Feature: Emotions and video games

July 26, 2009

Here’s a piece I’ve been planning on writing for the longest time, something that I feel is very important as a gamer. Many people may think of this as silly, or a waste of time, but I think that video games, like any other forms of media, can emotionally involve the players just as much (if not more so). 


Can a computer make you cry?

When Trip Hawkins founded Electronic Arts in 1982, he advertised with a simple slogan: “Can a computer make you cry?” And here we are, 27 years later, some of us asking the same question. Can we ever get the same kind of emotional experiences from games that we do from any other form of media? A lot of people believe that you can’t, that games are merelytoys. Well, that may be true, video game systems were originally created as toys, and still can be considered toys, but games hold a lot more emotional value that some are willing to believe.

Video games can evoke many different emotions from us, whether we want to believe it or not. They can cheer us up when we’re feeling down, they can make us laugh, they can scare us, and they can even make us cry. It’s not hard to believe that with the breakthroughs in video game storytelling, there is bound to be one game story you are attached to. Or maybe it’s more than a story? The mere sound of a song can bring us back to a happier time in our lives, and that song may originate from a video game. Pretty much everyone who has ever played games for a good part of their life can find one they are attached to, mainly because a game did something that we never expected.

What is the cause? I can say it has a lot to do with that form of interactivity. Games are the most interactive of all forms of media. And that’s the purpose of them, to interact with what is going on inside of the video game. Many gamers in the era of arcades were addicted to these games, continuing to put quarter after quarter into their favorite arcade game just for another chance to play. People never expected that, aside from having fun, they would ever feel anything from playing a game. They were addictive, sure, but that didn’t give us any kind of emotionalattachment to them.

So, maybe it’s more than the mere interactivity of games that causes some people to truly fall in love with certain games or series. So, it was all unexpected? We just played games to have fun, and never thought to get anything else out of them? I know I didn’t. As a kid, I played these games to have fun, nothing more. But at a certain point, you discover a game that makes you feel…different when playing it. It evokes an emotion from you that, while familiar, isn’t something you’ve felt while playing a game.

Today I’m going to look at the history of games, going over my own experiences with them and the experiences of others, and try to possibly pinpoint what it is that causes us to truly get attached to a game. It’s about more than just having fun, I know that for sure. There is something more at the heart of these games.

Can a game challenge you?

The original Super Mario Bros. on the NES is a very memorable game for most, if not all gamers. Even if you haven’t played the game when you were growing up, you still know that it’s a timeless classic. From the music, to the very basic gameplay, it’s all a memorable experience. It did present a bit of a challenge, but can challenge evoke something from you? Besides anger or frustration, is a game’s challenge something that makes you stop and think…something that you never thought a video game, a mere toy, would make you do.

Backloggery user ninkendo reflects on this simple time and remembers a true classic, Mega Man 2. “It’s a challenge where you have to learn a new technique to make it through an area and to me that is the definition of what makes a video game fun.” He says, remembering that Mega Man 2 was the first game that truly offered a real challenge. And it wasn’t frustrating, it was something that made a game more enjoyable and, ultimately, more rewarding.

Video games, especially on the NES or earlier, were generally about challenge. From Super Mario Bros. to Mega Man 2, many games were a huge challenge for us gamers, and still are even today. They challenged us and, the best ones at least, gave us a huge feeling of relief once we actually managed to overcome that challenge. So, video games can challenge us, and for a lot of gamers we expect that level of challenge from games now. But then? We were kids, playing with something that we never expected to actually make us struggle or learn new techniques.

Ninja Gaiden is a series that is known for, if anything, challenging gameplay. From the original NES games to the more mature, updated games, the series has always been known to offer gamers a challenge. The original Ninja Gaiden on the NES was the first game I remember truly being challenged by, and was never actually able to finish until I was a bit older. But I learned from my experiences as a gamer and was able to adapt to it, and it made for a very memorable and fun experience in the end.

So is challenge everything from that era? Or can we experience something more from games? At the time, not many people expected to remember games for more than their challenge or their fun factor. So, whether or not it is an emotional experience is up in the air, but it is something gamers growing up are attached to. You may think that games during this era were all about just having fun and being challenged, but there were others that offered up something different.

Can a game make you laugh?

Recently we’ve seen the release of an updated classic with The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. But back in 1990, Monkey Island (and other games like it) offered something that you never expected to find in a game: true humor. Sure, maybe games made you laugh because of how enjoyable they were, or because of something stupid that happened when you were playing it, but not many gamers actually expected developers to go out of their way just to tell a joke.

