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Conveying Tragedy in the Key of C Sharp

Using Shadow of the Colossus as the primary example, in this post I discuss how successfully conveying emotion in a game goes well beyond the commonly associated factors and penetrates all the way down to the efficacy of a game’s physics and coding.

Introduction

When you think about the way in which emotion is conveyed through a game, what is the first thing you think of?  Perhaps you think of script-writing: that the form of the story, plot development and dialogue between characters most prominently dictates the magnitude of a player’s emotional response to a game.  Or perhaps you think of character development: that player’s first and foremost relate to the game’s principal characters, and the treatment of these characters determines the magnitude of the player’s emotional interest in what becomes of them.  Or perhaps you think of the musical score: after all, it has been said in the film industry that a movie is dry and lifeless until the score is completed in post-production and the full manifestation of the product realized.

If not being made to pick a favorite, most would say it is a combination of the above factors, along with several others, that determines how successfully a game is able to create a powerful emotional impact on the player—and this view is, of course, correct.  Everything from graphic design to the use of cut scenes to sound and other textural elements contributes to the emotional impact of a game.

In this post, I want to discuss an element of game design that can significantly influence the success or failure of a game’s emotional impact that is not so commonly associated with what be deemed an “artistic” concern: the physics of the game (or, at an even more fundamental level, the coding).

The Artistic and the Mechanical Universes

Often times the “artistic” side of a game (that is, the creative elements) and the “mechanical” side of a game (that is, the things that make the game run) are thought of as nearly mutually exclusive universes: the programmer who designs the physics engine for a game and the concept artist who creates the look of the game’s characters tend to know the other’s craft only to the minimum extent required, and the two are prime candidates for an awkward conversion that ends in both muttering “I simply do not understand that person.” 

There is, however, far more overlap between the mechanical and the artistic than is commonly acknowledged.  As a musician who has dabbled in composition for video games, I have countless times found myself in situations where I have had to make musical decisions based on restrictions or requirements originating from the mechanical side of things.  At a still highly creative level, writing the score to a cut scene requires one to do a spotting session to determine certain moments where a musical “hit” should occur.  Once these hits are mapped out, the composer is left with a limited number of choices in terms of tempo and time signatures he can employ.  At a more mechanical level, perhaps a game is being made for a mobile device and has a limited amount of memory that can be allotted to sound.  Not only does this obligate the composer to a fairly short, easily looped melody; but also he has to choose sounds that will be aurally decent in low fidelity and must try to find sound effects that can be pitched up or down to serve multiple purposes.

On the flip side of the coin, it is important that those in charge of the mechanical aspects of a game understand their obligations with respect to the artistic side, for much as the artistic side most conform to the mechanical for the game to be viable, the mechanical must consider the artistic side in order for the game to be effective.

An Illustration of Emotional Impact in a Game

To illustrate this point further, consider Agro: the protagonist’s trusty steed in Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus.  Our main character is initially presented to us with very little exposition (particularly if one did not play Ico before, a game itself shrouded in a good deal of mystery that offers little in the way of transition) and he does not speak any real lines for the duration of the game.  Alone in the land of the Colossi, “Wander” really only interacts with two characters: Dormin and Agro.  Dormin is a deity whose role for the majority of the story is simply to point Wander towards his next task, and as such, if one will tolerate a Final Fantasy metaphor, he more closely resembles a random character wandering about a town who is programmed to tell you where the next town lies than a party member or principal character.  What this all amounts to is that as the audience we only really have the relationship between Wander and Agro with which to identify and form an emotional bond.

Wander and Agro

Considering the fact that Shadow of the Colossus was introduced on the PS2 in 2005, right in the midst of the development of the next generation of consoles with far superior graphical capabilities, etc., what Team Ico was able to achieve with the game in terms of gameplay and graphics is nothing short of astonishing.  Agro is a beautifully designed character that moves realistically and possesses a generally keen AI.  However, mechanically speaking Agro is not without faults.  She will occasionally get hung up on the most minor of obstacles and come to a complete screeching halt.  If you lose your momentum on a somewhat narrow strip of land she will completely refuse to accelerate to anything above a canter.  If you lose track of her while battling a Colossus, you may well find yourself shouting “Agro!” over and over, only to see her go screaming past in some random direction while certain doom descends upon you.  Early on in the game, while still getting the familiar with the controls, I found myself cursing and taking issue with Agro more than I found her useful—on more than a few occasions I gave her the old “I think I’ll walk from here” drop off.  

