the hero that they once were / might be. Robertson explained how this ending left the player with "two great hungers": to play more, and to help the character find their place in the world.
Then, a year later the screen shot was released - an image of the character dejected and alone, staring at themselves in a pool of water. Instantly, players of the series felt their sense of responsibility to the character and not only that the character has been in this state in the year since the last game ended but would probably be for the year until the next would be released. "Miyamoto played his card in the open when he called the character Link", Robertson observed.
Loss Of Shared Time In Phantasy Star Online
Robertson said that she had played the multiplayer PSO for some years, then had left it and moved on to other games. On hearing that the virtual world was to be shut down for good, she re-visited the world. Over time, her character had accrued power so was in no danger when re-entering the world, but the sight of desolation, empty spaces, the lack of camaraderie were palpable. Added to this was the knowledge that someone would flick a switch and the world not be there at all, just adding to the sorrow.
Roberson noted that this was an unusual feeling, as there was the mixture of a loss of real experience with the sense of losing something that in a sense was never really there at all - a quite unique video game experience.
Conclusion - You Can't Put Emotions Into Games
Closing the session, Robertson referenced the number of conference slots that are currently dedicated to how to put emotion into games. Games, she noted, must have an emotional impact else why have people been playing with them all these year. "You can't put emotion into games", she said: "Games are just code, they just sit there - the emotion is in the player". What we should be focusing on, Robertson suggests, is players and how our emotions work.
[Gamasutra has multiple staff at both the Edinburgh and Leipzig game development events this week, and will cover the most important sessions from both in detail.]