Humor and games go back a long way, but most of it is long forgotten. With classic text based adventure games like Zork and an interactive version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, humor in games was not hard to find, but also not very commonplace. While I never played it when it was originally released, The Secret of Monkey Island is the first game that actually made me legitimately laugh. And it didn’t happen only once, but constantly throughout my adventure.

I was surprised that you could find a game with such a huge amount of humor. A game was only supposed to be fun, right? And fun, for gamers, meant doing something that offered basic gameplay but an overall rewarding experience. Monkey Island was a challenge, but a lighthearted one. It was an adventure game, yes, and didn’t require the same kind of fast reflexes you would find in an NES game like Mega Man. But it made us laugh, and maybe it did so because of just how unexpected it was.

Humor is something that is pretty common in games now, even if it is simply a quirky character offering up a couple of one-liners, or an entire game that has every intention of making you laugh. Sure, not every “funny” game is actually funny, but with classics like the Monkey Island games, it was clear to see that comedy was something that belonged in games just as much as anything else.

So, is a game that makes you laugh a game that evokes an emotion? Sure it is. As I said, gamers didn’t expect much from games at the time. And although The Secret of Monkey Island was not as popular as Mario Bros or Mega Man, it still holds a special place in many gamers’ hearts as something different. You expect to laugh from movies, or from reading a book, but a computer program that makes you laugh? Maybe it was inconceivable for some, but it certainly was possible.

Can a game make you scream?

Video games can’t be scary, can they? You can’t play a game and be legitimately frightened by something. I’ve talked to people who have told me these exact words, but I highly doubt they have played many games under the “survival horror” genre. Just the fact that gamers played a game to be scared seemed silly, right? People go to scary movies all the time, so why can’t a game be scary as well? A lot of people have noted moments in games that evoked an emotion that didn’t make them happy or sad, but something that merely was remembered for scaring them.

It really wasn’t until games were able to move into 3D when horror began to become popular in games. And we will move onto a different generation of games, and of consoles, to talk about games that truly scared us. Many gamers are connected to games because of fear, surprisingly enough. But people enjoy being scared, so while it may seem like a negative thing, scary video games hold a special place for a lot of people.

The original Clock Tower, for me, one of the first games that ever actually scared me. Normally you would think of a survival horror game, you think of weird and scary creatures that you could defend yourself against, right? Clock Tower was different. It was not only the first horror game I had ever played, but it was the first game I had ever played where the main goal was to simply stay alive. It was until I ran into the Scissorman, a foe who simply appeared whenever he wanted and began to chase you until you were safely hidden.

So, I couldn’t just shoot the enemy? There was really no way to defend yourself, you just had to use your wits to find a way to avoid this foe. It was a complete shock to me, and the very first game that actually scared me. Fear is something that was rarely used in games, but with the emergence of survival horror titles like Alone in the Dark, games became a step closer to something more than just a simple, fun experience.

Then came the game that changed everything. Released in the United States in 1996 for the original Playstation, Resident Evil was the game that truly put survival horror on the map. It wasn’t completely original, and it had a ridiculous story, but it was the first truly popular horror title to be released and the one that made the genre thrive. Playing through this game myself at first, I remember thinking of how terrible it was, until a certain moment in the game. It wasn’t the same kind of fear I experienced in Clock Tower, but something that made me realize that games really can evoke fear, even if it is for a split second.

Everyone can remember the first time they played Resident Evil, and the first moment in the game that actually made them jump. The game had a very eerie atmosphere, but you weren’t truly scared yet. You’re walking along a hallway, approaching the door near the end, when a sudden loud crash is heard. A zombified dog jumps through the window in the mansion and rushes to attack. This, for many gamers, was the first time they were truly frightened by a video game.

So, a video game can scare, can evoke fear, and for many gamers, this fear is something that they will never forget. Did you ever expect a game to actually scare you? I didn’t, at least not until I played Clock Tower. It’s something so simplistic, something that can be applied to anything, yet some gamers actually still believe that horror can’t be truly realized in a video game.

Can a game offer more than just gameplay?

So, with games in 3D, worlds are now open, and games can be explored even more. Mario, that character you remember back on the NES, is now in 3D and has a larger than life game world for you. But with 3D came not only advances in technology, but advances in storytelling and true ideas. The things that make games truly what they are, the ideas that developers come up with are the things that fuel these games and give us the experiences that will last a lifetime for us gamers.

But, with that, comes the idea that games are more than just about fun. There are so many contributing factors that make games great. Although I believe the gameplay is still at the heart of a fantastic game, for a lot of gamers, these games mean so much more. For me, personally, a game’s music plays a huge role in how much a game impacts me. The music doesn’t have to be amazing, but it has to work for that game, and it has to play a key role in certain parts of the game to make the experience just right.

