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34 Ways to Put Emotions Into Games

March 8, 2003

At "34 Ways to Put Emotions Into Games," one of the closing sessions of GDC 2003, screenwriter and producer David Freeman discussed the key role that emotion plays in any entertainment experience, interactive or otherwise. At the heart of his talk was an explanation of the thirty-four-pronged classification scheme that he uses to identify the various techniques for endowing a game with emotion - what he terms "Emotioneering."

Freeman, who comes to the game industry with a film and television background, began by addressing why we would want to put emotions into games in the first place. Once upon a time, he says, graphics alone were enough to make a great game, but players are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with experiences that lack in emotional breadth and depth. According to Freeman, this is why games (in spite of their undeniable successes) have yet to achieve the same widespread market penetration as movies or television - because the emotional complexity of gaming is not up to the standard set by more conventional entertainment media.

Games can be emotionally complex, though; it's almost a tradition of emotionally simplicity that has held gaming back from upping the emotionally stakes and possible reaching an even wider audience. He emphasized several times during his talk that he sees the potential for very great things coming out of the gaming industry, and that his relatively critical take on the emotional development of current games is only an indication of what he feels the industry is capable of achieving.

The key, says Freeman, is to recognize that emotional power is not simply a matter of writing good dialogue, but comes from integrating emotional content throughout the structure of a game. (Or a movie - he made an extensive example of The Two Towers, demonstrating numerous ways that the both the story and the structure of Middle Earth are heavily imbued with emotion.)

Emotioneering involves what he phrased "the artful application of exact techniques," and said that being aware of these techniques early in the development process would enable writers, producers, and game designers alike to inveigh their games with the emotional complexity that is currently missing in the industry. This, he said, will be what creates the truly powerful interactive experiences of the coming years.

The 34 Techniques

Freeman says he has compiled over a thousand individual techniques for Emotioneering, but has sorted these into roughly thirty-four general categories. He fleshed many of these out with detailed examples, and provided an outline of the rest:

Techniques Relating to Non-Player Characters

1. NPC Interesting Techniques. These are techniques which make (major) NPCs dimensional and fresh, and thus interesting. The key here is to give each major NPC between three and five distinguishing inner traits which define the ways in which they see, speak, think, or act.

2. NPC Deepening Techniques. These are techniques that give major NPCs emotional depth and complexity. Many of Freeman's techniques are divided along this Interesting/Deepening dichotomy - a split that Freeman basically equated to "breadth vs. depth." Breadth comes from having a diversity of traits; depth comes from the degree to which those traits are emotionally penetrating. Examples for this category included deep regret, hidden secrets, and inner wisdom.

3. Dialogue Interesting Techniques. Techniques which make single lines of dialogue by minor NPCs interesting. Freeman noted that most single-line characters currently use what he calls "robospeak" - dialogue conveying no noticeable traits. Even with only one line of dialogue, characters can and should convey a variety of inner traits.

4. Dialogue Deepening Techniques. Techniques which make single lines of dialogue by minor NPCs convey a sense that the NPC has emotional depth. Similar to technique #3, but dealing with depth rather than interestingness.

5. Group Interesting Techniques. Techniques which make groups - groups as small as a platoon or as large as a tribe, race, or culture - fascinating and intriguing to the player. Like characters, large groups should have a number of distinguish traits that make them recognizable. Klingons, for example, love battle, find importance in honor, exaggerate their war stories, are loyal to race and clan, and so on.

6. Group Interesting Techniques. Techniques which make groups embody a feeling of emotional depth. Examples might be cultural wisdom or general aesthetic appreciation.

7. NPC to NPC Chemistry Techniques. Techniques which, with very little reliance on dialogue, make it feel like two NPCs have "chemistry" - that is, that they belong together as friends or lovers. For instance, two characters might think the same way, get into little spats, or talk about each other fondly when the other isn't around.

8. NPC to NPC Relationship Deepening Techniques. These techniques make it feel like two NPCs have a rich and complex relationship. e.g., giving characters several layers of (possibly contradictory) feeling toward one another.

9. NPC Character Arc Techniques. Techniques which give an NPC a character arc. (Freeman defines a character arc as: "…the rocky path of growth undergone by a character, usually unwillingly, during which the character wrestles with and eventually overcomes some or all of a serious emotional fear, limitation, block, or wound." He pointed out that the key difference between the original Star Wars and The Phantom Menace is that in the original, every major character had an arc - whereas in Episode One, the only character with an arc was Jar Jar Binks.

10. NPC Rooting Interest Techniques. These are techniques which make us "root for," or identify with, a given character. Examples: NPCs that find themselves in danger, that perform acts of self-sacrifice, or that are members of the player's own group, team, or party.

