Games and Emotion
I’d like to start this post by apologizing to my legions of adoring (if mysteriously quiet) fans. Between work and enjoying an unbelievably lazy holiday, I haven’t had any time to keep updating. I’ll be posting at least once a week for the foreseeable future, though.
Last week in class, we looked at “emotions in games”. It’s broad, and a bit hard to define, but the focus was more specifically on how emotion can influence mechanics. This post is focusing less on that specific idea – instead, I plan to ramble incoherently about games and emotions. So, let’s get started!
Again, this is a bit of a rambling and vague idea, but in this section I’ll talk a bit about games that triggered some kind of meaningful emotional reaction when I played them. These were mostly very narrative driven games, with the story itself causing an emotional reaction, though there are exceptions. First up,
To The Moon! If you haven’t played this game, you’re likely some kind of filthy animal which has somehow gained the ability to manipulate a computer and accessed my blog, because no human being could be so awful.
Looking at it critically, To The Moon actually has some serious problems. The entire story is delivered in a very dialogue-heavy way, and there really isn’t much “game” to it. There’s a basic puzzle system, but that (thankfully) gets scrapped halfway through the game, and you spend the rest of your time walking around looking at random bullshit.
Fortunately, the story itself more than makes up for these shortcomings. It’s hard to describe the story without spoiling anything, but essentially it follows two characters who have the ability to enter dreams and manipulate the memories of dying people, in order to “fulfill their wish”. In this case, an old man is rapidly dying in his bed, and the player is tasked with fulfilling his wish of “going to the Moon”. There’s a lot more to this (seriously awesome) story as you play, and I really can’t recommend it enough even with the flaws. Stop reading this, go buy the game, then come back once you’ve finished it. I’ll wait.
See? Wasn’t that awesome? Next up;
Metal Gear Solid! This is my absolute all-time favourite series as well as possibly the best of all time, and if you hold a different opinion, you’re wrong. Despite being a huge fan, it isn’t actually something I’d associate with being extremely emotional. It has a fantastic (if ludicrously convoluted) story with some emotional scenes, but on the whole I don’t consider it especially evocative of anything, except brain-bending pseudo-philosophy.
So, this entry’s probably just here because the series has been such a big part of my life. Ever since playing MGS1 (I didn’t play the original MG games until years later), I was in love with the series. Every game got better and better, excluding when Konami crapped out MGS4, but that’s neither here nor there.
The series tells a unique and epic story, set in a vaguely sci-fi universe, and the guy pictured above cries in literally every game he’s in, so that’s neat. This one was especially emotional for me personally because I spend a socially unacceptable amount of time talking about, thinking about and playing the series, so every new entry is a huge deal for me. Thirdly, we have;
Heavy Rain. Critics jumped on Heavy Rain immediately, saying it ‘barely qualified as a game’. They’re not exactly wrong, but I think it’s closer to a game than any other kind of media we have. It’s almost a modern forerunner of the new Telltale games, where there isn’t a whole lot of gameplay, but there is a whole lot of horrible decision making.
The game follows the story of four characters who are involved in the kidnapping of a child in some way. There’s Ethan, who is the child’s father that’ll stop at nothing to rescue his son. Then there’re the other three, who’s names I don’t remember, but they are: a private investigator, a journalist and a CIA (or FBI, or NSA, or BBQ, or something) agent. All four characters are equally invested in the story and playing as all of them from beginning to end was amazing.
What was interesting about the game was that most characters could die permanently if you made a mistake. If you decided you’d rather not get out of the sinking car, there wasn’t any coming back from that. Similarly, getting crushed to death didn’t prompt a reload screen – the game kept going without that character.
This made the game ridiculously intense, and increased emotional investment roughly ten billion times. Finally, we have:
Spec Ops: The Line, otherwise known as “PTSD Simulator” and “Oh God Why”. This is a hard one to explain – I can’t talk about why the game is so god damn amazing without ruining it for those of you who haven’t played it, and those of you who have played it are huddled in a corner crying. At first it comes across as a typical shooter which is neither great nor awful. Even the title makes you think it’s a dead average military shooter: Spec Ops: The Line? Seriously? It could be called “Medal of Warfare Duty: Kill the Brown People” and it’d be less generic.
However, this is all very intentional. The game has you on a leash from the get go, and everyone who thinks games have potentially incredible stories owes it to themselves to play this game, straight after you’ve actually finished To The Moon.
Unfortunately, I feel that Spec Ops: The Line is the only game listed above that uses interactivity to the fullest as a story telling tool. Metal Gear gets close (if you’re not an MGS player, check out Psycho Mantis online), but the story could be told through a movie or novel. The huge exception is MGS2, which I could sit here writing about until my hands fell off, then keep writing with my forehead until I died of overexertion. Still, I feel that’s only two games in the world that effectively use interactivity as a story telling tool. To The Moon is quite possibly my favourite story in a game, but there’s nothing stopping it being told through a book or film. Similarly, most of Metal Gear and certainly Heavy Rain can be told in any other medium.
It’s a shame, because interactivity, decision making and control are all massive factors in effective and emotional story telling. I won’t go too much into this, because I’d like to save my pretentious wank for another entry.
The Last of Us. I know, I know – it’s a zombie game. But here’s one with a genuinely interesting story, great and well-realised characters, and Ellie is really just Ellen Page, so let’s stop pretending she’s not. The game is great throughout, but what really got me was the ending.
Also, the fact that Joel clearly isn’t a hero, and never pretends to be. See his actions from anybody else’s point of view, and he’s just some other bearded asshole.
Red Dead Redemption. Despite the fact that I spent almost all of my time with this game tying women to train tracks and shooting dogs, it had a really strong story. The entire thing revolves around the protagonist John Marston, and how he spent his time
writing Tomorrow when the War Began redeeming himself for his seriously awful past. Again, it’s the ending that really hits home. That and the side quest with a ghost, which was pretty cool.
Shadow of the Colossus. This really deserves to be in my main list of games, but I’ve come too far to scroll back up and edit anything now. SotC follow the story of a man trying to rescue a woman he loves, and contains about four lines of dialogue, 16 boss fights and nothing else. It sounds like Kratos’ wet dream, but it has a really fantastic story hidden away in my atrocious synopsis. If you haven’t played this (or Ico), you’re the reason that The Last Guardian isn’t out yet. Also I hate you.
There’re many, many more – I could do a whole post on Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Spec Ops: The Line, and I just may. Until then, I’d love to start some discussion – if you have anything to say, whether violent disagreement or violent agreement, feel free to comment on this post. Extra special shout out to SotC, for having a story that wasn’t blatantly vomited into your face, but was still fantastic and involved.