This talk was originally given at the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival 2006
Before I begin, I’ve been told I need to observe a little formality. I’ve been asked to warn you that this is going to be embarrassing. Best case scenario is that it’s going to be embarrassing for me. Failing that it’s going to be embarrassing for you. Worst case scenario is that it’s going to be embarrassing for all of us, but either way, it’s probably best if I apologise in advance.
And why is that? It’s because I’m here today to fight a myth. It’s a myth you hear from people within the games industry, it’s a myth you hear from people who’ve left the games industry, who want to join the games industry, who barely know what the games industry is. That myth is this: Games Aren’t Art Because Games Can’t Make You Cry.
Now, there are a few variations on this, depending on who is propagating the myth. If it’s someone at a business seminar, the argument will probably go like this: Games Aren’t Massmarket Because Games Can’t Make You Cry. If it’s someone with a rather narrow-minded view of the gaming audience, it’ll probably go like this: Games Aren’t Art Because Games Can’t Appeal To Girls. If it’s someone with an axe to grind it’ll probably look like this: Games Aren’t Sophisticated Because Games Can’t Appeal To Girls. Or this – Games Aren’t Sophisticated Because Games Can’t Do Complex Emotions – or on and on. I’m sure you get the idea – indeed, I’m sure some of you may even have the idea. But every time I hear it, it makes me bristle, because I know it simply isn’t true. And so I decided to make it my mission to lay it to rest. But. As soon as I looked around for ways to lay it to rest, I realised why it was so pernicious, and so enduring. Because defeating it requires a terrible, horrifying weapon. Defeating it requires getting up in front of a roomful of people and making an unthinkable confession:
My name’s Margaret Robertson and I cry at videogames.
Now do you see why I warned you about the embarrassment thing? And so that’s the plan for today. I’m going to tell you about the games that have made me cry, which I hope will lay the myth to rest, and hopefully no-one will ever have to do this again. Because it’s very important to realise that it’s not just me. I know that sounds like a convenient thing to say, but it really honestly isn’t just me. When you ask people who love to game if they’ve ever cried – men, women, old, young – you get one of two responses. Either they immediately launch into a tale of the last game that cut them down at the knees and stung them to the heart, or they go ‘Cry? At Games? Me? Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve never – well, except for that time when Meryl got shot in Metal Gear Solid 2. That did give me a sniffle.’ And it’s that sniffle I’m talking about – the sniffle that dare not speak its name. For some people, it may be a proper, full-scale ugly cry; for others, it may be that one rogue tear that you try to blame on a sneeze. For some, it may be that pang in your throat and the tickle behind your eyes, but everyone knows it when they feel it, and almost every gamer I’ve spoken to in preparation for today has felt it while they play.
So, the lovely Meryl notwithstanding, if we’re talking about high emotion in videogames, there’s only one place to start. With Final Fantasy. But not with Aeris, and her untimely death and plastic hair. Final Fantasy VII may be a benchmark for emotional response in games, but I won’t be talking about it today, because it didn’t make me cry. In fact FFVII didn’t do much except annoy me, so it’s probably best we don’t talk about it at all.
Instead, let’s talk about FFIX. Final Fantasy games are famous for the strength of their stories, but I have to admit I can’t, now, remember a single one. There’s a chap, usually with a sword, probably some kind of domestic tragedy, a world to save and a girl he won’t get to kiss till the third disk. FFIX is much the same, but while I don’t remember the plot, I do remember this chap. This is Vivi. He’s a Black Mage – a very powerful magician – which is a little odd, because he’s also nine years old and has lost his parents. He joins your party early in the game, after accidentally setting fire to another of your friends, and travels the world with you. But despite the fact that his naiveté and clumsiness mean he’s the butt of a lot of the jokes and the provider of a lot of the light relief, it’s clear from the beginning that there’s something tragic waiting to be revealed. As the quest continues it becomes apparent that Vivi’s parents aren’t missing, but ‘stopped’ – a euphemism that Vivi can’t understand the implications of. And if that wasn’t enough, he also discover that all black mages – including his parents, and including himself – aren’t actually people at all, but machines built as foot-soldiers for the evil empire which you’re trying to defeat. And that means that Vivi, like his parents, is destined to ‘stop’ after a certain length of time. Which means that when Vivi does finally find his home, it’s the place where he also finally understands that he’s not real, that his parents are dead, not missing, that they weren’t his real parents anyway, that he was built to serve the bad guys and that he probably won’t live to see his tenth birthday.
