Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

8 December, 2005

Emotional impact in games?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:34 PM

Raph posted an interesting bit on his blog called “The Pixar Lesson“. In it he describes the importance of story and how games need more emotional impact. It’s a great post and I recommend that you read it in order to truly appreciate my blatherings below.

I was going to comment on his blog, but figured I could just post something on my own to make up for the near month of silence. ;) So, read on if you want my take on games, story, and what that old demon “interactivity” has to do with it all.

Raph basically said that it’s the emotional impact that gives a work, particularly a movie, lasting significance. Car chases and big explosions don’t stick with people as long as emotionally powerful scenes do. On this point, I agree with Raph completely.

However, I think Raph is mixing up entertainment with lasting significance. The “big explosions” movies may not be remembered years later, but they were profitable enough to make and keep someone in at least a modest amount of money. Some people enjoy watching a movie and forgetting about it a few days after they’ve seen it.

I think this is also the issue with video games. I’m not saying that we can’t have lasting significance in games, but that’s definitely not what the current market expects. How excited would anyone be if the next Zelda game had Link and Zelda sit down and discuss relationship issues? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good story, but I want to play Link in order to swing a sword at bad guys and solve puzzles.

At the core of games, there’s the fundamental question of interactivity. Game designers mouth the words and say “games are interactive” but I think many often ignore the consequences of the statement. I want my game to be interactive. I want to push a button and have something happen to potentially change the game world. Combat, killing, movement, stealth, all these things we are able to simulate with interactivity. Dialog, emotional impact, and these other issues are not ones we can handle easily with interactivity. That’s why most games have to pause the action and let the scene play out in a cutscene. Of course, for many people this gets boring since they want to act on the game.

Raph levels the accusation, “You wanna deride interactive movies? That’s what we mostly make now.” Ouch. But, let’s look at this topic a bit closer. I think that game designers want what Raph is talking about: they want emotional impact that leaves the player with a lasting impression (usually so they are eager to play the sequel). How do we accomplish this? The two ways are: 1) develop our own techniques, patterns, and so on or, 2) borrow from a related media like movies. Guess which one most developers have chosen? Not that I can blame them. It took many years for movies to become more than plays captured on film. In our industry we have other issues since we’ve focused so much on technology that we have the latest and greatest camera available to us, but we’ve forgotten to take it out of the seat in the play theater.

An alternate explanation is that, as my business partner Rob “Q” Ellis II says, “game designers wish they were making movies”. ;)

The problem is that we don’t have the tech to let people interact in an emotionally powerful scene. The best we can do is branching dialog trees, but that often makes people focus more on the game mechanics than the emotional content. Ideally we would have superb A.I. able to do natural language parsing and react to the player in a realistic way; this also assumes that the player plays along with the scene and doesn’t try to derail it. We’re not quite to that part yet.

But, I don’t think the goal is to rush to get this level of technology available for us to use. I think as game developers we should focus on what we’re good at: delivering interactivity. Let people adjust the story through their actions, and get them involved in the scene. This is one reason why I think that hiring a bunch of writers won’t be the industry’s salvation, because developers already rely too much on dialog to convey story and emotion, and this really detracts from most games.

I think one of Raph’s movie examples is a good start: some of the most emotionally powerful scenes in action movies is when the hero doesn’t kill someone for some reason. Imagine an FPS where there are innocents huddling away from the main character. What happens when the player stumbles upon them? How can we make that scene emotionally powerful without relying on reams of dialog, a simplistic morality system (+1 bad point for killing innocents; Go save a kitten to offset that!), or any other tricks we currently rely on as crutches. As soon as designers start thinking in this way, we’ll start seeing more originality in game storytelling that doesn’t rely on tons of cut-scenes and reduce our games down to an “interactive movie”.

What do you think? Can we achieve emotional impact in our games with current tech?

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  1. Two things: lasting significance == more money in the long run; and yes, our tools are adequate, hence Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Ico, Beyond Good & Evil, Final Fantasy VII, and so on.

    IMHO, anyway. :)

    Comment by Raph — 8 December, 2005 @ 9:49 PM

  2. I can think of a couple examples of putting important plot points into the game rather than in cutscenes. The first is in Ultima IV, when you come across a room full of hostile children in the final dungeon. Granted it wasn’t part of the overall storyline really, but it was a significant moment that had real emotional impact for a lot of people. The other that comes to mind is in Ultima V. if you’re captured by Lord Blackthorn you’re faced with a choice: give him a word of power or one of your companions dies permanently. You’re free to choose either. If you resist your companion dies, if you give in then one of the shrines gets destroyed. I guess that’s more of an example of crafting a situation that fits quite well into dialog trees, but it was memorable and powerful nonetheless.

    It’s interesting to note how old these games are, and how later games in the series didn’t quite measure up in that sense; like all games the technology and techniques became more focused on the graphics than the world and story…

    Comment by Vargen — 8 December, 2005 @ 11:17 PM

  3. Sure, Raph, lasting significance is great. But, let’s be honest, our industry doesn’t do short-term stories particularly well yet. The games you mention are very much the exception. My point was that we can do good stories with our tech, but people tend to think about it in the wrong way. Ico definitely shows us that we can do story through interactivity, even if the game sold relatively poorly. I think the other games you mention suffer from trying to rely too much on dialog. Final Fantasy VII in particularly was a game that really felt like an “interactive movie” where you were doing little bits of action between cutscenes. Of course, the sales figures show that this was still pretty popular with people. So, be careful where you try to use business as a justification. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 December, 2005 @ 12:02 AM

  4. I’ll partially agree, Frank. I think that we do have some synchronicity in the game: from KotOR, most people, even some that might not have played the game, will know what I mean when I use the term “meatbag”. Even on a gameplay level I can talk about what a hard time I had on Tatooine, especially the droid puzzle, and most people that played the will understand.

    However, you are correct in that you don’t have as good synchronicity as a movie; I can talk about the atrocious thing I had the wookiee Zaalbar do and people who played the evil side might know what I’m talking about. Most people I know played through the game once and set it aside, and you can only play good or evil for the most part. You also have optional parts of the game; I could talk about Pazaak strategies, but someone who ignored that part of the game might not understand.

    Still, how many of the details are important? I could probably tell you about something that happened in the game, and you would understand it because you understand the game. If I explained something that happened with Zaalbar in the game, you would probably understand it even if that didn’t happen with you. This is the basis for fan-fiction, after all. So, I think you can still have a lot of the emotional impact and lasting significance of other media if we do it right.

    My further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 December, 2005 @ 4:24 PM

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