Saturday, February 27, 2010

On Emotive Games: Q&A with IGF Finalist Daniel Benmergui

In this Q&A, experimental videogame maker and IGF finalist Daniel Benmergui talks about his own approach to making games and the potential of games in eliciting emotions.

How do you make emotive games?

I never set myself the goal of making emotive games. It just happened that both I Wish I Were the Moon and Today I Die where born out of intense emotional impressions.

Something I discovered with those games is that you can build important experiences that involve audiovisuals, text and (weak, to be honest) gameplay, without "telling stories". There are very few of these "game poems", which is shame, because there might be a huge audience for them out there.

Do games have the necessary vernacular to tell powerful stories?

I think Jonathan Blow is right when he said that games are never going to catch up with cinema in telling stories like movies do. Any kind of interaction breaks storytelling horribly, despite the enormous efforts of designers to overcome it.

However, I believe there is a different kind of narrative which is based purely on gameplay. That kind of narrative is very unexplored and we mostly stumble in the dark when trying to "author" that narrative that is constructed between players and gameplay.

For example, take games like Braid: a kind of magic happens, where you being to understand and talk with the game in terms of gameplay, like learning a new language. You watch the game objects, with their sprites and animations, but what you really see is how the puzzle works as a whole, and all the possibilities of stuff you can try with the tools at your disposal.

Is there something important in that conversation, in the way a movie can be important? Or you are just learning to navigate a screwed up universe and have learnt nothing that matters?

Those are important questions, but to figure them out, we have to keep learning the true language of games... we can't expect to write good poetry in a language we scarcely understand!

What kinds of emotions can games generate in players?

Most games I've played involve either a high degree of abstraction (puzzle games) or a high degree of adrenaline. It's difficult to explore a vast range of emotions when you are pumped up or using logic brain functions.

But I think the appropriate question is "What can this game make me discover about the universe and myself?" Answering that question would involve a lot of emotions... both in the player and the game maker.

Is it even important for games to make players cry?

There are plenty of games that made a lot of people cry. Most Hollywood movies do that easily, given the proper audience.

But I would prefer games to shock people to the very core, which is something I know books and movies can do. Then there will be crying.

Experimental videogame maker Daniel Benmergui is the creator of Today I Die, an emotive game that brought him a nomination in the 12th Annual Independent Games Festival. `He can be reached at his blog Ludomancy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Creating Emotions Through Play-Character (Part II)

In Part I, graduate student Nick Lalone considers Johan Huizinga's notion of play-character as a pathway to invoke emotions in games. In Part II, he compares how various games use play-character.

Most often, video games invoke the spirit of exploration during the time between World War 1 and World War 2. We, as people, think back on a world much larger than it is now. What is out there? As Uncharted 2 begins,
"I never told the half of what I saw ...." - Marco Polo
A world that is filled with mystery taps into the fantastic hindsight we have now through historical documents. Marco Polo headed into a world that none of us could have ever imagined. What would it be like to head into a culture so unlike anything we had never seen? What would it have been like to walk into a place untouched by Roman influence?

Another thing game designers tap into, something that invokes an emotion we can’t describe, is war.
“War, War never changes.” - Fallout 3
War never changes. The atrocities of war are well known to anyone who has ever opened a book about World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Russo-Japanese War, or any war that has ever been fought. Most of the younger generations in the United States or Europe will never know the horror that war brings. The globalization of world industry means that, as Metal Gear teaches us, wars will be fought between nations through a poor nation. Russia and America will fight through Afghanistan, China and America will fight through Korea, etc etc. The citizens of the “Core” countries will most likely fight less and less as the years progress. However, the idea of war is still omnipresent thanks to things like the media, movies, video games, and all sorts of museums. To participate in a war captures an emotional curiosity that reaches almost all of the target audience of video games. We all grew up with parents or grandparents who were a bit “off” due to war. Why, what, and how they became this way is something of a subconscious curiosity. Purchasing a war game allows us to tap into this curiosity, this want-to-know.

