Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Games Are Not Books

Last week's Escapist talked about the emotional side of games. The question posed is the far too cliche “Can Game's Make You Cry”. The answer is apparently both yes and no. It depends on how you define game. Or what it actually means to cry. Is it the storytelling that generates emotional connection? Really, there are more questions than answers as we grope for a way to define games, and the interactivity (participation?) that draws us in.

Casual Friday's additions seem to have the greatest weight with me. Maybe it's because I read the other articles on Tuesday when I was stuffed full of mucus and medication while lounging on my couch in a recuperative daze. Perhaps the head cold dampened the effects of the reading. Or maybe it is just because these last two articles sparked interesting and related ideas.

The interesting parts that came out of Confessions of a Crybaby by John Walker was the discussion raised in the comments. Andrew of Grand Text Auto argues against games that make you cry as being less like games and more like, well, books. Or movies. Storytelling instead of performing the role of story moderator. Andrew seems to be looking for a game that provides agency as the emotional hook. Make the choices, and the ability to choose, matter so that emotional connections can form between you and the characters you are obviously affecting.

I think that this connects back to my recent round table post about friendship. It is the lack of effective emotional and moral agency that has prevented me from befriending a game character. The choices we are given are too shallow to accurately express ourselves. Even when they do, the choices affect the world in such narrow or pre-scripted ways that it scrubs the empathy from the choice. I can't dialog with characters in a meaningful way, so why should I care about them. Every action becomes a clinical choice instead of an emotional one.

John wants to talk about the other side of the coin. If a videogame presents characters, situations, and conflict using the well established tools of traditional literature, why can't it be emotional? Books, movies, drama, and fiction of all sorts has been making us cry (bond emotionally with the material) with far less. Movies have only a couple of hours to create a connection, build believable characters, tell a story, and deliver an emotional punchline. Even the shortest of games has 5-10 hours, 2-4 times as long. Books have to do it all through description and metaphor; games have sights and sounds – at least.

I think that the difference is that interactivity has always been used as a gimmick in the past. Andrew talks about games using puzzles as blocking agents. Solve this puzzle to turn the page, then solve the next one. Interactivity is added to a story to artificially create gameplay. Perhaps this is where participation in the narrative would be better suited. How you play changes the story-world, and not just by selecting a different ending, but by defining a new path through the plot, and by redefining your relationships with the other characters.

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