Emotion in games, I’m on the band wagon

Posted: February 13, 2010 in Game Design, Games
Tags: , ,

While looking into compulsion, I found that I couldn’t avoid looking directly at emotion.  The above picture is from Heavy Rain, a game where the creators are trying to introduce more emotion into games.  I must admit that I was skeptical for a long time and passed it off as artistic indulgence.   Something came along and changed my mind completely yet I haven’t played the game.  Emotion isn’t the sign of indulgence but perhaps the complete opposite in a medium rife with shallow emotional connections to simply sensational experiences.  While I do not speak with any authority on the subject, I am passionate about it and want to learn to do it right.

I’m not even going to enter into the debate about whether games are art or not because the answer is obvious.  I’m more interested in how we create a stronger emotional engagement in our audience.  How do we craft games that directly create or allow to be created emotions that are deeper or richer than other mediums.  I’m sure to most of you what I’m stating below is obvious, but I need to get it out.  I’ll start with a simple light survey of the prevailing emotional notes we hit.

Mastery is at the core of our legacy in video games.  Puzzle games use it as the primary motivation.  I feel awesome because I have mastered this intellectual or dexterity challenge.  I have improved and risen to the challenge and over come.  We think that challenge is inherently linked to games but it is simply one of the easiest emotions to create with games.  There are other games, they are just harder to create.  A satisfying feeling of mastery is also very hard to create, this is where game design as an art form has stepped up since chess or checkers to give us the most satisfying feelings of mastery.

Dominance also is well known to us.  It is related to mastery, but it is a different emotion.  We feel something different because while we are expressing our mastery, we are doing so by demonstrating someone else’s lack of it and establishing a social order.  We feel awesome because we are better than someone.  Any adversarial multiplayer game, like Halo has heavily leveraged this emotion.

Fear is one of the emotions that emerged when games became able to better create atmospheric environments capable of a greater degree of immersion.  We’ve been creating horror games for a long time.  Fear has been used in games like Doom extensively as the core experience.  Fear and mastery working together is a strong combination.  Silent Hill is a great example of well crafted fear with an interesting puzzle twist in the mastery.

Joy has been oddly hard to express.  Delight could be considered joy.  People feel joy when feeling mastery.  They feel relief after being scared.  They delight in new things and places they can explore.  A game like Flower is my pick for pure Joy.  It does leverage some amount of mastery but very little, the game just creates beautiful imagery and a feeling of serenity.  It has easy controls and very little in the way of mechanics.  While others may disagree, I feel creating joy not associated with mastery or dominance is actually very hard to do.

wallpaper_resident_evil_5_01_1600.jpg resident evil 5 image by jimato

Partnership is old in games as it goes back to early arcades but is being explored heavily in games like Resident Evil 5, Borderlands, Gears of War MMORPG’s and other modern games.  Co-op play throughs are much more common now.  Partnership with pre-made characters like Resident Evil 5 offer something different than avatar based partnership in something like an MMORPG.  Parternship demonstrated by the main characters, supported by mechanics, create the feeling in the player.  As important as the you-get-the-key-while-I-open-the-door gameplay is the feeling of partnership demonstrated by the characters.  In Borderlands, it assumes that the people over the microphones feel like partners.

Competition is similar to dominance but it’s what we feel before the win or loss.  It’s an intense feeling and really well support by games in general.  It’s interesting to contrast the feels of competition in something like Street Fighter to that in an avatar based game like WOW.  Competition has many nuances and variations.

Belonging is supported well by MMORPG’s and team based multiplayer games.  World of Warcraft is probably the crowning example of belonging but I’m going to site one a little smaller.  Counterstrike, and it’s modern brother Team Fortress 2, brought belonging through team based multiplayer play to life.  These games aren’t just awesome mechanics, but they created feelings not available from other games.  Counterstrike has gone through many revisions but the core emotion remain unchanged.  Team Fortress 2 is much more sophisticated than what I’m stating here.  Each character has nuances, each game mode, each environment all tells different emotional stories.

Love is actually a rare emotion in games.  Given its prevalence in every other medium games have been remiss in including it.  The fact is that creating believable love is really hard.  I was reading an article about Uncharted 2 and the author was noting not its amazing graphics or great gameplay but rather its successful delivery of a story of a love triangle with an adult emotional depth.  Now, no one is going to say that its the greatest love story ever told, but they told a love story.  It’s a love story with the backdrop of an action game, but a love story nonetheless.

Today I Die

Since Love is so neglected, I’m giving it another game mention.  Today I die is a great game, everyone should try it out.

So I often find myself standing alone in design discussions, so perhaps I’m not meant for it, but I feel that the goal of creating experiences is to have someone feel something and by focusing on that we can determine the right mechanics to do so.  The richer, the more interesting feelings we can give people the better our medium will be and the better people’s lives will be.

The emotions above are just core basic emotions.  To get deeper into subtleties requires more time, and another post.

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