April 21, 2006


by Andrew Stern · , 2:10 pm

While I appreciate the “rah-rah, boo-hoo, emotion in games!” cheerleading in this week’s The Escapist — I too am all for creating more affective interactive experiences — let’s get real about the status quo of gaming’s expressiveness, please?

There are many games that tell stories as you play along. Many of these stories have characters with dramatic or melodramatic character arcs, most often fantasy-based. A willing player can let themselves be immersed in these pretty much linear stories, allowing their imaginations to emphathize with the characters, to point they can cry if they wish. That’s perfectly fine — you’ll find no criticism here for anyone who willingly and actively immerses themselves in a linear story. The fact that you have to interact a bit, to essentially turn to the next page of this mostly linear story, can, for those willing, enhance the feeling of immersion and therefore heighten the emotions felt. The occasional, essentially multiple-choice, even binary-choice morality questions posed to you as you “turn the pages” can feel meaningful if you want to believe in them. I should point out, the primary reason such players are feeling emotional is due to the devices of good-ol’-fashioned storytelling (call it “GOFST”, a la GOFAI), with emphasis on telling — not because of interactivity.

To date, actual interactive experiences where you are having a true, significant effect on the events in virtual world (aka agency), have successfully made us feel a variety of emotions: visceral thrills like fear, danger, the rush of speed, the awe of spectacle; the pleasure and agony of solving puzzles; power fantasies (no doubt about it, blowing shit up is fun); feelings of accomplishment or ownership after achieving a goal that required a lot of work, or creating some customized content; feelings of comradery with fellow human players; and, my most familiar elicited emotion from games, intense frustration.

That’s not a short list. However, a virtual reality check I’d like to make is: only a minority of players are emotionally moved by today’s games, or yesterday’s, beyond the feelings in the above list. To believe or hope otherwise suggests to me a lack of a wider critical eye of what human expression via art-making has been proven to be capable of in other media — feelings and ideas elicited in ways particular or unique to each medium, and presumably particular/unique ways possible in this new interactive digital medium.

I’m not trying to be elitist about today’s games, I’m just trying to not be overly escapist about them either. Roger Ebert is right (1 2 3 4), at least about the status quo of games.

Games have not yet given us, in ways distinct from GOFST — e.g. using agency as its primary emotion-eliciting device — experiences that elicit emotions such as: true comradery with virtual characters, strong feelings of friendship, caring, family, love, lust; feelings of a true moral dilemma where your actions really mean something to you personally, and will be a significant reflection of your own character and morality; subsequent feelings of regret or guilt, or pride or goodwill, as a result of how you handled the dilemma. I could list more, but you know what I mean.

We’ve seen glimmers of some of these emotions, such as feelings of caring for virtual pets and pet-like characters such as the Sims — propelling the studios that created these games into the top 5 of 100 most commercially successful — but strong versions of these feelings are definitely still in the minority of players. Virtual characters are still too shallow, and are still too incapable listen to us deeply, for us to feel much for them or be moved by them, in fact we tend to abuse them (1 2 3).

And that’s the heart of why almost no one cries when playing games: games barely allow us to express ourselves to them yet, so how or why could we feel affection, friendship, regret or loss in return?

Once we’ve found “the new GOFST” as it were, then the population at large will break out the tissues and play misty.

8 Responses to “The New GOFST”

  1. John Walker Says:

    “And that’s the heart of why almost no one cries when playing games: games barely allow us to express ourselves to them yet, so how or why could we feel affection, friendship, regret or loss in return?”

    I add this reply further to the response on the Escapist site. I find this sentence bewildering. Are you similarly arguing that “almost no one” cries when watching films or reading books, which allow absolutely no means to express ourselves whatsoever? How can we feel affection, friendship, regret or loss in return to these media?

    I think it’s fairly evident that films and books make people cry in their millions. There are very simple reasons why few people cry while playing games: few games contain content that would make people cry, and admitting crying during a game is still unacceptable where blubbing at the cinema is entirely accepted.

    You argue games that reduce people to teary wrecks simply use the methods of storytelling to achieve this. I argue games that reduce people to teary wrecks work extremely hard to use the methods of storytelling to achieve this. It seems odd to then dismiss the various means by which passive storytelling achieves an emotional response.