To reflect upon a specific set of games I know a lot of gamers consider one of the best, I’m going to talk about Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series. From the moment you first boot up the original on the NES, you get to hear the overworld theme for the first time; it’s truly a thing to behold, and it is a song that has been present in every Zelda game since the original. When the series evolved into 3D with Ocarina of Time, the music evolved as well.

I will also talk about another game series to employ music as a way to get the players emotionally involved: Final Fantasy. Many gamers remember the music from the original game, and composer Nobuo Uematsu continued to improve with more freedom and technology to expand his craft. Final Fantasy VI, for me, is the game that truly made me realize just how far games have come, and the fantastic score doesn’t hurt either.

Seijika, another Backloggery user, explains rather briefly the impact of a rather cult game, Killer7. While mentioning a specific scene, he seems to say that there were many things that happened near the end of the game that made the event so impactful. He mentions, in particular, that “the music for it was PERFECT.” I think while a lot of things contribute to how memorable games and scenes from games are, music is one of the best examples. Even lizzieizzie explains that in Final Fantasy VII “brings back a whole bunch of nostalgia and memories. Whenever I hear any of the songs, I just get sucked into it.”

Another thing games have always offered is some kind of game world to explore, something that has become even more apparent with 3D game environments. To continue using the example of the Zelda series, it has always had an open world to explore, and you generally were left on your own to figure most things out. Ocarina of Time moved this open world to 3D, and did so spectacularly, as many gamers not only consider it the best in the series, but one of the best games of all time.

WanderingMind first got into the Zelda series with Ocarina of Time. He explains “You leave the Kokiri Forest, where you grew up for most of your childhood, to explore a much larger world. A lot of games these days have massive worlds you can spend hours and hours exploring, but Hyrule felt big at the time.” He says once the game was finally over, “I was in tears. There was nothing else I could do other than turn off the game or reset it.” Whatever you think of the game, it’s hard to deny its impact on the gaming community as a whole.

A good friend of mine, Grey Fox, explained in great detail about Shadow of the Colossus. He says, “The enormously desolate and empty landscapes provide a sense of isolation and loneliness to players, and as they get lost looking for the next colossus, they can feel Wander’s frustration and confusion. I think the game, as a whole, does a phenomenal job creating such a connection.”  This world, while not as lively as Hyrule, can still mean something to a lot of people.

So, does opening games up to a brand new dimension make them easier to become attached to? Possibly, but it depends on what games you grew up with. Some gamers started around that era, while others grew up when 2D gaming was still huge. Of course, I believe the impact to be the same. When playing a game like Ocarina of Time for the first time, whether it is your first Zelda or your fifth, you still get to explore Hyrule as a full 3D environment. Whether you grew up with Zelda or not, it’s still amazing to see such a beautiful world finally in 3D.

Can games tell a compelling story?

This leads to my next point, which will bridge the game from older games to the newest releases. Of everything that people tend to relate to the most in video games, it almost always relates to a game’s story. People love the story in television shows, in books, and even in movies. Yet when a video game has a fantastic story, it tends to stick around even longer, because you are involved in this world. You may not actually be the character you are playing as in the game, but you are him or her for the duration of that game or moment in the game. And this level of interactivity, combined with a good cast of characters and a good story, is what puts video games above all else in terms of emotional attachment.

I’ll use a more recent example of a game that managed to really emerge you in its world: BioShock. It was hailed by many as a masterpiece. While on the gameplay front it isn’t incredibly revolutionary or challenging, it offers some truly compelling storytelling moments and opens you up to a city that is unlike any other. While the main character, Jack, is generally lacking in any kind of motivation or personality, the city itself, Rapture, becomes more of the main character. As you explore and pick up audio diaries, you learn more about the history of the now ravaged underwater city, and some particularly intense moments occur along the way. Games like BioShock continue to expand how story is told in games, and if that game is any indication, developers are on the right track.

Most gamers can relate to choices the most in games. While some games give you a preset character, others let you design your own character and throw you into a world very much unlike your own. Either way, choices in games, whether they are large or small, generally give the player even more interactivity when it comes to the story and the characters around you. A game like Indigo Prophecy is something where you play as multiple characters, and even the smallest choices will impact the story in the long run. And with multiple endings, it seems like the first time through most players have a completely different experience.

