I feel like the color wheel that I learned in primary school may have a few gaps that need to be filled in. I mean, the basics are all there; happy, sad, mad, scared, excited, but there are so many more emotions that life throws at us – depression, anxiety, arousal, the unique hell that is hangry, and the true fear and desperation that grips you after the triple-layer chili bean burrito kicks in 1 hour into a 2-and-a-half-hour road trip.
That particularly exciting pants-shitting incident aside, the point I’m trying to get across is that humans have a lot of emotions (which we don’t always deal with in the healthiest of manners). As an explicit outlet for our creative impulses, the artistic world tries to elicit responses from its audience by tapping into these emotions.
Movies, television, novels, and most of pop culture seem to have this sort of stuff down pat by now, but as a younger medium, it feels like video games are much more hit or miss.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely games that deliver the old one-two emotional gut punch that knocks you off your feet and keep kicking you while you’re down. Hell, I bawled my eyes out during that scene with Aunt May in the hospital in Spiderman and the end of Infamous 2 like everybody else. I rewatched both these scenes prior to writing this and it still brings me to tears.
Yes games have long aspired to reach the emotional heights of their older brethren film and television and now that people are becoming more comfortable with the idea that video games can be art we have begun to see some games reach these lofty goals. The “some” in that sentence is doing a lot of lifting there so let’s unpack.
Where film and television can keep a psychotic death grip on the pacing through the use of leaving stuff on the cutting room floor and only picking the most essential parts (and keeping the rest to add in for the eventual Directors Cut), video games don’t have that luxury.
As a medium where the audience has an unprecedented level of control on the proceedings of the game it’s impossible for developers to ensure the experience is the same for everyone.
As a result the developers can dump all the story into the worldbuilding and crowbar it in as exposition in between gameplay (the original Titanfall being a prominent example). That’s not a story, that’s being dictated to.
When I play games, I don’t want to be told to feel a certain way about the events and what’s happening to the characters just because the developers say I have to. That’s just lazy storytelling or poor planning.
The first time I really encountered this was in the indie game This War of Mine. For those of you that haven’t played This War of Mine, you’re running a survivor’s colony in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world where this war is a big nebulous cloud hanging over everything as you just try to avoid getting swept up into it.
You start out by scavenging and looting abandoned stores and houses, but you can only loot sweet shops for so long. Eventually, you have to graduate from robbing the deceased to robbing from the very alive and armed.
This culminates in a harrowing moment early on in the game when you’re looting an old man’s house, and he catches you in the act. At first, you think he’s going to attack you but then you realize he’s no threat and can only whine as you nick all his stuff.
It was heartbreaking watching as my character stripped the old man's means of survival right out of his withered, bony hands. Knowing that he would surely perish because of my actions made me tear up a little.
That raw emotional goodwill that the game had built up curdled somewhat when a bit later in the game, my scavenger got gunned down raiding a military base. Assault rifles being much more effective than a game of paper, scissors, rock.
I returned to the bunker down one scavenger and the people in the camp flicked their emotional levers from “whining about the lack of food and the existential dread of their situation in life,” to “sad and whining about the lack of food and the existential dread of their situation in life”.
I don’t know why they were so sad. I’d never seen any of them so much as talk to the guy let alone play any soul-bonding sessions of Jenga together. I didn’t have the backstory or the relevant context on their relationship that I needed to care about them.
Compare that to Red Dead Redemption 2 and the (spoiler) death of Arthur Morgan’s horse. I’d watched Arthur Morgan and his horse bond and grow closer as a result of my own direct actions. I’d survived shootouts and outrun bandits and the law from one end of the US to the other on the back of my trusty steed. I’d seen that and had that context so that when I watched my beloved horse stumble and die all those memories and experiences were right there to emotionally break me. I felt the pain of Arthur as he watched his trusty steed leave him.
You can’t just tell someone they’re sad; they have to feel it; they have to absorb those feelings and process them in a way that’s personal to them. Their personal experiences and context inform all of their emotional responses. Let me explain (or try to with the grace of an alpine skier navigating an apartment stairwell during a fire).
I love the Uncharted franchise. I think it's some of Naughty Dog’s best work and it’s a game series that I can always boot up, sit back, and enjoy. The first time I finished Among Thieves (the franchise’s best entry) the tears were rolling down my face just like the end credits. I didn’t even realize why I was crying until after I met Nolan North and told him what happened, much to his understandable confusion (also got some great selfies with him like the one below).
I had just spent a great twelve hours experiencing a great game controlling Nathan Drake through a globe-trotting adventure capped off with an absolute thrilling boss fight that I definitely didn’t squeal like a pig during, and now it was all over. It was all over, and I’d never experience that for the first time ever again.
If the game had then flashed up a message in the sky that said: “Game Over, you be sad now,” all the emotional weight the game had built up would have sucked right back into me like a traumatic reverse childbirth.
A game that I think does this really well is Spec Ops: The Line. It’s the only war shooter that’s made me feel fear, guilt, and physical sickness. As you pilot Captain Martin Walker on his descent through a ruined Dubai, you become less a pilot and more like a witness to the horrible acts Walker commits, acting as the last vestige of consciousness.
The game puts you in horrible situations, gives you choices where the only difference is the degree to which Walker continues to spiral downwards, and gives you the freedom to make that choice. Then the game moves on and leaves you to come to terms with the undoubtedly horrible war crime you committed.
The best part is that the game never sits you down after these acts and explicitly states what emotions the characters are feeling. It trusts you enough to be able to figure it out; mind-blowing concept as that is.
Shadow of The Colossus, The Last Of Us, Red Dead, Bioshock. These games aren’t scared to push emotionally complex themes and ideas on their audiences and just leave them to figure it out for themselves.
For me, that’s what this all comes down to. The emotions we feel don’t come from the games themselves. Sure, the games bring out these emotions in us but ultimately, the emotions come from us and our personal context.
The frustrating thing is that I feel like the majority of the triple-A video game industry just expects that if they throw in enough elements that worked in other games, the audience will magically feel all those same emotions just because they’re there.
It’s like looking at a beautiful sculpture that an artist poured blood, sweat, and tears into, then taking a marble slab and hacking at it with a chainsaw all with the expectation that the end result will stack up anywhere close to the original.
What game gave you a case of the feels? Let me know down below.