This sometimes happens: I woke up mad at something I read a week ago. Today, it was Chris Bateman’s measured, interesting, informed article positing that a game has never – could never – make you cry. It’s not at all his fault. The distinction he makes between games as play, and games as systems is an interesting one, and his observation that games make people cry not through systems and rulesets and interactions themselves, but through the stories which are embedded within them, is sound.
What makes me angry – even in my sleep, it would seem – is that we seem as incapable from moving on from the ‘can-we-make-people-cry’ debate as we are from the ‘are-games-art’ debate. I ranted about both before, in magazines and conference halls and pubs and railway sidings and on the internet, so I’ll try and keep it brief, but come on. Really? Can’t we leave it behind? The last group of people I encountered so dead set on making people cry were the boys in my class in primary two who had a dead frog in a matchbox they showed to all the girls. Can’t we aim a bit higher? Making people cry is not synonymous with high art, and it’s not synonymous with a deep and valuable emotional response.
I’ve been waiting all year to go to the Rothko exhibition at the Tate, and I’m not expecting it to make me cry. I am expecting to be ambushed by memories of things I thought or hoped forgotten. I am expecting to find solace and some strange kind of sustenance in the colours and contrasts that he painted. I am expecting the rhythms and patterns that I see to change how I think about the rhythms and patterns of my own life, and of my own thoughts. I am expecting to leave with a sense of wonder, melancholy and gratitude towards this man I never met, who died before I was born, who yet took the time to leave these treasures behind for me. In short, I’m expecting it to be moving, enriching, challenging. I’m expecting to be not quite the same person when I come out that I was when I went in. All with out story, all without tears.
Tears shouldn’t be our goal. Stories don’t need to be our tools. The majority of art forms don’t rely on narrative for their emotional impact. Stop and think about that for a second. The games industry tends to draw on such an amazingly limited roster of inspirations that it’s easy to forget it. But our obsession with linear, story-based – word-based, even – non-participatory art at the expense of all the other forms makes life so much harder for games, and it makes me crazy. I swear, next GDC I’m going to set myself up behind a table in the lobby with a huge pile of rubber bands and a huge pile of Jelly Tots, and each delegate, as they come in, is going to get a band on their left wrist and a handful of sweets in their right pocket. And then, all week, every time they hear the word ‘film’, ‘book’ or ‘TV show’, they have to give themselves a snap. And everytime they hear the world ‘painting’, ‘theatre’, ‘sculpture’, ‘opera’, ‘architecture’, ‘comics’*, ‘dance’, ‘music’ or ‘poetry’, they get a sweetie. Two, if they say it rather than hear it. But goddamit, we’re not the only people trying to create emotionally resonant experiences in environments that aren’t kind to linear narratives. Landscape gardeners talk with great sensitivity and great ambition about how they want visitors to their gardens to feel. Typographers can – and do, and have, and will again – talk for hours about the emotional resonance of difference fonts, of how different approaches to typesetting can totally change the mood and tone of a piece before you’ve even read a word. The world knows a lot about how to do this stuff, and all that knowledge is just there, lying about in galleries and on radios and along boulevards, for us to plunder.
So please, stop trying to make me cry, before you drive me to tears. But do keep trying to make me feel.
* I know comics are narrative-led, but I like them too much to not give people sweeties when they talk about them. And they’re still more useful to games than films, books, or TV.