by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
Part six of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation under the title “Can Videogames Make You Cry?”.
A few weeks ago, Bowen Research published the results of a survey, on the role of emotion in videogames. Hugh Bowen polled 535 gamers on their own views and history, with the end goal to rough some kind of an objective analysis out of their subjective experiences, and thereby maybe to shed some light on what emotional effect videogames have had in the past. The paper is well, and humbly, written; its conclusions, though, are less than revelatory: the only genre that tends to elicit reasonably complex emotion is RPGs (presumably Japanese ones), while other genres all inspire at least some basic kind of motivational urge in the player – be it rage or fear or what have you. Meanwhile, the paper is full of comments about Aeris, and the profound affect of her death on people who had never played Phantasy Star II.
The problem, I suppose, is in the question being asked: “Can videogames make you cry?”. It’s a binary question about a complex issue, much like asking whether Americans are happy and then concluding “sometimes!” And indeed, Bowen’s answer seems to be “well, yes… probably. In theory.” A second issue is the way Bowen approached the issue as a matter of statistics – and then based his analysis on the subjective responses of a skewed sample. “Gamers”, as with any obsessives, have by nature a peculiar perspective of their medium – a medium which, furthermore, is not yet refined as an expressive platform.
The question should not be whether videogames are capable of eliciting complex emotion – as, given the complex analog weave of our brains, anything can result in an emotional response of any depth and sophistication. Rather, what Bowen might have asked is how innately bound any emotion is to the current fabric of videogames (that is, whether it has anything to do with what the medium is trying to accomplish), how much emotional potential videogames might ideally hold, and – assuming some degree of innate potential – how best to insinuate emotion into the framework or theory of a videogame. Or rather perhaps, how best to cull emotion from that same framework.
Before we complicate the matter, of course, it’s probably best to sort out exactly what videogames are attempting to accomplish as a general form. Every medium we devise is a study of certain properties in the world around us, manipulated to express meaning based on our existing understanding of the underlying principles of that medium. Sculpture, for instance, is a study of three-dimensional form; painting and drawing are studies of two-dimensional abstraction and composition, with a focus in subtly different materials. The novel capitalizes on the illustrative power of words. Comics combine elements of the novel with drawing, to focus on the juxtaposition of text and imagery. Movies are similar in their cross-disciplinary structure, yet they add the new element of imagery over time – making that their most innate focus (if you believe the likes of Hitchcock and Godard, anyway).
The purpose of all of these media is to use their innate representational abstractions – abstractions that are, in their primary form, essentially familiar to us – to weave even greater, more sophisticated metaphor that, in an idealized case, plays upon the very nature of the medium at hand to express ideas and emotions that would be impossible to otherwise similarly express. In film, you can show a character staring at a point before him and then change perspective to show what he was staring at; it is the proximity and timing of the imagery that lends significance to the second shot. In painting, you can play with the two-dimensional space and qualities of the material at hand to create similarly suggestive juxtapositions of imagery, color, symbolism, perspective, lending greater insight into the workings of the medium, the subject at hand, the painter herself, and – ultimately – the viewer and his own perspective on the world around him.
So what, then, do videogames serve to study? Well, clearly the most (and perhaps only) significant distinction between The Videogame and other media is its element of audience participation within a rigorously defined world. The videogame lays out a world before you, with its own set of rules and logic, then gives you a limited set of ways of interacting with that world. Seeing what’s on the screen and the hardware interface before you, you prod out into the gameworld to see what happens. Based on the reaction you receive, you adjust your experiments. You could say that the actual videogame as-such exists in the space between the player and the gameworld; in the interplay between the two. The player sends out a ping; the game sends out a pong.
If that communication is the fabric of videogames, then what they study is the cause and effect between the player and the gameworld – which, in a sense, serves as a metaphor for our interaction with the world around us within our normal lives. That interaction is, of course, synonymous with our lives and how we live them: how we interpret and react to the rules of our world, our struggle for understanding, all our loves, our hates – everything that involves seeing, hearing, touching, learning, and adapting. So on a basic level, videogames seem to have – if anything – an overload of potential on their hands. The quality that they serve to study is so ambitious as to be daunting – and indeed, very difficult to convincingly explore. And that’s assuming that you already understand what you’re doing in making a videogame. The trick is in how to elegantly encapsulate and explore that quality – or rather some limited aspect of it – without betraying those limitations, thereby limiting the efficacity of your portrayal.
