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Four Ways to Use Symbols to Add Emotional Depth to Games
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Four Ways to Use Symbols to Add Emotional Depth to Games

July 24, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Max Payne. Elite Force. Theif. Ico. Deux Ex. Oddworld. Medal of Honor. Baldur's Gate. The more recent Final Fantasy games. More and more developers are pushing the game design envelope, forging new entertainment experiences and art forms that draw on the roots of traditional gaming, but also partake of more sophisticated storytelling and characterization.

As the production values in games continue to soar, the trend toward equivalent advancement in storytelling is inevitable. For game designers involved in creating each successive advancement, these are exciting times.

Remember in Braveheart when Mel Gibson charged into battle holding a handkerchief his wife gave him before she was murdered? That handkerchief is a symbol. This article will explore four different ways to use symbols to evoke emotional response from an audience.

But first, let’s look at some of the fundamental issues relating to the role of emotion in games.

Why Put Emotion into Game Stories?

This is an important discussion, and probably one that deserves its own article. But, in a nutshell, other than the inherent joys of creating a rich work of art, the reasons also boil down to potential profits.

First of all, many more people watch film and television than play games. Most will never be lured into playing games until games begin to offer the emotional range and depth of the entertainment that they’re used to enjoying. Also, a more involving game experience means better word of mouth and more buzz. The press likes to write about these kinds of games, which results in more sales. Seeking out better profits also means staying ahead of the competition. Certain game developers are working hard to advance emotion in gaming. Those creating games with stories and characters without investing in putting emotional depth into their games will find themselves further and further behind, and their games will be eclipsed.

And, the better game visuals get and the more games look like films, the more people will want to compare them to films. Thus, weak writing and shallow emotional experiences in games featuring stories and characters will increasingly stand out negatively in consumers’ minds.

Many of the challenges that designers face in creating emotionally rich game experiences have already been addressed in other media. Traditional screenwriters, deprived of the game designer’s ability to actually insert an audience into a film, have figured out perhaps thousands of ways to induce emotional involvement.

Game designers will want to test the applicability of these techniques to their new games and modify them so they’ll work within an interactive experience.

A big part of successful communication between a writer and his or her audience is writing outside of the audience’s conscious awareness. No one expects the game player to pick out every sound used in a game’s sound design, nor every instrument utilized in a piece of music, nor every tiny shadow. So too, an extraordinary amount of what a writer does is designed to affect a game player emotionally but not be consciously noticed. This article will focus on the use of symbols, which are almost always employed in a way so that they’re just on the edge, or preferably just outside, of a game player’s conscious awareness. A workable rule of thumb is that no more than 25 percent of the players who come upon a symbol should be consciously aware that it actually is a symbol.

The five arenas of “deepening.”

I use the phrase “deepening techniques” to describe all those writing techniques that impart a sense of depth to a piece of dialogue, a character, a relationship between two or more characters, a scene, or a plot. Other words that mean something similar to deepening include poignancy, soulfulness, layers, and emotional or psy-chological complexity. When people talk about these things, they’re talking about what I call emotional deepening. Symbols are always a deepening tool.

One game designer who has taken some of my story and writing workshops pointed out that to focus on more subtle or sophisticated techniques such as the use of symbols is putting the cart before the horse. Many game designers might benefit from learning more basic techniques for creating rich, complex, and compelling characters and natural dialogue. This is true. But one nice thing about symbols is that, with very little effort, you can easily and precisely enhance the depth of your scenes and plots.

When you create a symbol, you’re not trying to create an intellectual puzzle in which the player tries to figure out what the symbol means. Such an intellectual exercise would work directly against the goal of increasing emotional immersion. Instead, symbols, when employed artfully, should evoke emotions — even though, when you do your work well, most players won’t consciously notice the symbols that you use. It’s not necessary for a game player to notice a symbol in order to be emotionally affected by it.

It’s certainly O.K. that a small percent-age of players who consciously notice your symbol might stop and think about the symbol’s meaning or meanings. But it’s only acceptable if, at the same time, the symbol generates in those players an emotional experience as well. Following the guidelines in this article will help ensure that this is what the player actually experiences.

Another advantage to using symbols in game design is that games often offer an opportunity that films do not. In film, symbols, when used artfully, enhance emotional depth. As we’ll see, when used in games, symbols can not only perform this function, but can also be used or given a function in gameplay as well.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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