James Wallis levels with you

The Secret to Evoking Emotional Responses in Interactive Media

I have four points:

1. I do not know the secret to designing interactive experiences that evoke emotional responses from their users.

2. Nobody else does either.

3. It’s possible to do it, and it has been done, and it will be done again, and it will be done more and more in the future as we get to grips with how this stuff works on people.

It is not going to happen in a single bound. There is not going to be a leap, a paradigm-shift, one particular game that everyone will point to and go, “There! That one! It is mature, intelligent, and emotionally true! It is the first truly great game!” What was the first great play? The first great novel? The first great film? You may have your opinions but there’s no critical consensus, only a lot of dull and drunken after-dinner discussions.

Instead we will have to spend the next ten years honing the techniques that work and trying some things that might work but probably won’t, and then we’ll spend the ten years after that building on what we’ve learned in the previous ten years, and then the ten years after that we will repeat the process, and so on indefinitely. Artistic development is not a switch waiting for some genius to flip it. Okay, there have been moments where someone did something for the first time and everyone slapped their foreheads and went, “Of course!” and copied it, like Filippo Brunelleschi creating artistic perspective. We’ve had a few of those: Dungeons & Dragons, Populous, Castle Wolfenstein. But they’re rare and unpredictable.

There are certain things that we understand a bit: building character empathy, for example. Current games designers tend to do this by (a) designing a character to be likeable, and then (b) exposing the player to them for a long period of time. (And often then (c) killing them to remind you that you liked them.) But if you want to see how to create an interesting, likeable character for whom you feel an emotional response in just a few lines of dialogue, look at TV adverts. Or you can look at Homer, who did the same thing in a different way for a different art-form almost three thousand years earlier. So clearly there are other ways to go about it.

Yes, as games designers we can learn from other forms. We can pick and borrow elements and techniques of creating character and narrative from movie-making, theatre, prose fiction, reportage, storytelling, even painting and sculpture, and we do. All of those forms have mixed and matched to become what they are today. But—and this is the belter—our medium is fundamentally different to their media. Our medium is interactive. And compared to that, if you thought the invention of cinema or the shift from classical art to impressionism were biggies then man, you have not yet begun to dream.

We are at an incredibly early stage of the evolution of the artform ‘interactive entertainment’—such an early stage that we haven’t even got a decent snappy name for it yet. (No, not ‘games’. Try again.) Movies have been going for a hundred years, and look at how many of them suck. Though that’s not an excuse for our failure to embrace emotion as a tool in designing interactive experiences, merely an advance warning for how many games are going to suck over the next century.

The point is, we’re only as good as the things we learn from, plus whatever we can personally add to the pot. We’re not good at mixing emotional responses and interactivity yet because we are building on what has gone before, and most of what has gone before has involved platforms, guns, absurdly overpowered cars, outer space, sports and/or massive damage. We’re not just learning, we’re still pioneering. It’s not going to be easy. It is going to take a long time, and a lot of work, and we will make a lot of mistakes along the way. But:

4. It will be worth doing. Oh yes, it will be worth it.

Categorised as: game design

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