Friday, October 14, 2016

How Games Undermine Emotional Stakes

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how the nature of video game playing undermines the emotional stakes in linear storytelling.

For the last week, I've been pondering a provocative question posed by another game writer about the mediocrity of linear storytelling in games, specifically the 8 to 12 hours of story mode in a console game.  For a long time, I've been of the opinion that these types of stories are usually mimicking the Hollywood blockbuster and the Hollywood model of screenwriting, a system that doesn't always work with the needs of a game.  I also realize that this other game writer is only talking about experiences within these types of specific games and not about 60-100 hour games, episodic games, or MMOs.  We're not doomed to mediocrity for all eternity especially when we think about the ways games do build emotional connections. However, I agree that there are certain challenges in creating linear experiences within interactive games and trying to hold on to the emotional beats that would normally be generated by watching a great movie. 

There can be incredible gameplay with a mediocre story.  There can be gorgeous art in video games with a mediocre story.  Is story the weak excuse to transport the player from point A to point B, to get from one level to the next, or to string together a bunch of activities?  Is this kind of story character-driven or plot-oriented?  Sure, in screenplays, character development is the basis of all the decision points in the story, but in game development, character development can be one of the last items on the checklist.  The player can enjoy a great game but be completely detached from the story.

That's simply because in the do-or-die situations of gameplay, the immediacy of that kind of urgency affects the player more than the urgency of the created story.  Does the player want to avoid a reset or does the player feel the urgency to save the universe?  Moreover, if you think about all the things that a player has to do or keep track of in a twitchy action game, how important ranks the game story?  Much as we would like to multi-task to success, our brains have to prioritize.  Players may simply be too emotionally distracted to think about the game's authorial story especially when their own emergent stories are much more exciting.

Another concern is the desensitization to violence that comes from killing millions and millions of virtual foes.  In a screenplay, acts of violence generally have great significance and may punctuate an inciting incident, a midpoint, or climax.  Can a cut scene in a linear video game deliver the same kind of emotional punch in an act of violence when the last 4 hours have been pretty much the same fare? 

We know that games can elicit emotions, but these are not necessarily the same emotions that are elicited by watching movies.  I'm sure there are people who have tried over and over to beat a boss after repeatedly failing.  Nobody wants to see a required cut scene or hear the villainous taunts of the boss as we anxiously wait to try again, no matter how wonderfully cinematic that cut scene is.  The focus and resolve in this boss fight will not be about the game story or the player-character, but about manipulating the controller better or another gameplay aspect.  The emotion generated by the ultimate triumph in beating the boss is about the player, not the character. 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


Vael Victus said...

Developers should consider how they can tie the story into failure states, something to give your death/failure more weight. In a cute little 2D game about a penguin ridding Evil from the world, its death screen could show crying penguin children about to be eaten by the Evil.

Banjo-kazooie had something like this, but it was tiresome to see the same cutscene after multiple failures. Games are great at making the player feel responsible, so consider what failure of that responsibility means.

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