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Touching Players Emotionally: Part 2

To touch a player emotionally, immersion and ethical decision-making are not enough. Player perspective is an essential part of the equation that cannot be overlooked.

In response to my blog post, Touching Players Emotionally, I received two comments that contributed to my personal view and brought it into clearer focus.  Dave Endresak discussed player choice, stating that choice must always remain with the player, while Stone Bytes states that using Aushwitz is a cheap way to get an emotional response from a player in the same way that using the Twin Towers as the basis of a story would be.  While I agree with some of their thoughts, for the most part, I feel they've missed the mark.  

Brenda Brathwaite's Train uses the perspective of the "bad guy" instead of the victim to create the play mechanic and obtain the game's emotional response. Instead of playing the victim,  players finds themselves a part of an ethical dilemma with decisions to make.   A player will never attach themselves emotionally to a situation that is completely out of their control because they have no choice.  One may empathize with a victim, but they will not willingly become the victim and this is the important distinction.  Likewise, giving the player the ability to make informed decisions or to undo decisions takes them out of the experience while taking control of the player experience out of the hands of the designer which kind of misses the point of game design all together.

Using Stone Byte's Twin Towers analogy, let's take this further.  If the story were told from the perspective of a Twin Tower's employee or family member, the outcome of the game would merely be shock or anger at the event.  The player would remain the victim or become the victim in the outcome of the game.  The event is foretold; the story, unoriginal.  Playing on the emotions of a US citizen would cheapen the response.  However, say that the story is told from the point of view of an Iraqi national.  Without knowing the outcome of the story, players receive a backstory that only tells the story of their avatar.  They make decisions based on events that happen to their character, just like any other game.  The decisions they make don't seem very significant since they are making them based on events of the game, but instead are a series of small ethical dilemmas because they make the player a bit uncomfortable.  Perhaps the decisions are normal for play, for the story of the game, and for the player character but a little outside of the player's moral values.  On the other hand, some decisions are completely mundane and seemingly innocent such as learning to fly a plane, making a bomb for a specific purpose, shooting a gun, etc.  Events of the game lead up to a final outcome that players should have seen coming, but didn't.  The game ends with real film footage of the planes going into the World Trade Center, the buildings on fire and people jumping to their deaths which leads players to an "OMGWTF" moment in gaming as they realize they made the decisions that lead to that event.  As they contemplate the choices they made throughout the game, they realize that they wouldn't re-make the choices they made because they made them based on the information they had at the time.  They had no way of seeing the final outcome.  

In similar fashion, a game could be made in which the player plays as someone important to Nazi Germany or Genghis Kahn.  When told from a different perspective, especially if told from an unfamiliar perspective, the story becomes more immersive and insidious.  On a more original note, the story may be one instead of six degrees of separation similar to the movie, Crash, or the game Fable II,  in which player decisions early in the game affect aspects of the story later.

Perspective, then, becomes an essential part of touching a player emotionally.  It is not enough to create an immersive story that gives players small ethical dilemmas and decision-making.   The story must also be told from a perspective that empowers the player and makes them care deeply about the player character so that they are involved emotionally in the decisions he makes.  This is what leads to the ultimate emotional response.  

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