Yokky talks about the Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney series. He remembers a very particular moment at the end of Justice for All, and talks about how a specific decision seemed like something that would forever change the story. “It goes to show how excellent the writing is when you grow this attached to the characters without realizing it. Ace Attorney games are filled with great moments, but to me, that instant might be the defining point of the whole series.” Even if the game’s story is very linear, there are particular moments that can truly make it seem like you can change things around drastically, even with a simple decision.

Remember the first time playing through Fire Emblem? You develop an attachment to your characters that you send out on the battlefield, and you think that when they “die” on the battlefield, they’ll be back and ready to go next time. Of course, this is completely wrong, when you realize that once a character dies, they are gone for good. Sure, you could just reset your game, but it’s still the fact that death is always there. Maybe you knew about it before playing the first US released Fire Emblem game on the Gameboy Advance, but I never knew it. Of course, it was so strange…I was sad when I lost my first character in that game. I’m so accustomed to death in video games, but the fact that I could have done something to save him made it all much worse. In the end, a truly compelling story presents you with very likeable characters, ones you get attached to. And Fire Emblem taught me that sometimes, even computer programmed people die.

The upcoming game Heavy Rain is interesting for the very fact that, while playing as four different key characters in a huge story, it is possible for any of them to die. And once they die, they die permanently. The story will move on. And if all four characters die? Well, congratulations, you just beat Heavy Rain. It’s a fantastic way to approach games, and it will give the feeling that death is lurking around every corner. Just like in real life, death isn’t easily avoidable. It brings you closer to these characters, and makes the story just that more involving on the part of the player.

So, video games bring that level of interactivity that everything else lacks. When you’re watching a movie and your favorite character dies, what can you do? Nothing, you just continue to watch. In a video game, especially with games now, there are ways to impact the story enough so you can prevent these characters from dying. Because, in real life or in video games, death is a tragic subject that can make even the strongest people shed a tear or two.

…Or is it all just nostalgia?

Nostalgia is something that can affect anything in your life. People feel nostalgic about music, about books, and even about video games. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the game itself, but with the people you’re around. Psymin speaks about a few games that he remembers because of the people who were around when he played them. “First, whenever I hear that “hut, hut, hut, hut, hut, hut” from Tecmo Super Bowl (NES), my thoughts immediately go to my uncles house, circa early 1990s when I was about 4-6 years old.” He says, relating to a family member who got him into video games in the first place.

Maybe part of it is nostalgia, the part that retains the memories.Belmontheir says that “Honestly, the games that most evoke nostalgia and an emotional connection with me are the ones I happened to play in middle school.” He continues by saying “Those epic moments are forever a part of my memory, and they take me back to a much more innocent and simpler time of my life.” So some people relate games, like anything else nostalgic, to their own life. For a lot of people, it becomes less about the games, and more about how they connect to someone’s life at the time.

Does this fault everything else I was talking about? Not at all. People can still have these emotional gaming experiences even today. You can get attached to games that are released last week, last year, or even a game you grew up with. Just because a game had never made you laugh, or cry, or scream, doesn’t mean that you still can’t have the same experiences, ones that are even more memorable. And it becomes apparent that all games, new and old, can have some kind of impact on someone depending on what it is. Nostalgia plays a huge role, but it isn’t everything.

Can a game make you cry?

So, it’s a simple question. Can a video game make someone cry? Of course, some would believe games are just for fun. People get emotionally attached to things like movies, but games are never meant to present something similar, they are only for fun. While games can challenge you, they can make you laugh or scream, they can even present more than just gameplay, they definitely can’t make you cry. It’s just a computer program, after all.

A particular scene I will always remember growing up is from Final Fantasy VI. I’ve talked about it before, but the opera house scene is something that made me both happy and sad at the same time. I had journeyed with these characters up to that point, but this was when I truly began to realize that games were about more than just having fun. Someone could tell a great story with a game, someone could give us compelling characters, someone could compose fantastic music, 8-bit or otherwise, for a game. You can do so much with a game, and with the limitless potential developers have now, it’s far from impossible to see even better stuff than we did back then. Final Fantasy VI is over ten years old now, and yet it is a game that impacted many people for many particular reasons.

Psycho Penguin briefly mentioned the ending of Final Fantasy X in his comment. Basically, he ends it by saying that he didn’t see it coming. So, games can surprise us as well, they can truly connect us to a world that we can explore and almost call our own. Gamers get lost in these worlds, and not because of addiction, because of the developers who designed these games to be something memorable.

So, can you answer the question? I know I can. Video games are, for many people, a fantastic way to express themselves and truly give their ideas a chance to be experienced by many people. These ideas may be basic, but sometimes a developer creates something so fantastic, we can’t help but just shed a tear. You may love movies, you may love books, but video games present something that any of these lack: a true connection to the person.