So we have the fundamental mission of The Videogame: to provide a framework for exploring the nature of cause and effect; ideally, on the highest levels, videogames would use this focus to explore issues, themes, problems, ideas, emotions that would be difficult or impossible to illustrate through other means: “you had to be there” sorts of situations where the player’s mass of actions and experience add up to some greater sum, providing a sort of intellectual or emotional clarity that would not exist without active participation in the situation at hand – the difference between book knowledge and real-life experience, if you will.
Not a bad start. So where, exactly, does emotion come into the picture? Ideally, if we’re talking about a pure videogame (in the way that people speak of “pure cinema” and whatnot), the basic emotional foundation will come directly out of the interaction between the player and the gameworld – on acting, and on seeing the results of that action. This premise seems at least consistent, in that player interaction is the basic narrative foundation of the medium; it would, at the very least, make sense for complex emotion to have its basis in the narrative structure of a work.
I find it interesting that the deepest emotional cues commonly available (and indeed focused upon within Bowen’s research) come from the set dressing, rather than the basic fabric of the medium: the cutscenes and long dialog segments, for instance, that you will find in Japanese RPGs. When Nei or Aeris dies, her death is significant mostly for its randomness; it occurs outside of the player’s purview, without so much of a hint of foreshadowing. Both characters are created and introduced early to create a certain empathy and protectiveness over them; it is not unlikely that the player will have invested a great deal of time and energy developing them over their zillion-hour adventures together – and then both characters are viciously taken away, leaving a real feeling of loss and anger in the player in that, much like the death or departure of a real person, all of that investment, all of that maintenance has been proved futile – taken away, through no apparent fault of one’s own. It feels cruel and cheap, and yet for what it’s trying to do, that is appropriate.
That this trick is so effective should illustrate some of the principles of how emotion and player involvement can be intertwined. This is not to imply that such tricks are necessarily admirable; still, by nature they do hold a certain grain of truth. Only in an RPG, for instance, with its endless character fiddling and back-of-the-box gametime, would the above death scenarios hold such weight. Only in a situation where the player has no control, as in a cutscene, would there be room for such outrage. The circumstances are almost the opposite of ideal for creating true videogame-originated emotion. Still, check out how they work the system and the audience – the logistics of it all; how they build on the nature of the game at hand, and the player’s role in the goings-on, to create their payoff.
Ueda You Know
For a somewhat better example – and that this game only came out in the last year probably says something – check out the design behind Shadow of the Colossus. Ignore the superficial “gameyness”, if you can – the puzzle-like nature of the Colossi, the hints and meters and other lazy conceits – that’s not really to be admired. What is more significant is the coherence amongst the game’s controls, themes, and narrative. In particular the controls, though a little awkward in execution, are really interesting in principle: the two most important functions, aside from moving around, are attacking and gripping: either lashing out or holding on to things. The bow and arrow is sort of a combination of both.
When climbing a colossus, the player need press down hard on the shoulder button (which, due to its placement, one does with a clutching motion), to keep from being swung free. Usually it works; very sometimes not. Releasing one’s grip releases the character’s grip. There is, therefore, a great tactile transference of the in-game actions, and their significance, to the player – creating a nice basic level of exhilaration. Similarly, when it comes time to attack the colossus, the player is asked to hold down the attack button; the character kneels and raises his sword high, with shaking arms – waiting. When the player releases the button, the sword goes plunging deep into the skull of the beast, and terrible black blood sprays out into the character’s face, into the air, onto the beast, everywhere. The beast screams and thrashes and wails. It is not a noble moment. Aggression, in this case, is framed as a release – a weakness of sorts, an inevitability. And every life the player takes, every bit of beauty he destroys in the name of a selfish obligatory quest, in turn is one more step toward damnation. Yet at the same time, it is such a release, such a relief, such a buzz. And at least you’re one more step on your way to… something. It’s all rather sad – and this comes out most clearly through the player’s own choices.