However, as the game progressed I became more and more skilled with Agro, and by the time I reached the Sand Tiger getting Agro to a full gallop, turning 180 degrees and firing an arrow with perfect precision into the Colossus’s eye was no major issue.  Agro became a vital piece of many of the most difficult Colossus battles, and as the game moved towards its climax the relationship with Agro became stronger and stronger.

**Spoiler Alert**

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SclbRYmGG9A

As you approach the final battle of the game, you (and I use the term “you” instead of “Wander” deliberately here) and Agro find yourselves on a bridge that begins to collapse behind you.  Agro races towards the opposite bank.  In a very subtle moment executed to perfection by Team Ico, Agro realizes she cannot outrun the collapsing bridge and comes instantly to a halt deliberately to toss you to safety, and subsequently tumbles off the cliff into the waters below.  There exist probably only a handful of moments in all of videogame history that take hold of you emotionally with the same strength that can be realized through the mediums of film or music (assuming a truly excellent film or a song of significant scope)—this is one of them.  Story-wise, it makes perfect sense: you need the final battle to be mano-a-mano to heighten the impact of the showdown, and as a completely innocent character, Agro needs to be absent during the aftermath that concludes the game.  This is not a moment hacked together from the generic “let’s kill off a character ‘cause it will be sad” perspective—this is story-telling at its very finest.

And yet I cannot help but think that no matter how perfectly the artistry of the event is executed: how flawlessly subtle the music is, how the graphics convey the deliberate nature of Agro’s decision, the grace of the cinematography—the emotional impact of this event would not be nearly as substantial, indeed, I dare say it could be rendered entirely ineffective, if Agro did not control as well as she ultimately did in the course of actual gameplay.  Had using Agro in the course of the game been more chore than advantage, coupled with a few persistent glitchy elements, I could easily envision myself having little to no emotional response to Agro’s sacrifice.  An incredibly powerful moment could have dissolved into nothing more than a final “I’ll walk from here.”

Conclusion

In my experience, the level of emotional attachment a player experiences with respect to a video game character is not so much a continuous linear gradient scale, but more closely resembles the electron structure of an atom—that is to say, there are certain energy thresholds that will cause a quantum 'jump' from one discrete level to another.  In this case, there is a sudden and immediate distinction between being apathetic about a character and emotionally invested in the character that occurs for the player—apathy can instantaneously leap to meaningfully invested (and vice versa) once a certain threshold is crossed and the switch flips in the player's mind, the decision to care or not care made.  This type of quantum structure makes the role of the mechanical aspects of a game all the more critical and impactful when it comes to successfully creating an emotional bond between the player and the game's character(s), for even if we concede that the mechanical aspects play a comparatively minor role in developing an emotional bond between the player and a character with respect to the artistic side of game development, we must recognize that the impact of the mechanical, even if somewhat limited, has a chance to be the factor that determines which quantum level the player lands on, viz., the quality of the physics of a playable character could be the factor that tips the scales between apathy and emotional investment.

To be honest, I wrote this article more to express what I felt was an important observation than to argue a specific side of a debate, and so I am limited in terms of what I can offer to the reader as a conclusion.  I suppose the best lesson one can draw from this observation is that those on the artistic side of a game’s production and those on the mechanical side must recognize that both are essential to creating a successful game, and must understand the common goal they work towards.  So often I observe these two sides of the same coin treating each other with disdain, as if each exists primarily to impede the progress of the other.  This should not be the case.  Through a realistic understanding of what needs to be accomplished in a game, these two sides, even if they do not perfectly speak each other’s language, must understand that what they bring to the table is only a part of a greater whole, and only through collaboration with those individuals talented enough to contribute pieces to the puzzle can a truly great game that is effective in its entirety be realized.

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