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Soapbox: Emotion in Games

Right now I want to cry, I want to blub like a teen with a copy of Titanic, I want to be overwhelmed by sadness. It’s been so long since tears left my eyes, and I want that feeling back. This time however, I long to cry at a video game. I am still waiting for that elusive game that will make me shed a tear, and now that the next generation is in full swing, it’s looking more likely for a game to create a truly emotional experience.

I’ve always wondered why video games have never really been able to do it. It sounds simple, in a game you control your destiny, and you experience the adventure. You’re not viewing someone else’s life through a camera, you are living that life, and in that respect when you count up the games that have maybe aimed to stir up tear-worthy emotion, the number comes off a little short.

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There are countless films that are renowned for their emotional impact (Forrest Gump, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption to name but a few), but why aren’t games heralded like this? It’s a question I’ll never know the answer to, yet one that utterly intrigues me. I think the main reason for this lack of emotion in games is that developers have enough to worry about without the need to think about implementing how they can attach the gamer with the game. Gameplay is predominantly the main focal point of a developer, it needs to be perfect before any decisions are made about story, characters and level design, for instance. In a film the creators can focus everything on their idea, and getting that across on screen, while game developers need to regard such specifics as applying sound effects for certain actions, texture mapping over various environments, realistic weather effects, and hundreds more. Each element of the game all need to meld together in order for an emotional effect to come off on the player; easier said than done, then.

Story and character development are parts of a game not usually prioritised, and the reason for so many emotionless games on the market. It’s ironic that a game like Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, stateside); a game completely centred on story and characterisation, is essentially an obscure yet mediocre tale of science fiction and demonology. Its attempts at emotion, and the many narrative sequences are farcical, mildly compelling at best. Fahrenheit could have been excellent, but it begs the question – is it just a bad example of a game attempting to create a set of engaging, realistic characters within a deep and meaningful story, or a game that represents that emotion or depth in games is something entirely unreachable?

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That said, the gaming landscape is not completely without heart. Such games as Metal Gear Solid 3, Final Fantasy VII, and ICO (a game that holds the coveted accolade of ‘closest a game has come to making me cry’) have produced moments full of emotion, but when you find it relatively hard to think of three games like this, you know you’re in trouble. Are games meant to be played purely for fun and excitement, or is there more to games than meets the eye? Should they stay shallow, serving only as a form of escapism and recreation? That is what they where initially made for, of course.

In the end it all boils down to the developers, but is that too much to ask? To reiterate an early point, with the current generation picking up steam, now more than ever it’s looking like we’ll get ‘the tearjerker hit of the year’. Graphical possibilities and the increasing production values in games can mean lots of different things – more realism, greater stories, more relatable characters, and it seems developers are learning that a game needs a good story to succeed, just ask 2K’s BioShock.

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Gaming as an entertainment medium is forever growing, and the money put into it is mind blowing. What comes from more money can only improve the games we play – many top actors are locking onto the success of games, for instance, and with game technologies constantly improving, such impressive techniques as motion capturing are being used to the highest degree. Now, if we can just get a game that delivers the goods and turns me into an emotional wreck, I won’t have to sit at home on a Friday night watching Rose letting go of Jack for the umpteenth time. Not that that’s what I like to do, I was just saying.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @_Frey.

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