So what happens next? I cry, is what happens next.
Now, some of you may be pretty sympathetic about that. It’s a pretty powerful quadruple whammy, and as you can see he’s a rather irresistible bit of character design. But some others of you may be thinking that what I’ve just described is the most mawkish, syrupy, openly manipulative bit of storytelling tripe you can imagine, and are little disturbed that anyone over the age of six could be taken in by it. And, on the whole, I have to say I’m in the latter camp. So how did it get me?
There are two secrets and the first is simple: time. Final Fantasy games are long. So long that most people don’t actually finish them. Vivi’s moment of despair is telegraphed from the moment you first meet him, but you’ve got 20 or 30 hours to get through before that tension is released. It’s not emotional sophistication, it’s simple attrition. Worn down by hours of play, potentially spread over several weeks, it takes pretty simplistic tools to trigger a strong reaction.
Because that’s the second secret. Making people cry is easy. Films can do it, soaps can do it, adverts can do it, all kinds of things can do it. The last time I can remember crying at the cinema, it wasn’t at Iris, or United 93, or something worthwhile. It was – well, it was at Armageddon. Not my proudest moment, I confess. But in my defence I was with a friend, a very unsentimental chap, and he blubbed twice as hard as I did. And looking back, it means I can provide a four-point plan for how to guarantee tears.
- Make Cinema Too Cold. After an hour and a half of clenching my jaw to stop my teeth from chattering, I wasn’t that far from tears anyway
- Make Film Too Loud. And after an hour and a half of a barrage of explosions and hollering and world-in-peril panic, the simple fact that that volume dropped a bit for the finale was enough to make anyone a little teary.
- Make Someone Else Cry. Making your audience watch someone cry is a shortcut to getting them to do it themselves. And the interesting thing about this, is it seems to work even if it’s Liv Tyler, who seems to be on the verge of tears most of the time as it is. But it’s the fourth step that’s key.
- Kill Bruce Willis. It’s extreme, I know, but it does seem to guarantee a response.
Because, the point is that making people cry is a calculated, mechanical process – it’s not the hallmark of good art, it’s not the thing that proves that games are respectable rather that reprobate, it’s just a form of manipulation. I’ve never cried at a painting, I’ve never cried at a sculpture. I’ve never cried at a piece of classical music and I don’t think anyone’s about to leap to their feet and condemn Stravinsky for not being emotionally mature. If the games industry is genuinely concerned about being taken seriously as a creative force – assuming we’re aiming a little bit higher than Armageddon – then the sooner we stop using crying as a some kind of badge of honour, the better.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit down now – because, I hope, the other games that made me cry show that gaming’s emotional agenda is already more sophisticated and subtle than this kind of all-out manipulation.
The reason that Final Fantasy is where most discussion of games and emotion starts is that it conforms very closely to our expectations of how stories work. And while Final Fantasy may get a lot of its sentimental sucker-punches through a rather crude, mechanical process, it doesn’t mean that games with better stories to tell can’t produce a genuinely profound emotional reaction in their players. For me, the best example of this is probably Ico, but unfortunately, I can’t tell you why. I can’t tell you why because the emotional impact of the game’s ending is so great, that talking about what happens has become on of gaming’s greatest taboos. If you’ve already played it, you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t already played it, then you may want to stick your fingers in your ears for a little. Ico is a very simple game that tells the story of a young boy who rescues an older girl as he attempts to flee a prison. There’s not much dialogue and not much plot, but that gives the story space to take on some fairly substantial themes of love, friendship, puberty, rebellion. The ending is oblique, and unsettling and leaves a mark on everyone who plays it, and next to Final Fantasy VII, it’s one of the most common answers to the question of whether games have made someone cry.
