– On emotional attachment in video games.
Last weekend I finally got around to playing the excellent “The Wolf Among Us”. I wanted to read the Fable comics after my recent binge on Saga, Preacher and Sandman. I’d heard the games were a good introduction to the series. Not to spoil anything but after the many excellent choices in the first part I came to a moment where a character I had become attached to had been found dead. I found myself genuinely shocked, much more so than most television shows or movies I had watched in a while. Regardless of my prior knowledge of the games lore and whether this character survived or not I still felt a genuine tug on my emotional strings. This got me thinking about one main point. The development of emotional connections to characters and how in games this can be one of the strongest motivational tools. More so than hordes of loot and points. But i’m getting ahead of myself.
First thing I want you to do is try to think of the first time you truly ‘felt’ for a virtual character. Liking a roguish devil of a character is one thing, but what I’m referring to is having a genuine emotional reaction to a character, akin to more ‘conventional’ narratives. Mine for instance is a weird one. With all it’s flaws I’m happy to say I enjoyed the fable series (yes I’m seeing the fable connection here too, purely coincidental). During the second Fable game you get to play through your heroes life, cradle to grave. A minor character of no consequence you meet early on as a child is a amateur photographer, an entrepreneurial gentlemen who wishes to take your picture with his new fangled camera. He touts that it will take some time to develop, obviously referring to the games new theme of the passage of time. Again, no true importance. What I did react to was later in the game where you first meet the character of Reaver.
A morally ambiguous Dorian Grey character complemented by the dulcet tones of a Mr. Stephen Fry. You come upon Reaver in his vanity getting his picture taken by the same man you met all those (virtual) years ago. It seems to be going well, and to this point I remember liking Reaver as a character, yet when the photographer mentions the development time, the mood changes. As casual as swatting a fly Reaver expresses dissatisfaction at the turn of events and shoots the kind photographer point blank. I was dumbstruck. Angry at Reaver for such a callus act. Sad at such a kind character dying. Confused that the one I thought a lovable rogue held true darkness within. All this over the shooting of a very minor group of ones and zeros. That was a true motivator, more so than a sharpened sword or billowing cloak. I wanted to get to the bottom of who Reaver was simply for the emotional coals the character had stoked. This is something games can do so well. Provide true involvement in the narrative by giving the player emotional attachment to the events. In a movie you don’t get to pick what threads are picked up by the characters, you sit back and absorb the experience, reading into it as you will. In interactive narrative you can direct the flow and therefore the focus to a higher extent. The control of a character and it’s narrative produces a higher sense of involvement, and that’s where emotions come into play.
Yet it wasn’t always this way. Early games such as Pong to Pac Man relied on more traditional ways of motivation, like in sports. Score the most points, beat your opponent, etc. These were social generated parameters, you wanted to be better than the others, to strive to beat that high score. Now I’m not saying this is a bad motivator at all, I for one rarely go to the next race on a driving sim till I have first rather than a lowly second. All I’m saying is that with the development of narrative in video games we now have more ways to motivate the player. This development was spurred on in many ways, but none more so than in the genre of RPGs. Anyone who has enjoyed an RPG can remember at least one moment where they made an emotional link in the narrative. For many, early Japanese RPGs were the first time they had a character whose story they truly cared about. Maybe you were one of the many who cried at Arethis death at the hands of Sephiroth in FFVII. Maybe Vivi’s story from FFIX produced some melancholy. Or maybe Kefka’s laugh from FFVI made you hate a villain like none before. From Chrono Trigger to Xenogears, the story and the response the player had to it became a true driving force in gaming. In the west RPGs also flourished, and narrative based games such as Monkey Island, classic Sierra games like King’s Quest and many more brought that same emotional motivation.
Going into the future we can see more ‘mainstream’ gaming use emotional connections as a narrative motivator. No longer is it kept to the realm of RPG’s and adventure games. Shooters now build narratives which deal with loss and character death. Even Gears of War, a game about mountains with legs and chainsaw guns attempts to deal with the death of loved ones and the consequences of war. Whether or not you think it’s successful in this is irrelevant. It’s the fact they are trying to bring narrative up to a higher standard that should be praised. Other examples such as Bioshock’s main character and Spec Ops the line transcend the game and begin to mess with the conventions of a player’s place in the narrative, taking those emotional strings and playing them like an upright bass. We’re reaching a point where if you want to play a game that’s pure simple fun, with loot and points, you can choose that too and it’ll be damn fun. I myself am probably going to boot up Luftrausers after this. Yet if you want a game which motivates you through the narrative, through seeing a character’s trials and tribulations, well it seems we’re getting more and more of that every day. I think that’s a beautiful thing, because if we can care for a person made of paper and ink, so should we be able to care of one made of zeros and ones.