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.