But this is a very straightforward, well-understood process; you’ve been shown a sad story, and it’s made you a bit teary. Aren’t games supposed to be able to create new experiences, built on the fact that they’re interactive? Enter Captain Rhama, the dashing hero of Toby Gard’s Galleon. Rhama is a pirate aristocrat with a heart of gold and an expert sword, who becomes locked into an adventure when his old friend is killed. His companions on the trip are Faith, the daughter of the old friend, and Mihoko, a warrior he rescues from the brain-washing prison camps of his enemy. Faith is a healer, and a flirt, easily overwhelmed in combat and devastated by the loss of her father. Mihoko, once sent to kill Rhama, now fights loyally by his side, strong, principled and stern. And, at the game’s finale, a sudden rockfall leaves you with a split-second to decide who to save. There literally isn’t time to think, and at that moment – as I dashed to save Faith – I realised it was Mihoko who I loved. Well, or that it was Mihoko that Rhama loved. Third-person romances are always complicated. But that moment didn’t make me cry. What made me cry was the post-script. The great evil defeated, and her father avenged, you see Faith and Rhama setting up home. And it is, of a sort, a happy ending. Faith is beautiful, determined, capable, funny – she’s no booby prize. And you know that Mihoko would never, ever have forgiven you for saving her when Faith needed your help more. This is the best ending you could hope for, and yet it guarantees a lifetime of regret. It takes something which at the beginning of the game would have seemed like a dream come true, and turns it sour. All from just one, digital, fifty-fifty choice. I could have gone back to an older save and rerun the decision, but I never did – it would have seemed singularly dishonest. I’d made my choice, and now I had to live with it.
So is it that simple? That games can find their real emotional resonance in choices? Not necessarily. That would sell short the extent and the sophistication of how gamers relate to their games. The next game that made me cry wasn’t even a game. It’s The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, but I didn’t cry when I played it, I cried when I saw a screenshot of it, a year before it was even finished. The screenshot shows the hero Link after he’s maliciously been transformed into a Deku Scrub – an enemy from the previous games. And when I saw it, I didn’t even have any understanding of what it meant, or what had happened. But what I did know was that the previous game in the series – Ocarina of Time, was the greatest game I had ever played. And I knew that that game had an extraordinarily bitter-sweet ending. Link, the great hero, had grown to adulthood, saved the world, and fallen in love. But the time-travelling plot meant that the game ends with him returned to his childhood. No-one knows he’s saved the world, because the future in which it needed saving has ceased to exist. His adventures have revealed to him that he doesn’t belong in the village that he knew as home, and he’s left with an adult’s love for a woman who he’s never strictly speaking met, and now that he’s back in a six-year-old’s body, probably shouldn’t be thinking about anyway. And so, as you finish Ocarina, you’re left a hunger for more, for another chapter, and another chance for Link to find his place in the world. There was to be a two year wait for the next game, Majora’s Mask, but seeing this screenshot, all my hopes for Link’s triumphant return were dashed. The end of Ocarina had stripped him of his home, his love and his only friend, and now the new game was going to strip him of the only thing he had left – his identity. And that was enough to choke me up. It’s evidence of just how powerful the relationship is between a gamer and a game they love, and a gamer and a game character they love. When I’d had custody of Link, in Ocarina of Time, we’d won a war together. And now, after a year without me, he’d been reduced to this sorry state. And, worse that that, it would be a year before I’d get the chance to rescue him. A year he’d spend trapped, looking dejectedly at his own, mutated reflection.
And it’s that level of responsibility and involvement that lets games explore emotional reactions which are much more nuanced than Final Fantasy bludgeoning you into crying over Vivi. A perfect example is Ouendan, which is annoying because it’s not an easy game to explain. It’s a DS rhythm action game, which features the Ouendan, who are a Japanese take on the idea of cheer-leaders. The game is set in an ordinary town, full of ordinary people facing ordinary problems. There’s a secretary with a crush on her boss, a potter who can’t get his plates to come out right, a restaurant owner whose cooking is do dreadful he’s about to go bust. And as these people reach the end of their tether, they cry Ouendan to come and cheer them on. And your job, is to cheer the Ouendan on. The better you play, the better they cheer and the more likely the hero is to succeed. It should be a dismal idea for a videogame – it breaks all the rules of putting the player at the heart of the action. Here you’re at three removes. You don’t save the day, you don’t even help save the day – you help the people who help someone else save the day.
