Can games inspire emotion?
|The Walking Dead: guaranteed to make you question every choice you make.|
Whether you instinctively answer 'yes' or 'no' probably depends on what emotion sprang to your mind first. Gaming has made all of us emotional at some point - that's part of the attraction - but some emotions are more familiar than others.
An overly difficult game may give rise to intense feelings of frustration, even real anger (I've never personally thrown a pad across the room, but I can understand the impulse). You know the story - you've got to grips with the game and its controls, you're making steady progress, and then a savage difficulty spike stops you in your tracks in much the same manner as one of the mats the police use to shred the tyres of speeding cars. Of course, when you finally clear it, the exhilaration can be equally intense. I recently succeeded in killing the Belfry Gargoyles in Dark Souls after about a dozen failed attempts, and the feeling of unbridled joy made up for all the previous frustration. Well, almost.
We all love to be thrilled when we're gaming, and games often achieve this by generating anxiety. The tension of an XCOM battle on the point of going sour; the timer ticking away as you race to complete a mission in Grand Theft Auto; the flesh-crawling creepiness of exploring a new area in Dead Space; the famous dogs-through-the-window scene in Resident Evil.
What about 'finer' feelings, though? Can a video game inspire affection? Compassion? Sadness? Grief? They're not emotions one immediately associates with the medium. Perhaps this is because gaming is a predominantly male pastime, and as a gender we're generally more comfortable playing with big guns and fast cars than discussing our feelings. If there were a developer out there mad enough to code an emote 'em up, it might struggle to find a niche. Even when games have attempted pathos, they haven't always achieved it. When Aeris died part way through Final Fantasy 7, once I realised she wasn't coming back, the first thing I felt wasn't loss or regret, but mild irritation. Who the hell was I going to use as a healer now?
However, as the genre has matured, there have been exceptions. Telltale's The Walking Dead, released last year in a series of 5 episodes, attracted high praise for its believable characters and strong story. By presenting the player with a series of moral dilemmas, it also induced feelings of compassion, guilt and regret, none of them commonly seen in a gaming context. To the Moon was criticised by some for being more of an interactive story than a game, but this wasn't hard to forgive because the story was so good - a rich tale of sadness and loss, which transcended the 16-bit style graphics. The best thing about it is the way it's told - the player is never given more than a few pieces of the puzzle at once, and the complete picture doesn't become clear until the very end.
A few weeks ago I played through Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, made by Starbreeze Studios and released on Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network and Steam. It's an adventure game, clearly inspired by the Brothers Grimm and similar folk tales (in their original and uncensored form). You take charge of the titular brothers, the game's 'hook' being that you control both simultaneously. Big brother is your left hand and little brother your right, and the two must work together to overcome the obstacles the game puts in your path. Like all great ideas, this one works so effortlessly that you can't believe nobody thought of it before.
The game looks gorgeous and the setting is detailed and imaginative (one section places you in the aftermath of a battle between armies of giants, where you must figure out ways to move giant corpses blocking your way). It's not a long game - you can play through it in three or four hours - but they're very entertaining hours indeed, and it's more than worth the asking price.
|Brothers - care has been lavished on the environments, and it's a proper visual feast.|
I'd love to say precisely why I'm talking about it right now, but sadly I can't, as it would involve utterly game-ruining spoilers, and I enjoyed playing it so much I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. However, I can honestly say that there were a number of points in this game where I was genuinely moved, and not by the story alone. Brothers has no intelligible dialogue - all the characters speak Flowerpot Men-esque nonsense - so the content of conversations is conferred by gesture, facial expression and intonation. This is both endearing and immersive, since the player fills in the words in their own head. Also, the game has very few cut-scenes, meaning that you're not shown the emotional moments, you experience them first-hand.
I encourage everyone to play this game. It's not perfect (for a start, you'll polish it off in a single evening) but it's not afraid to try original ideas and to take the medium in a new direction. I'll always remember the time I spent with it - one or two sections especially - and I can't offer any praise higher than that.