James Wallis levels with you

A synopsis, a manifesto and a question

To sum up the last two posts:

Will Wright believes that a player’s satisfaction from interacting with a videogame should be on a primarily intellectual level.

I’m not saying he’s wrong. In fact I’d say that this describes 99% of the games currently on the market, including several that I enjoy and recommend.

That does not mean that games should not attempt to engage a player on an emotional level as well. Games that do so successfully have enormous power and often enormous popularity and longevity.

The way to engage a player on an emotional level is through the effective use of characters, setting and story.

It is not until games regularly engage their audience on an emotional level that the “are games art?” debate will be of interest to anyone beyond games designers and a few academics.

You may, if you want, take this as a manifesto.

A question, more of a request really: what games do engage their players emotionally? Post ’em in the comments, please: let’s make a list. Justify your choices; show working; use both sides of the screen. I’ll start with the four obvious ones: Nintendogs (Nintendo, 2005); Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2001-2005); Final Fantasy VII (Square Co.,1997) and, of course, Planetfall (Infocom, 1983)

A second question, which I’ll get to when Amazon bothers to deliver the book and I bother to read it: is ‘flow‘ as defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi an intellectual or an emotional state?

Categorised as: game design | narrative


  1. Jason Durall says:

    Planescape: Torment (Black Isle, 1999) is a regular answer in the “what games moved you emotionally” question. Why? Good characters, emotional choices with themes of regret and atonement, excellent use of music and dialog to evoke those emotional states.

  2. TS says:

    The Silent Hill series of games. I am, in many ways, a jaded man – but I nearly soiled myself several times while playing the various SH games due to the sheer sweat-inducing fear they seem to regularly invoke in players.

    Silent Hill gets under one’s skin with its unnerving visuals, disturbing sound track and surreal atmosphere. Exceedingly well rendered scenes of dilapidated environments coupled with twisted monsters already set you on edge – but the jarring sound track is the killer. It is deliberately designed to be unnerving to hear – then coupled with the fact that the only indicator you have to the presence of monsters is an auditory one based on an in-game radio – which means that you can’t turn the sound off.

    Silent Hill certainly emotionally engaged my “fight or flight” response on many occasions.

  3. For me Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2 get you on the emotional level. Both games are about lost, discovery and redemption, and the impact of these are felt throughout. Playing these two games I find myself smiling during the scenes of reuniting. Sniffling dealing the scenes dealing with lost. I admit, that I found myself emotional during the final scenes of Kingdom Hearts 2 and this was due to Sora and Rikku coming to terms with their relationship as friends.

  4. Alan De Smet says:

    The only emotion I can think of games bringing forth in me is fear, and even then it’s very rare. Anchorhead pulled it off by being well written and making effective use of the protagonist’s attachment to her husband. That day one of the game is largely mundane with only a single real mystery is probably also key, providing a basis of normalicy to compare the coming horrors againt. The Ravenholm segment of Half-Life 2 is creepy; somehow using the old cliches of run down buildings and zombies to great effect. It may be as simple as being an excellent implementation of well known ideas. The same goes for F.E.A.R.; there is nothing new about ghostly little girls, darkness, and spooky music, but it worked. Again for System Shock 2, zombies on a delirect space ship. The original Call of Duty pulled it off; in a few scenes I found myself panicking in chaotic situations in a way I don’t normally in video games. Part of it is probably that you almost always are with a squad of fellow soldiers who are moderately effective. The result is that you feel part of something bigger; you’re not just the lone super soldier slaughtering his way through Axis forces. The hotel escape in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth also captured that “oh, crap” panic response. (Well, it was effective the first three times I played it. After that I just wanted it to be over. Sadly, it took another twenty or so tries.) In both Call of Duty and Dark Corners, I believe a key element in the effective scenes is that you’re too busy trying to survive, out of control of the situation but thinking you can regain control, trying to quickly identify threats. You’re too busy to slow down and meta-game. As a result you’re very immersed in the moment.

    A game worth singling out, in part because I can’t explain it, was Thief: the Dark Project. I’m addressing only the levels where you are up against humans; the zombie levels are just mediocre first-person shooter levels. I have had few moments of fear, dread, and a bit a panic as when hiding in a shallow alcove as a guard approaches, afraid he might notice me when he passes by mere feet away. Once he passed by, you wait, unsure how far away he needs to be so he won’t hear you padding away, worrying that as you step out, he might decide to turn around. Oddly enough the two sequels were less effective on me; possibly because the second one had lots of robotic enemies and the third was just too different. No other game in the stealth action genre (notably including the Splinter Cell and Metal Gear series) has been so effective on me. Probably because of the third person camera and the overly gamey stealth interface. In both series you can reliably predict which stealth attempts will work, the levels are overtly designed to have specific solutions.

