November 28, 2004

A Waste of Good Suffering

by Nick Montfort · , 11:23 pm

I didn’t mention it in my review of the just-released Gamers, but the concluding piece in there, by Nic Kelman (a novelist and graduate of the Brown MFA program) contains a “Video Game Arts Manifesto.” The to-do list begins by declaring that video games must “become more than simply entertainment” and ends with a challenge to game developers: “Make someone cry.”

Funny thing is, squeezing out the tears has been an explicit goal for game designers for more than 20 years.

A magazine ad that ran in 1983 posed the same challenge in its headline: “Can a computer make you cry?” This was the ad that announced the launch of Electronic Arts. Neil Young, who saw the ad then and who is now vice president and executive in charge of production at Electronic Arts, has often referred to this challenge, when working on Majestic in 2001, for instance, and more recently. You might have read (or participated in) some online discussion about tear-jerker computer games.

It’s not just video game makers who are worried about being affective. At the Reading at Risk? panel I recently participated in, Lisa Gitelman complained that while students could be made to cry by means of movies, almost none would admit that a book had moved them to tears. Perhaps science-fiction readers are more open about their emotions: a 1996 thread “Books that made you cry” on rec.arts.sf.written garnered 328 replies.

Well, it’s time to cross off the waterworks and move on to the next goal. Halo made Time Magazine cry. Photopia juices us like a lemon, just as The Great Gatsby did. Final Fantasy IV makes us cry, as many other installments in that series do:

… the theme during the cut when Cecil and Kane first leave the castle, as in the same theme when the players first cross the bridge in the first Final Fantasy. It sounded kind of dweeby pumped out by an NES, but when the theme starts playing with Super Power, it’s epic beyond anything before in the history of video gaming music. And when it starts playing again just before the final boss battle, when all your old allies resurrect you, well, that was the first time a video game made me cry, and you never forget your first time.

One reviewer even wrote of Onimusha 2, “the beginning FMV sequence made me cry it was so beautiful.” Look, ma, no gameplay – just the FMV makes ’em cry.

So, I guess it’s nice that computer gaming has met this ancient challenge. At least, I’m glad we can move on to another one. I must admit that personally, I’m not really interested in computer games that make people cry. I’d rather have some that make people overthrow the government.

9 Responses to “A Waste of Good Suffering”

  1. andrew Says:

    I too get tired sometimes of rehashing those perennial arguments about what computer games should be able do, although I will probably rehash them again many times over in the future.

    To your point about crying, and the concepts you linked to: similarly, I’m waiting for a computer game that I can cry to, and that will listen.

  2. mark Says:

    An odd thing about the computer games that make people cry is that it doesn’t seem to really be anything about games per se. It’s an affective story that is simply told through the medium of a game, often in a not particularly interactive way (beyond “you have to play to game to unfold the linear story”). The FMV example probably illustrates this most obviously, since that’s just “a film that makes people cry”, except that the short film is bundled with a game.

    One could argue that people become more attached to characters in games they play, especially if they identify as “being” them, although people do seem to also become attached to film and literature characters, so I’m not sure how that compares…

    For my part, I find the “creepy” aspect of some games to be more game-specific: Immersive worlds like Quake (to take an old example) somehow seem to be qualitatively different than watching a suspense film.

  3. William Wend Says:

    Final Fantasy 4 is my favorite video game. I get so amped up when I hear the original FF music in it. I can’t remember if it ever made my cry but I know that the death of a certain spoiler in FF7 gave me the sniffles the first time through the game.

  4. Jane McG Says:

    In response to Mark’s comment about affective story being the successful emotional cue, rather than anything game-specific, I think that’s quite true in many cases. However I’m reminded of the November 2004 Time magazine article about Halo 2 and GTA San Andreas, in which the writer confesses to having cried at the end of a particularly difficult level in the first Halo. The tears he describes were the kind of tears you might experience in front of a grand spectacle of overwhelming beauty and aesthetic complexity (An experience I have often associated with epic theatrical productions or festivals… I was inexplicably moved to tears during the opening number of the Lion King back on Broadway in 1998, and my fiance has often recounted being moved to tears by the rain falling on revelers at Carnival in Brazil.) The Time writer describes that moment at the end of that level of Halo as reaching “the sublime”, and I think the sublime is a great term for thinking about the experience of beauty in a game. The immersion into the aesthetic structure that ludic interactivity affords is really a strikingly effective way to experience the sublime.

