Sunday, June 29

Playing Emotion

I've been thinking about emotion in games lately, particularly when I come across instances that elicit emotion within me. And not even in games, but in moves in books. I saw Pixar's WALL-E last week; an excellent movie, I thought. The movie was inspiring and cognitively engaging, not to mention beautiful. I googled WALL-E After I saw it and found an interview at Movies Online with the writer/director, Andrew Stanton. He has a lot of interesting things to say, but at one point he discusses emotion, specifically how we impart our conscious, project, our emotions, basically, to "finish the sentence."
So it becomes twice as powerful. I think that’s why love at first sight works in movies. Nobody says anything. The guy or the girl stares at the other person and that other person walks across the room and you go racing back to when it happened to you and you’re using that personal, emotional experience to fuel that moment in the movie.
Stanton is talking about how movies evoke emotion from within us, how we become emotionally attached to the situations on screen. And I think Stanton is right, we meld our personal experiences with the movie's scenes to create a sort of emotional bonding. Games are not movies, of course, but I think we can learn from what the field's artists have to say.

Books do the same thing. I'm currently reading Richard Bach's The Bridge Across Forever. There is a scene a third-way through the book where Bach is reminiscing of his air force days:
From the day I joined the military, intensive practice in emotional control: Mr Bach, henceforth you will salute all moths and flies. Why will you salute all moths and flies? You will salute all moths and flies because they have their wings and you do not. There is a moth on yonder window. Mister Bach, Laiuff: FACE! Furward: HAR! And: HALT! Face Moth: FACE! Hand: SALUTE! Wipe that smile off that mouth, Mister. Now step on that smile, kill that smile, KILL IT! Now pick it up and carry it outside and bury it. You think this program's a joke? Who's in control of your emotions, Mr. Bach?
This scene is very well written. Different from what Stanton was noting about movies, Bach causes readers to feel the same way the character does. We laugh at the situation at first, saluting to a butterfly is funny. But then the drill sargent yells at the character, and at us. And we feel rebuked.

This, I think, is actually quite close to what video games have the potential to achieve. I've said this a lot, but I'm going to say it again. Video games are interactive; playing them is an active experience. Movies and books are also interactive, albeit differently. As from Bach and Stanton above, movies and books require some sort of emotional input from participants. We receive the most from those experiences when we give our emotions to them. And we give our emotions most freely when the media does its best to evoke emotion from us. Some books have dry writing; some movies are brain-dead. Some games are boring. There are many reasons for this: control, challenge, etc. But emotionally, games can achieve the most through gameplay. Players should play emotion, not receive it passively. GameSpot once interviewed a multitude of developers, including System Shock II and BioShock designer Ken Levine. Levine, discussing story and emotion in games:
I'm a big fan of emergent storyline. I remember growing my squad of beloved characters (who never had a single line of dialogue) in X-COM and watching with bated breath as they entered the treacherous corridors of the final boss with only a single blaster launcher missile left. Why? Because it was a scenario conceived by a partnership between myself and the game. It was a moment that existed uniquely in my gaming experience and not shared the same way by any other soul on earth.

But as a designer, it's hard to give up that control. We want to craft moments of gameplay. I've done it myself---hey, I've written my share of cutscenes. But what we conceive as designers is never going to be as good as what the partnership of gamer and game creates.
According to the article, Levine refuses to play a game in which he cannot skip cutscenes. Excessive? Maybe. But I think he is standing by a principle, that video games should elicit emotion through gameplay, because that is where video games are unique from all other media. Interactivity is where games excel.

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