Video games in the past decade have brushed up against the power of making a player feel guilty for their actions, studios such as BioWare and Bethesda offering moral choices that the player must face; blow up a shanty town for your own well being or save your soul and suffer along side those good people. Yet, the presentation of these choices weaken the overall emotional effect on the player, whatever the choice may be. Ignoring the obvious problem of being able to communicate to the player via visual cues on par with film, the problem with video games of the past lies with the lead up to said moral choices.
One of Fallout 3's most infamous moral choice (incoming spoiler) is that of deciding whether to blow up Megaton, detonating the nuke that the townspeople have ironically been worshipping on a religious level, or leave it be and continue on with your sorrows and ill wealth. The problem lies in why should the player care whether they detonate the nuke or not? What emotional connection do they have with the people of Megaton? While some players will be immersed enough to have their own conscious steer them away from ending tens of lives in a flash second, most are more interested in what's best for their avatar; access to a luxury suite apartment and all that comes with it is very inciting and desirable for a player who is use to maxing their avatar's stats and equipment. So while the player may initially question the choice, the guilt that would normally follow such a heavy choice fails to be present as the player moves along, entering his luxury suite, being greeted by his robot butler.
Till now, video games only scratched the surface of the power of guilt. A player may choose to harvest a little sister in BioShock, initially feeling slightly guilty of the choice, but that will quickly fade as his plasmid bar climbs to almost full power, rewarding players of their choice of low morale, rather than punishing; we will punish a players greed, but not their guilt. Attempt at guilt in video games have been shallow in their lasting effecting, lacking any leading emotional connection, punishment, and relying too heavily on the conscious of the player themselves; sadly, not everyone would feel any remorse or guilt of killing a dog in Deus Ex (although they should!).
Then Quantic Dream releases Heavy Rain. A game changer in emotional engagement. (incoming spoilers) Disguised as a tutorial, but is much more important than simply getting the player use to the controls, the first sequence in Heavy Rain introduces one of the main characters which the player takes control, but more importantly, the players family. Quantic Dream gives the player control of the character in what would seemingly be an ordinary day in the life of the character. What makes the moments within this tutorial so essential is the interaction the player engages with his avatar's family. As you help your wife carry in the groceries, making flirtatious exchanges, grabbing her by her waist, planting a passionate kiss, a strong emotional connection is being made through the avatar to the player.
The strongest, and as you will find out, the most important emotional connection is also made between the player and the avatar's children. The player engages in playful fun with the avatar's children, playing with them virtually as the player would possibly play with their own children, unborn or born. For more than a hundred years people have been empathizing, and in effect crying over, fictitious families of on-screen characters in film, having zero direct engagement them other than being able to relate and empathize with them on some emotional level. Quantic Dream makes the on-screen family the player's family, creating deep involvement and sincere care over them.
As the game moves on to the next sequence, shopping with your family at a particularly busy mall, the foundation for what is to come has been laid. As the player loses sight of his avatar's son, sincere fear and worry rushes over the player as he chases after him. Personally, I was genuinely worried for my avatar's son, pushing the analog stick as hard as I could towards him, even though I knew no matter how hard I pushed it, my avatar wouldn't move any faster, not because it was just another objective in the game, but because I wanted my avatar's son back. I was more immersed in the moment of the game not because of atmosphere, neck breaking action, or intense fighting, but of such a deep level of emotional engagement with the avatar's family which Quantic Dream has conditioned me to care for as if they were my own, and in a way they were.
After the longest minute of my life, my avatar caught up with the son, releasing deep feeling of relief within me. The sense of false safety would quickly wash away as my avatar's son asks to buy a balloon. As I hand my avatar's son his balloon, watching him walk away into the large crowd once again, losing sight of him ever more, I fumble through the controller, anxiously trying to locate my avatar's wallet. With each failed attempt to locate the wallet in one of the many pockets, my anxiety level grew higher and higher. As luck wouldn't have it, the last pocket I tried would be where my wallet would be. Once again, I lost sight of my avatar's son, which ultimately would cause the death of him.
It's not so much the events themselves that are unfolding before you in Heavy Rain that make the game so engaging (the story is borderline cliche), but the sense of responsibility with every choice you make that overwhelms you with guilt, regret, and wonderment. As I watched my avatar's son be hit by a car, I couldn't help by gasp for air, not out of sorrow or sadness, but pure guilt. What if I had been more quick with pulling out my wallet to pay the clown, could this have been prevented (probably not, but I have yet to reply the game to find out)? As the game progresses, your characters are faced with very difficult morale choices, not giving you the time to even consider the consequences of each before auto-selecting a random choice for you. Each choice fills you with emotions that have yet been tapped by any other form of media to date.
Heavy Rain isn't necessarily a great game (the bugs and crashes that infested at release alone strip it of that title), but perhaps one of the most important games in the medium. It is the first game to reach out to the player on a pure, human, emotional level and create that numb, emotional feeling after the experience has ended, the feeling that films for decades have so successfully created in audiences. The experience of the game sticks with you long after you've put the controller down.
Warren Spector once said in a lecture regarding his disdain to create a high emotional experience in a game, "People will never care about a bunch of pixels (referring to characters) on a screen". Developers were trying to get the player to empathize with the wrong character. You can get a person to deeply care about a bottle of Windex, if you know how to condition them into it. Film is best at empathy, getting the spectator to feel sorry about a fictitious character on-screen. Video games are best at guilt and regret, getting the player to feel sorry about themselves and the choices they made.