    The key for sort of emotional response is, of course, immersiveness. For all of the games above except Anchorhead, I find that they are all first person camera telling. (Anchorhead is told in the first person, but I’m referring to visuals here.) A third person camera makes the protagonist more of an “other,” and makes it harder to form an emotional attachment. A first person camera makes it easier to immerse yourself; those incoming bullets aren’t aimed at Bob on the scene, they’re aiming for you!

    I think this is one of the reasons I find the overwhelming majority of games in the survival horror genre so dull; they almost uniformly have terrible immersiveness, starting by giving you a view of your avatar. I was really into Silent Hill 4: The Room at the start as I explored the apartment I was locked into. Then I moved on and suddenly I was back in the third person and felt like I was playing a video game. Generally the only emotion survival horror games evoke in me is throwing-my-controller-at-the-screen anger because I’m getting screwed by “artful” cameras or terrible control. The only survival horror game I can think of that did anything for me is Resident Evil 4, and even then it was only for the briefest of moments. That said, the first time the villagers true nature was revealed, I did indeed enter panic mode. (For anyone interested, I recently wrote a review of Resident Evil 4 in which I enumerate the legion ways in which it trashes immersion.)

    I’m wracking my brain trying to think of a game that summoned love, happiness, joy, contentment, anger, or some other emotion in me. Sure, games frequently make me happy or angry, but it’s inevitably happiness or anger at the game, not the situation in the game. That is, I’m happy when I solve a particularly difficult obstacle, but the happiness is Alan’s accomplishment at a game, not one of immersion. Similarly, I tend to get angry when I feel a game is “unfair,” but that’s clear metagame thinking.

  5. james says:

    Can we leave fear and panic out of this? My fault: in the interests of brevity I didn’t define my terms properly. Yes, there are a lot of games out there that create sensations of building fear, dread and panic. Space Invaders does it: overwhelm you with numbers, put a heartbeat in, then speed up its tempo as the game progresses. They’re pretty basic emotions and almost three decades on I think we can ask for more. So no more survival-horror-zombie-ghost-jump-out-from-behind-a-wall-BOO! games please, unless exceptional for other reasons.

    (I’m tempted to except Project Zero (aka Fatal Frame) from that, except that it never made me care enough about the protagonist to finish the game.)

  6. Yoz says:

    Firstly, Stationfall, simply because I didn’t play Planetfall and there are some remarkably gut-wrenching moments in it as characters you have come to love start to change in horrible ways. Steve Meretzky said that the complete dialogue in that game came to about three pages of text. A lesson for us all.

    Also, the previously-mentioned Call Of Duty: yes, there are some seriously panicky bits, but they create a kind of empathy that is almost impossible with traditional history lessons. Immersion in the battle of Stalingrad brings home the terrifying scale of what was fought through, and the literally dreadful situation the fighters faced. It’s not just terror for terror’s sake.

    FInally, Tomb Raider, for one very simple reason: Lara’s various death animations are so wrenching that they provide an extra impetus not to see them. Danny told me he’d heard how awful the drowning sequence was, so asked a friend to show it to him. The friend refused, clearly offended at the prospect. Now that’s impressive.

  7. Several Interactive Fiction games (text adventures, that is) have done it for me, emotionally speaking. Andrew Plotkin’s Spider And Web in particular. Spider And Web disorients you with its beginning, then expertly hands you pieces of the story to cling to like liferafts to escape that disorientation. The villain, a torturer, is written so well it’s a relief to go back to the puzzles just to escape him after every scene he’s in, and that’s without him being much of a threat to you at all. Objectively, he’s pretty soft — gives you second chances and the like — but he’s such a menacing figure and the scenes with him so claustrophobic that it’s hard not to sigh with relief when he’s gone.

  8. Piers says:

    Spoilers Ahoy!

    FFIX – for the moment when the black mages learn about death. The black mages are creatures constructed as weapons. Some of them escape from their evil overlords and develop self-awareness. They create a small village.

    And then they discover that they have a limited lifespan. One day – about a year after construction – they stop moving, and never move again.

    Two black mages gather by the graveyard and talk about their friend, who stopped moving. And wonder what it feels like to stop.

    Sad and beautiful. I cried.

    Half Life – two moments, related. Gordon Freeman’s a scientist. He wanders around the complex, talking to his scientist pals. Then monsters appear and start killing everyone.

    So far so ordinary.

    Then the military arrive. But instead of just killing the monsters, they’re killing everyone. They’re killing Gordon’s/your friends.

    So you start shooting the military when they appear. Cos sure as hell they’re going to kill you.

    But the bigger moment, for me, is a bit later. You’re in an area that the special forces have under their control, and they’ve created a barricade, and they’ve put graffiti on it.

    Die, Freeman, die.

    And that’s when I thought, Yes, you fucks, I’m hurting you. And that’s what you get for killing my friends.

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