  2. Sean Barrett Says:

    actual interactive experiences where you are having a true, significant effect on the events in virtual world (aka agency)

    You really should play Ico (or read up on it) if you haven’t (or mention it if you have!). Note that it involves agency only in a low-level sense (in the sense of Freedom, Agency, Story, choose 2): the story is still linear so there’s no large-scale freedom, but your interaction with Yorda on the standard action-game-playing small scale, where you have freedom + agency and no story, is where a lot of the emotional attachment arises.

    Of course, this is pretty much a singular exception–it was quite noteworthy and inspiring, yet nobody else has followed up (including Ico’s authors, who moved the boy-girl relationship in Shadow of the Collosus entirely out of the gameplay).

  3. andrew Says:

    Hi John, thanks for your comment (and further comments and examples at The Escapist). I totally agree that storytelling can make people feel strong emotion, and that to the extent there is good storytelling in a game, it can make you feel strong emotion, for the same reasons. But that’s not new or interesting, you see; I don’t play games to be told a story, that’s not the unique strength of interactive media; I play to affect and mold the experience, to express myself, to have control, agency. (My previous rebuttal to an Escapist article contains links to what I do think are interactive media’s strengths, I won’t further repeat them here.)

    In the sentence you quoted, the emphasis should be on when playing games — which is intended to be in stark contrast to being told a story for which minimial interactivity (e.g., solve a puzzle) is required to unlock the next page of the story.

    As I attempted to describe in my post above, what we should be concentrating on in these discussions are the actual interactions the player has — the things the player says and does — to be the primary device eliciting emotion, accomplished by making those interactions truly affect the characters in the story — requiring a truly non-linear plot, more than multiple choice dialog menus dictating my expression, etc. etc.

    You make an interesting point that another reason few people cry when playing games is a perceived stigma in taking games seriously, that in a sense, we’re not used to crying over games.

    However, sadly I think the stigma as this point in time is a valid one, because besides the good-ol’-fashioned storytelling (GOFST) techniques that have been making people cry for millenia (nothing new there…), there’s little to nothing inherent to games worth crying about yet.

    If your point is simply that we shouldn’t be afraid to cry at the GOFST in games, well, okay. But that’s a critical distinction that needs to be made.

    [Update: King Lud IC recently posted an informative writeup of Planescape: Torment, which John refers to in his further comments at The Escapist.]

  4. andrew Says:

    Hi Sean — yes, I’d agree that Ico, like virtual pets, is a rare example of a game that is on the path towards creating characters that you can connect with through your interactions and express to, and therefore care about. But like you say, the degree of agency is still on the minimal side.

    Let’s give players more than a controller, mouse or stylus pen…! Language, anyone?

    Does anyone think a controller, mouse or stylus pen could ever be enough?

    The PC and its keyboard have a bright future, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! (Speech recognition that works in gaming, when the player is yelling, mumbling, etc. is still a ways off…)

  5. josh g. Says:

    Actually, I’ve been wondering if speech recognition might not make the problem easier, rather than harder, at some point. Once the system has a fairly high signal-to-noise ratio in terms of word recognition, it could provide additional information that the keyboard can’t. There are already projects out there that analyze human speech on the fly to successfully detect emotional states in the speaker. That kind of information could add vital context to interpreting the language the player uses, and how a character should respond. (Was it sarcasm? Is the player showing signs of apathy? Or is the player highly emotionally involved in what they’re talking about?)

  6. andrew Says:

    I agree that speech recognition, once it works as well you describe, will definitely be superior to typing as an interface for language in games. Realistically though, based on the results of the latest industry and academic R&D currently out there, this is still a decade or more away.

  7. Jeremy Douglass Says:

    Certain, I’m all in favor of more exploration of language interfaces, even if that does require a huge paradigm shift for designers in the games industry.

    Coincidentally, a post popped up on my news watch today with a typical testimonial to crying due to a game. It seems pretty clear this was brought on by cinematics – in fact, the ability of the reviewer to tell someone else what the ending *will* be like indicates that the part of the experience they reacted to was linear and predetermined. It does seem that some types of interactions might tend to heighten the attachment to characters (and thus the stake in cutscenes), while others might reduce attachment – how strongly should we distinguish the examination of interactions that build investment from interactions that deliver emotional dynamics themselves?

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