And yet, the stories are so empathetic – I defy anyone to not feel a pang of identification with the story of the violinist struck down with an attack of diarrhoea on the way to a concert – and your sense of responsibility is so strong, that your level of engagement is enormously high. So when the game asks you to help dead young man try to console his bereaved wife from beyond the grave, it’s a very charged situation. And it’s doubly agonising, because if you let him down, it’s not just that his efforts are for nothing, it’s that they backfire and terrify his grieving wife. And the first time I played it I failed dismally. And I couldn’t go back. I snapped the DS shut, physically walked away – I felt so rotten about making such a sad situation worse. And then I couldn’t go back to it. This wasn’t a level where you could try it over and over and over until you’d got it licked. It was just too painful. So I went off, and practiced on other levels, and only tried it again once I was 100% certain that I could finish it first time. And I did, and I cried. Partly because I’d be shown a sad story, of course, but mostly because I had a genuine investment in the outcome, because I had a right to be proud of myself and of the Ouendan and the young man because of what we’d accomplished.
And it’s with these kinds of emotions that gaming marks out territory of its own. Other fictional forms allow you to empathise with the emotions of other characters, but games don’t ask you to view those emotions through someone else’s prism. They can act directly. Things like pride and loss are real possibilities, and give gaming’s emotional vocabulary a unique flavour.
There’s no corollary, that I can think of, for why I cried at Phantasy Star Online. This was my first online game, one I have many happy memories of. One where I made a lot of friends – nothing there to make me cry. But some time ago, before they closed down the servers, I went back for one last visit. And it was desolate. It was like going back to an abandoned childhood home, only worse, because when they flicked a switch, the Pioneer spacecraft, and the dense landscapes of Ragol would just cease to exist. We’re all conditioned to deal with the loss of the real, but losing the imaginary is a uniquely bittersweet process.
And another thing that makes PSO interesting, is that although a lot of what I’ve talked about today is narrative – Ico, Ouendan, Majora’s Mask – often game emotions are often at their most powerful when they’re wordless, abstract evocations. The last game I cried at – and, again, interestingly, I cried watching someone else play it, rather than when I was playing it myself – was Capcom’s Okami. And what interests me most about it is that I still don’t know what I was crying at. Okami is a fable of game, presented in these extraordinary brush-strokes rather than angular polygons. It’s uncommonly beautiful. It tells the story of the sun god, Amaterasu, who takes the form of a wolf to save the world from darkness and return her fellow star gods to the skies. But the bit I cried at had nothing to do with the story. Amaterasu, as a god, has the trust of the other animals he meets. And the smaller animals, he can carry in his mouth. It doesn’t really do anything, it’s just something that’s possible. So a small water rat he’ll pick up and carry like a puppy. But a bigger animal, like a small deer, he’ll pick up by their back leg. And that’s it. That’s all it took to make me – and in my defence the friend who I was watching play – cry. No narrative, no gameplay implications, just the wonder and beauty and delicacy of being in control of this extraordinary creature in this extraordinary world.
And that, I think, is the point I’m really trying to make. There are books and seminars and training course about techniques for putting emotion into games, but what’s discussed is always a very top down approach – make this kind of character, have this happen in their story, give them these capabilities. But what everyone always seems to forget is that gamers have been finding emotional experiencing in games for years. Why on earth else would you think that they play them? Games are expensive, time consuming, infuriating, repetitive, full of failures waiting to happen. People play all sorts of games for all sorts of reasons, but if that emotional response wasn’t there, this whole business would have gone bust years ago. The truth of the situation is that the people who are experts at emotion in games are the players, not the developers. You can’t put emotion into a game – it’s just a bit fat list of 1s and 0s. But what you can do is gave player’s the scope and the scale to contribute their own emotional response to it. So next time you’re at a conference and there’s a seminar called ‘Emotion in Games’, give it a miss, and see if you can find one called ‘Emotion in players’. And, much more importantly, next time someone tries to feed you the ‘Games can’t make you cry’ line, do me a favour and knock them flat.