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Touching Players Emotionally

Is it possible to touch a player emotionally with a video game? Is it possible to affect them or change them in any way? How can we do that and how far have we come? GDAM asked that question. This is my answer.

Shelly Warmuth, Blogger

February 3, 2010

6 Min Read

Train Board Game

Brenda Brathwaite's TRAIN

Brenda Brathwaite has created something most of us find illusive, a board game that makes people cry.  Train changes the rules of gameplay, eliciting an emotional response while causing players to try to change the design of the game while playing it.  It makes them uncomfortable, sad, and unwilling to win. 

When discussing emotive games, it's important to define the emotion one wishes the player to feel and when we want them to feel that.  Certainly, we've all played games that cause us to feel something.  A game becomes interactive and "fun" when it elicits a positive response such as laughter, satisfaction, or awe.  Consider the last time you caused a huge explosion in a game or laughed at a bit of dialogue. 

Game designers put in elements to bring forth certain responses on purpose.  Most players were touched by Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII.  Insomniac uses amusing quips to obtain giggles and smiles in the Ratchet & Clank series.  I found the beggars in Assassin's Creed to be very annoying, while hitting them became very satisfying. 

Meanwhile, Assassin's Creed touched on my fear of heights and, along with inFAMOUS, created a small fear of water, at least during gameplay.  Some games create an unintended emotional response such as anger, annoyance, and frustration.  Therefore, for the purpose of this article, it's important to define emotive games as those that involve a player's emotions, in an intended way, even when they are no longer playing. 

To elicit an emotional response, the game must first be immersive.  Creating an immersive game is a huge subject by itself but, if elements of the game are jarring players out of the experience, the required interaction cannot be achieved.  The player will not suspend disbelief long enough to be affected by the game without being immersed in the environment and story.  It must touch them on a personal level and stick with them after play is through. 

Immersion is but a small part of the challenge, however.  In an age of internet guides and forums, it's difficult to surprise players or sneak up on them. Players don't need to choose whether or not to save the Little Sisters before consulting the internet or guide to see the outcome of the decision.  Players hear about the treasure chest that voids the Ultimate Weapon before the game is even in their hand.  It would seem that touching a player emotionally then resides in the story, but, it's almost too difficult to avoid word-of-mouth. 

One option is to take away player choice.  Modern Warfare 2's airport scene is appalling and Dead Innocents

Modern Warfare 2 Airport Mission

disturbing.  Players walk through a busy airport, mowing down innocent, unarmed people.  They can't run or rush the scene.  They don't choose the scene, it is given to them and they must get through it. It haunts you long after playing.

This uncomfortable scene is a powerful example of what I'd hope to achieve in an emotional response.  It doesn't allow player choice, while touching the player's emotions in an intended way once they are no longer playing. 

It's only one scene, however.  Re-creating this response several times in a game would numb the player, dimming the response.  This is a fine example of emotive play, but not an emotive game.

The next option involves creating ethical dilemmas in games.  While I found Bioshock to be one of the most immersive games I've ever played, choosing whether or not to save the Little Sisters was not really an ethical dilemma.  It didn't change the game significantly and it actually becomes a strategy for some.  If you save them, you get the better ending.  If you harvest them, you get more weapons upgrades and more trophies.  Instead of being ethical, it simply becomes a matter of what's important to the player. 

Likewise, in inFAMOUS, being good or evil fails to significantly affect play or ending.   It, more or less, changes the visuals of the game.  Fable II, however, creates decision-making that does affect the game without the player being completely aware of the changes they are making.  To get an emotional response from this device, then, the designer must design ethical dilemmas into the game that actually affect the gameplay and story. 

The problem with this lies in the previously-mentioned word-of-mouth.  If we create decisions, how do we keep the player from looking up the outcome prior to making the decision? And, how do we keep the player from changing that decision when they get an unexpected response?

We could make it a timed decision, but word-of-mouth means they'll know about the choice before they get to it.  We could take away decision, but, we've already shown that, while this creates the intended response in the short-term, it will ultimately fail to keep the player immersed in the experience.  We could make games that involve an ethical decision which is merely the lesser of two evils.  Again, though, the guides and forums rear their ugly heads allowing players to make an informed decision.  Complicated, branching story lines involving many decisions would seem the only, albeit expensive, option, then.  In this way, player choices would lead to other choices making them unsure of the ultimate outcome.

In the final analysis, the answer would seem to lie in creating a game that offers small ethical dilemmas.  The player should be making decisions with little thought to the outcome.  The decisions should seem so insignificant that they are invisible to the player, making them unaware of how they are affecting the game.  And yet, the decisions should be significant enough to affect the player in a small way even when making them. 

Saves must be automatic and seamless so that the player cannot undo a choice.  The game must be immersive and the outcome of the story should shock or surprise the player in some way so that they become aware, in the end, that their choices caused that outcome. Thus, the designer retains control of the intended emotional response and outcome while giving the player the illusion of control and decision-making. In this way, not only will they be touched by the story and the game, but they will continue to consider the choices they made long after they have finished playing. 

Brenda Brathwaite created a game with all of these elements in Train.  Players make choices based on the rules of the game without being fully aware of the outcome of those choices.  When they suddenly become aware, the game itself becomes an ethical dilemma that touches players long after they have stopped playing.

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