The element of choice is put into focus by the game’s counterpoint of a vast, beautiful world to explore between the moments of violence – which again the player can interact with, mostly through clutching. If you want, you can spend hours on end tracking all over the gameworld, exploring, climbing, marveling, wondering. And yet all of this is internal; you have to look for it within yourself, and be satisfied with it for its own sake, for what it is. There is nothing overtly there for you – no puzzles or items or other people; just you and your horse and this glorious, lonely world. Outside of your fated task, the world given to you is completely pointless. And eventually, your quest will tempt you once more. You will return to violence for no other reason than tedium – to get things over with already. Because it’s the only clear answer provided.
So, nearly every choice in the game is the player’s own – and nearly every bit of meaning in the game comes straight out of the player’s choices, whatever they may be. Likewise, however, nearly every detail in the game exists both to illustrate the significance behind the player’s choices and to suggest a certain course of action, strictly by the nature of the world as established. The dilemma becomes: do I act, or do I not? Like as not, the player will act – because that’s what a videogame is there for. And the player will kill, and will suffer on more than one level, and yet also enjoy himself, and feel deeply troubled for the experience.
Nature of the Beast
There is the question, of course, as to whether active participation is the best context for complex emotion: much of the emotion we experience through our normal lives (and indeed from other media) is objective in nature: we watch, and reflect on, things beyond our control – that girlfriend who dumped you years ago, a plane crashing into a familiar building, Rose Tyler getting stuck in an alternate dimension from which she may never return. Were we able to act on any of these things, they would not be so terrible; we would not have to content ourselves with grief. We could simply act; make things better. To an extent, emotion is our way of coping with, coming to terms with, things that are beyond us – assigning them some dramatic significance that helps to explain or dismiss our own practical shortcomings.
Likewise, if we understood everything we would not experience wonder. If we knew we could simply go up and talk to that jerk who cut us off, we wouldn’t be so mad at him. If we knew we weren’t going to get that raise and didn’t think we deserved it, we wouldn’t be so disappointed. If circumstances weren’t treating us so darned well, we wouldn’t be so happy. If we could just undo what we did, we wouldn’t feel so guilty. If only there were a point to life, we wouldn’t feel so depressed. If we weren’t so fantastically amazing, we wouldn’t be so proud of ourselves. If only we could see what was outside in the dark, maybe we wouldn’t be so scared of it.
So how does a medium based explicitly around the idea of player control deal with this issue? Primarily, by playing with the player’s grasp on a situation. This is why I said that, for what it is, the Aeris thing is sort of clever, and why it’s so effective for what it is. The reason why it’s also cheap and kind of hard to respect is that the gag has absolutely nothing to do with the player’s actions. Were Aeris’s death hypothetically avoidable (if impossibly so, given the options fed to the player) – were some element of mystery to remain, suggesting untapped possibilities that may or may not actually exist – then the plot twist would feel more genuine.
It is that sense of undefined potential that creates such a strong sense of emotion in early 8-bit games, like the original Zelda and Metroid and Simon’s Quest: within the world as defined, there is just enough leeway allowed the player, and just enough unanswered questions, that one gets the impression that, if one is clever enough, anything could be possible. It seems fair to say, given the medium’s focus on cause and effect – on the player’s relationship with the gameworld – that the most principle emotion that videogames exist to conjure is wonder, at the new worlds and new logic and new choices available. The primary response to wonder is curiosity.
This curiosity, it seems to me, would be the impetus for all emotional cues. The solution for controlling the player’s emotion, therefore, would seem to be through manipulating that curiosity. Set up terrible things that the player can do without realizing it, that he can never go back and undo. As in Shadow of the Colossus or Half-Life 2, always at least imply some other course of action – that if things had gone differently, if the player weren’t so darned unlucky or foolish, if she had only known, if she just weren’t so powerless, then things might have gone differently. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant; emotion is all about perception. Mature game design, therefore, is all about psychology. And hey, what better psychological tool has ever been created?