Monday, July 20, 2009

Emotions in Games

Authors and filmmakers who wish to evoke particular emotions in their audience often rely on the audience's ability to empathize with the characters portrayed in the narrative, and especially with the protagonist. The author sets up situations in which characters experience particular emotions in the hope that the audience will themselves have similar feelings, or at least understand why the characters feel the way they do. The author is in control of the characters' emotions, while the audience's emotions derive from sharing in those characters' feelings and experiences.

Game designers who wish to evoke particular emotions have it somewhat more difficult. Unlike books and movies, where the author is in full control of the protagonist, it is the audience itself that is largely in control of a game's principal character or characters. Although designers can script particular emotions into a game's protagonist by taking control away from the player or reducing the number of available choices, this can feel like cheating to a player who feels his or her character should be feeling something different; An author like Shakespeare can write Romeo such that he wishes to die upon seeing an apparently dead Juliet lying in front of him, but a game designer cannot force the player to wish the same for his character.

How, then, does a game designer create emotions? Several options present themselves:
  • Atmosphere - Designers may encourage particular feelings in players by presenting them with emotionally suggestive images, sounds and music. This is all about transporting the player to an emotionally suggestive imaginary environment.

  • Subject matter - Audiences can respond emotionally to particular subjects. Games can touch upon the human condition or deal with controversial subjects to evoke strong emotions. If done incorrectly it may earn a game more critics than fans, but done correctly it may perhaps be the most crucial element in crafting mature, dramatic game experiences.

  • Gameplay challenges - The mechanics of games and competition encourage certain emotions in players. At the simplest level, these emotions concern the player directly rather than the player's character. In games that contain a narrative, these basic emotions can be modulated through narrative significance, in that overcoming or failing at particular challenges has specific narrative consequences designed to promote particular feelings in both characters and player.

  • Other characters' emotions - Just like authors can evoke particular emotions by getting the audience to empathize with the characters he creates, so can game designers evoke particular feelings by getting the player to engage emotionally with the characters in the game. Unlike in books and movies, however, it is a mistake for designers to rely on the protagonists emotions, which are perhaps best left unstated.