  5. Austin Says:

    I think the focus on tears as the bar for video games tells us more about the outsider perception of video games than anything else.

    Why fetishize that particular brand of aesthetic response as the mark of a mature artistic medium? It feels like something carried over from commercial novels and films, an attempt to force them in to the mold of the dominant media of the 19th-20th century. Aristotle didn’t insist on tears. No one cries at Pope’s Rape of the Lock, or Middlemarch, or Raymond Carver. Brecht hated tears. &c. Tears are a particular thing; it smacks of the 18th century cult of sensibility. The Spielberg quote is suspect, because the very worst part of Spielberg’s films are when he tries to make you cry. Not everything has to be Little Dorrit.

    It’s an imposition of their aesthetic standards on a medium that has yet to find its own aesthetic vocabulary. Maybe computer games aren’t good at tears, and maybe they don’t have to be, in order to be art.

    I like the sublime, too. The sublime came back in the 18th century (I’m thinking of Burke here) because of that felt need for some other term of powerful aesthetic response, apart from the classical idea of the beautiful, and I think that’s a lesson.

  6. Josh Says:

    On physical affect and video games. Moving away from the subject of tears as telos, I remember one striking evening many years ago playing the Sega Genesis version of X-men. I believe it was level 5 where MoJo took over the danger room and cranked the danger way up. Well after a very hard fought level that followed the usual side-scroller to boss format mojo is all fucked up and then Professor X comes on and says, more or less, “Quickly! You must reset the danger room now! Hit the reset button!” And then a 15 second countdown ensued and the screen went red. Well, perhaps the solution seems obvious – but I probably searched the room for a hidden switch 3 or 4 times before in frustration the last time I hit the reset button on the genesis right before time ran out convinced that I had been defeated.

    Instead, the game scrolled through a simulated “resetting” of the danger room and I was able to go get my ass kicked by magneto in the last level. I think that is my only neverending story moment in a video game – though I do remember reading articles about an adventure game that was supposed to start faxing you at work and calling your wife and telling her about your mistress.

  7. ErikC Says:

    what about a game that made you howl?
    I really enjoyed this idea–and look at the people getting into it on the video!
    Wild divine uses bio sensors to help you navigate through a game, when you calm down. I imagine the same technology could help you navigate through a game but only when you are really really frustrated.
    IF you really wanted to cry maybe there could be moisture-tear duct detectors. It would be probably easier to record brain activity: etc
    I had a more recent and eye opening article on this,interface control via nerves /brain states etc (scientists going all ‘Clockwork Orange’). Can add it if you like (and I find it again!)

  8. ErikC Says:

    the article was at and entitled Working the Conscious Canvas by George Dvorsky.
    “…Researchers working on VNS also unexpectedly discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve in this way stimulated brain regions believed to control emotions. Essentially, VNS devices could be used as implanted emotion management “pacemakers.” So, unsurprisingly, VNS is now being considered for treating depression.”

  9. michael Says:

    Bowen Research has an article describing a survey of 535 gamers that explored the importance of emotional experience in games. While I’m not going to vouch for the scientific validity of the survey, it did uncover some interesting triends:

    • 1/3 of the players report that games deliver strong emotional experiences.
    • RPGs are the runaway winners for generating emotion, with MMOs about halfway down the list of genres: “Interaction with computer characters seems richer (at this stage of development) than interacting with people in MMOs.”
    • Among RPGs, the Final Fantasy series is the king emotion.
    • Even among gamers, games are not the artform that speaks to them the most emotionally. The ranked list is: movies, music, books, video/PC games, paintings/artwork, cars. For heavy gamers, movies make the top of the list, for lighter and younger gamers, music makes the top of the list.
    • 60% of the gamers surveyed believe that games will exceed or equal the capacity of the other media for generating emotion.

    Thanks to Michael Nitsche for bringing this article to my attention.

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