However, these things barely tap the play-character. Where the play-character shines in video games is that of environment. For this case, we turn toward Grand Theft Auto.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City did something so few games, or movies for that matter, have done since the 80s ended: It captured the very essence of vice in the 1980s. Maybe it was the voice acting, maybe it was the music, maybe it was the drug culture, but this game had soul. Playing Vice City meant turning on a time capsule. It invoked emotion simply because of the amount of environmental ooze it managed to move. Since Vice City, each Grand Theft Auto has tried to capture a certain time period. San Andreas captured the atmosphere of the race riots in the 90s. Grand Theft Auto IV managed to capture the essence of resolving the gap between culturally favored goals and current available means to attain those goals (anomie): we usually call this deviance or innovation.

Invoking emotion, invoking the play-character is a risky way to bring emotional investment by your players. However, the mode through which a game designer can capture this is not replicable as that of a single event. Still and all, going too far or not enough and players will punish you by not purchasing your game.

Nick LaLone is a graduate student working on an MA at Texas State University-San Marcos. When the video games are turned off, Nick can be found writing about modernization theory, gender, and social media. His work on these subjects with regard to video (and board) games can be found at

Friday, February 19, 2010

March 2010 Poll

Please vote for the March 2010 topic!

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:

  • Cheats
  • Future of Social Games
  • In Search of Old School Fun
Please vote by February 26. Thank you!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Creating Emotions Through Play-Character (Part I)

In Part I of this article, graduate student Nick LaLone considers Johan Huizinga's notion of play-character as a pathway to invoke emotions in games.

Video games most often use single person events to create emotion. Some examples here are Death of Aerith in Final Fantasy 7, Permanent Death in Steel Battalion, Modern Warfare 1's Nuke Sequence and subsequent single person death. However, a successful event in profit-driven capitalist societies means that you get one shot at it. After that shot, the reproduction of that event becomes nearly ubiquitous. The death of the pure romantic interest, huge dramatic loss of innocent lives, and other circumstances all become part and parcel of the video game, while many of these reuses add something or take it away (Nuke sequence replaced with killing civilians, etc).

In short, all successful events quickly become rationalized, predictable, and a safe way to generate revenue. Invoking emotion becomes procedure. Now, why do things become procedure? First, like all fields of competition, companies have to do what others do in order to even out the playing field. Second, It requires enormous amounts of research to find a new way to generate emotion in a way that will make players want to buy your game.

However, there is another mode of eliciting emotion that many people do not cater to. We will call this mode by a term familiar to most ludologists: "play-character". The idea of the play-character comes from the book Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. He defines the play-character in an abstract fashion:

It is through this playing that society expresses its interpretation of life and the world. (47)
What he means here is that the way we play is the way society interprets the world. To play is to tap into the play-character, to play is to interpret life.

Huizinga continues saying that as culture continues, “the original relationship between play and non-play does not remain static” (47). Essentially, the play-character, culture’s interpretation of “life and the world” is constantly in motion. In monetary terms, tapping into this is to reach an abstract portion of society that has moved on; to find a way to make money on the past. For, while the play-character ebbs and flows, this play-character is only viewable after it has long since regressed or changed. We typically call this the spirit of the age and tend to block it off in decade form.

Creating Emotions Through Play-Character (Part II) 

Nick LaLone is a graduate student working on an MA at Texas State University-San Marcos. When the video games are turned off, Nick can be found writing about modernization theory, gender, and social media. His work on these subjects with regard to video (and board) games can be found at

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Touching Players Emotionally

In this article, game writer and designer Shelly Warmuth explains why emotive games, games that affect players emotionally, involve small ethical dilemmas.

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 beggers 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 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 should 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. 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.

Shelly Warmuth is a freelance game writer and designer. Her games, Dance Class and Coach's Corner, won top honors in HG4H's InsertCoin. She looks forward to the release of these great games on Project Natal in the near future.