Techniques Relating to the Player's Character

11. Player Toward NPC Chemistry Techniques. These make a player feel close to an NPC, either romantically or non-romantically. Might occur when an NPC admires or seems to naturally identify with the player's character.

12. NPC Toward Player Relationship Deepening Techniques. Techniques which make it feel as if major NPCs have an emotionally complex relationship with the player. As with NPC to NPC, multiple layers of feeling.

13. Player Toward NPC Relationship Deepening Techniques. Techniques which give the player emotionally complex relationships with major NPCs. (Example: You're jealous of your friend but you also admire him.)

14. Group Bonding Techniques. Ways to make a group feel bonded (and to make the player feel part of that group). Freeman's example was a platoon that shares a secret handshake, which you're not let in on until a little ways into the game.

Plot and Story Techniques

15. Emotionally Complex Moments and Situations. Ways to put the player in the middle of situations that are emotionally complex. (Example: you've created an outlawed robot killing machine, knowing you may have to fight your own creation later in the game.)

16. Plot Interesting Techniques. Ways of making game plots interesting, taking into account the many different kinds of story structures (linear, nonlinear, and multi-path) found in games. These are your common plot twists - revelations and surprise turns of events that alter a player's perception of the plot.

17. Plot Deepening Techniques. Ways to give game stories emotional depth and resonance. Freeman pointed to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which two major characters "switch roles" over the course of the film. Another common example is the death of a major character.

Techniques Unique to Interactive Entertainment

18. World Induction Techniques. These are techniques other than realism which cause you to become emotionally immersed in the world of the game. For instance, giving a player options in what they can "be, do, or have" in the game.

19. Role Induction Techniques. Techniques which make a player willing to identify with the character they're playing. These are incentives to play a certain character, such as being the best thief in the world (Thief: The Dark Project), having a license to break the rules (Grand Theft Auto), or being endowed with special powers.

20. First-Person Character Arc Techniques. Techniques which actually make the player go through an emotional transformation by the end of the game. For instance, structuring the game such that the player walks away feeling (a little) more responsible, more spiritual, or more relaxed.

21. First-Person Deepening Techniques. Techniques which actually give the player more emotional depth by the end of the game. Branching pathways and multiple viewpoints have this effect.

22. Revealing Complex Characters Through Their Fighting Style And Other Moves. Body movements can be used to add complexity to a character, even when the he or she doesn't speak a single word.

Other Techniques

23. Adding Emotional Depth to Your Game Through Symbols. Techniques for using symbols to enhance emotion in a game, while also making the symbol itself useful in gameplay. (See David Freeman's Gamasutra article "Four Ways to Use Symbols to Add Emotional Depth to Games." (

24. Self-Created Story Techniques. These are techniques which make a player feel like he or she is playing the game, and not being "played" by it. And yes, these can even be implemented even in story-based games.

25. Motivation techniques. Techniques to make the gamer want to keep going and make it through the game.

26. "Connective Tissue" Techniques. These create a feeling of connectivity across the various locales in a game, even if they are distant in terms of space and time.

27. "True-To-Life" Techniques. These are ways to add a sense of realism to the emotional actions and reactions of NPCs.

28. Cross-Demographic Techniques. Ways to make games hold appeal for both kids and adults. Pixar does a good job of this with their animated film.

29. Injecting Game Elements With Emotion. This involves defining which parts of the game are actually "the game," and finding ways to add emotion to those elements.

30. Tying Story to Gameplay and Mechanics. In some games, the story and the gameplay appear to be unrelated, but in his view, it's more powerful when they're linked. Freeman used the example of Final Fantasy X, which had both a great story and enjoyable gameplay, but didn't necessarily link the two.

Cinematics, Coolness, and General Fun

31. Game Engine and Pre-Rendered Cinematics. In-game and pre-rendered cinematics are already among the most potent aspects of many games; this set of techniques involves ways to make them more artful, and thus more emotionally powerful.

32. The Opening Cinematic. Freeman indicates that the opening cinematic in any game presents particularly powerful possibilities for sucking a player into the game, and should never be underestimated.

33. "Cool Stuff." Many of the most creative things that designers have come up with over the years don't really fit into any other category.

34. "Fun." Last, but not least - games must be fun. No amount of emotional depth will save a game that is boring.

Freeman emphasized that his 34 principles are not a set of rules, but a set of tools with which to add emotional complexity to games. He also recognized that parts of the list were loosely organized, and that any thorough analysis would find a great deal of crossover between categories.

He concluded by stating out that there is no cookie-cutter method for turning these ideas into a good game, and that they were only useful in conjunction with creativity and hard work. But, Freeman believes that the industry is already beginning to move in the right direction and that we will see games with a more sophistical level of emotional complexity in the years to come.

David Freeman's "34 Principles of Emotioneering" are the subject of his forthcoming book, Creating Emotion in Games. For more information, visit his website,

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