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Book Review: Creating Emotion in Games

The topic of injecting "emotion" into games has been bandied about for years. David Freeman addresses the subject in his recent book, Creating Emotion in Games, which explores techniques that designers can employ to evoke more emotion from players.

Brad Kane, Blogger

August 18, 2004

8 Min Read

The idea of injecting emotion into games has been a popular topic for discussion in the game industry, and is seen by some as a holy grail of sorts. On the other hand, others view it as the bane of free-spirited game design. Regardless, the last few years have seen a great increase in the number of developers paying close attention to emotional values in game design, and at the front of the pack has been David Freeman, a screenwriter-turned-game designer who has made a name for himself by exploring the uncharted waters of emotion in games.

In Creating Emotions in Games, (New Riders Publishing, 2003), Freeman -- who has worked as a designer and/or writer on games for Sony, Ubisoft, Atari, Activision, VU Games, Microsoft, 3D Realms and Midway -- presents a hands-on process for evoking emotion in game players, one that balances the theory of story telling with the realities of both linear and nonlinear game development.

Any analytical approach to character and story development has its risks. Yet Freeman's body of ideas, dubbed "Emotioneering," is a surprisingly practical set of techniques, characterized by clear, workable concepts drawn from Freeman's own game development experience. The book demonstrates these techniques clearly, using colorful illustrations and scores of real-world examples. And while Emotioneering as a system certainly has room to grow, "Creating Emotions in Games" represents the game industry's first comprehensive approach to emotion-based game design.

Creating Emotion in Games

Author: David FreemanPublisher: New Riders PublishingISBN: 1-5927-3007-8Published: 2003Pages: 539



The Emotional Heart of a Story

Emotioneering, according to the book, is a set of techniques "that can create, for a player or participant, a breadth and depth of emotions in a game or other interactive experience, or that can immerse a game player in a world or role." The definition continues: "The goal of Emotioneering is to move the player through an interlocking sequence of emotional experiences."

Freeman has generated some 1500 techniques for broadening, deepening, and enhancing the quality of a piece of interactive entertainment. The techniques are grouped into thirty-two broad categories, and are designed so as to bring to gaming a degree of emotional authenticity that has historically been neglected by the majority of game designers.

Freeman's core premise is that video games, by and large, have lacked the level of interesting content and emotional depth that characterize media such as film and written fiction. And this makes sense, for the interactive format is relatively new, and is only now beginning to reach a level of sophistication that might allow developers to create emotional experiences at all.

Drawing on his own experiences as a writer for both linear and interactive media, Freeman weaves together his thirty-two categories of Emotioneering techniques in a way that should allow writers and game designers to translate them into deeply emotional experiences for their audience.

The Breadth and Depth of Emotional Experience

The heart of the book is a play-by-play breakdown of the thirty-two categories, falling roughly into five principle areas of focus: Dialogue, Characters, Relationships, Game Moments, and Plots. Each of these areas is further divided into a number of independent categories - "Relationships," for instance, includes NPC-NPC Relationships, Player-NPC Relationships, Group Bonding Relationships, and so on.

Within each category, Freeman presents techniques that enhance the breadth of the game's emotional experiences, and techniques that enhance the depth of those experiences. (Think of the distinction as a pair of axes on a coordinate plane. The x-axis represents breadth, or interestingness, and the y-axis represents depth, or emotion.)

In any given aspect of a story -- be it a plot point, a character, or a line of dialogue -- a designer or writer must find ways to make that piece of story both conceptually interesting and emotionally deep. This is an idea that has been long advocated in traditional screenwriting, but which is only now making its way into gaming.

The techniques of Emotioneering are designed to draw and hold a player's interest in a game -- via well-developed characters, clever lines of dialogue, detailed back story, etc -- while also projecting a sense of emotional depth -- via layered plots, multifaceted characters, hidden motives, and so on. This back and forth between "Interesting Techniques" and "Deepening Techniques" -- and the integration of the two -- forms the backbone of Emotioneering.

From Star Wars to Grand Theft Auto: Instruction via Example

The book kicks off with a discussion of the differences between writing for the screen and writing for games, with particular focus on the traps that traditional screenwriters tend to fall into when beginning to work in interactive media. Freeman then launches into an in-depth discussion of the thirty-two categories. These range from techniques that enhance the use of dialogue or induce a player to identify with a main character, to techniques related to cross-demographics or ways to tie story to game mechanics.

Other categories include ways to make a player become enthralled with the world of the game, ways to develop NPC character chemistry, and ways to enhance emotional depth through the use of symbols. The categories are varied and diverse, and form an overall tapestry that probes nearly every dimension of linear and non-linear game design.

Yet it's in Freeman's use of examples that this book really hits home. Cover to cover, the book is filled with rich illustrations from various popular movies and games that bring the concepts of Emotioneering to life. Included in the text are instructional analyses of films such as The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and The Lord of the Rings -- as well as games such as Ico, The Sims, Final Fantasy X, and Grand Theft Auto.

Freeman also presents an endless number of original examples, including game script pages of his own. The examples provide an accessible foundation upon which to understand and apply the entire range of Emotioneering techniques.

In Search of a Systematic Approach

One area of the book that could stand to be improved is the lack of a systematic method by which the body of Emotioneering techniques can be applied.

It's clear from the book that Emotioneering is applicable to real-world game design - the techniques were distilled from real-life production situations, and that's how Freeman intends them to be applied. But the book needs a cohesive structure to tie all the techniques together, something to make Emotioneering more of a unified system than simply a "set of techniques."

The book might also benefit from a visual or compacted version of its core ideas - a flow chart, a process diagram, or perhaps a procedural outline - that would show a reader how to convert the information in the book into an applied practice.

As a result, the only way to actually use Emotioneering is to read the book cover to cover, become familiar with the core concepts in each section, and then develop a guerilla methodology by which to apply the ideas in one's own production environment. This may be a useful way to approach the text for some readers -- but it would nonetheless be nice to see Freeman address this issue in his next pass.

Into a New Era of Interactive Storytelling

Flow charts aside, though, Creating Emotion in Games succeeds in describing a system by which writers and game designers can develop, enhance, and deepen linear and non-linear interactive stories. Emotioneering divides the world of interactive storytelling into discreet and approachable units, and provides accessible, interesting examples that demonstrate each concept as it is discussed.

Overall, Freeman has created what is probably the most cohesive approach to interactive storytelling yet published for the game industry. The book is informative, beautifully illustrated, and an entertaining read to boot, dealing out good doses of humor that keep the text's energy high. So whether you're a game developer working on your next project, a screenwriter looking to test your chops in the world of game design, or a producer planning to farm your story out to a third-party writer, you will almost certainly benefit from this book.


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About the Author(s)

Brad Kane


Brad Kane is a freelance writer focusing on the film and videogame industries. He has worked on several of the top-grossing animated movies of all time, and on a number of upcoming film and interactive projects. He can be reached at [email protected].

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