Sunday, August 30, 2009

Emotional Experiences in Gaming


So I've been thinking recently about emotional experiences I've had playing games, and what causes them. Games, especially good games, have given me quite a few to consider. In "Portal," for instance, I've had moments of genuine laughter, and of genuine panic and fear. Games have given me and others moments of real sadness, and a very real feeling of achieving victory. So what is it about these games that can make me feel so much? Emotional experiences in gaming, I've found, tend to break down into two categories, according to cause: those caused by narrative elements, and those caused by game elements.

Emotional experiences caused by narrative elements are similar to those in other fiction media. When Aggro hurled me over the edge of the crumbling bridge in "Shadow of the Colossus," and subsequently fell to his own (presumed) death, I felt real anguish. Aggro was a character I had grown attached to. He was my sole companion throughout the game, my vital aid in many previous missions, and though I was occasionally annoyed when he had a slower reaction time than I wished, I had really come to think of him with fondness. In fact, I didn't realize just how attached I had become to that horse until I watched him plummet into the canyon.

Most of us are familiar with this sort of experience. Many of us remember crying when we first read "Bridge to Terabithia" or "Where the Red Fern Grows." We become absorbed in fictional worlds, attached to their characters, and invested in their plots. The process of storytelling gives us mental models in our minds of people and events that are as real as those models we create to represent people, places, and things that actually exist in the real world. The things that happen to fictional characters are as real to us as the things that happen to, say, celebrities, sometimes more so - since we often know more about a fictional character's life and motivation than we ever know about the mysterious lives of the rich and famous. So it's not strange when emotion is evoked by a story. We're sort of used to that.

The other way games evoke emotion are through the experience of gaming - the feeling of "yes, success!" when we accomplish a difficult goal, for instance. Puzzle games can be particularly pleasurable for the feeling of cleverness and self-appreciation we get when deciphering a particularly complex brain teaser. We feel a sense of triumph - over the machine, over other players, even over the rules of the game itself. Likewise we can feel defeat, frustration, determination, unease, and even fear, concerning the goals of the game and our progress towards them. Just yesterday I felt such successes and failures when playing a fighting game with a group of friends.

This second type of experience doesn't require story - it comes straight from our real-world experience with the act of playing the game. I can be argued therefore that this type of emotion is therefore more "real," although that term seems to belittle the story-based emotional experiences, which can often be incredibly powerful - sometimes even more than these so-called "real" emotions. (In my opinion, both sets of emotions are real, whether the source they stem from is fictional or not. After all, both emotional experiences take place in the same centers of our brain.)

These two methods of evoking emotion have historically been very segregated in their study. The practice of evoking emotion with fiction has long been the study of the creative fields - creative writing, film-making, literary study, theater, and so on. Whereas the evocative powers of games, when studied at all, tend to fall more into the psychology or sociology category - how do humans deal with success and failure? With stress? With competition? It is perhaps because of the vast separation of these two fields that it becomes somewhat difficult to think about the unifying of the two types of emotional experiences.

Some of the most moving emotional experiences I've ever had in games, however, come not from either of these categories, but from clever hybrids of the two. Video games are in the unique position of being able to provide a game experience and a story experience at the same time. Here are a few examples:

When I first played "Portal," and completed the last of the official missions, I was feeling very satisfied with myself. I'd been doing very well, thinking around obstacles and proving myself to be smarter than the machine. GLaDOS was just congratulating me on finishing the test.

Then the platform I was riding turned a corner, towards a bank of fire, and I panicked. An eerie, tense techno theme rose in the background as thoughts flashed through my mind: 'Oh no, GLaDOS betrayed us' - 'I'm going to die, what should I do?' - 'Where can I put a portal?' - 'So that's why the lab is empty, this is what happened to everyone else' - 'Ohshitohshit! I'm gonna die! I have to jump!'

This series of thoughts illustrates the combination of emotional occurrences. On the one hand, my panic was engendered by fear for my game success. I had only seconds to make a difficult decision, solve a puzzle, or else the result would be failure. Actions I had been performing more or less at leisure the rest of the game were suddenly put under extreme time pressure, which caused an equally extreme anxiety.

But on the other hand, part of my panic was entirely story-related. I realized that my character had been betrayed. That all along, the AI had been planning to get rid of my character after she analyzed my abilities. I realized that this must have happened before - that all the test subjects who came before me must have been hurled towards this same fire, that maybe they'd found a way out, but maybe they'd burned to death in the flames. I panicked wondering how I - how my character - was going to get out of this situation.

Another such powerful experience comes from the game "Call of Duty 4," and is one I've written and talked about often before. In the game there is a sequence where one of the characters - a character which the player has been controlling for about half the game thus far - is caught in a nuclear explosion while trying to escape by helicopter. The helicopter goes down, and the player assumes that the character has died.

But wait - he's alive! The GPS locator in the game's loading screen focuses on the character, finding him amidst the wreckage, and the game drops you down into the man's body once more. You awaken to find yourself in the midst of the helicopter wreckage, so injured you can barely move except for a slow crawl. As you stumble out of the twisted hulk of metal, you find yourself in the midst of the nightmarish aftermath of the explosion. An enormous mushroom cloud towers over you on one side, while the wind blows pale-colored dust and debris in a fierce storm all around you.

It quickly becomes horribly obvious: this situation cannot end well. There is no reasonable hope of escape. Everything around you is dead, dying, or destroyed. The faint hope you felt at finding your character alive quickly dwindles into a shocked acceptance of the truth: you are going to die.

The emotional impact here is once again two-fold. On the one hand is the obvious impact of the story elements, the horror of nuclear war, the desolation of the environment, the doomed fate of a well-liked character. But on the other hand, the despair is also game-based: there is no way to win. All the previous missions (with the exception of the "mission" over the opening credits, which is almost more of a cinematic sequence, and should probably be considered differently for a variety of reasons which I won't get into here) have always had a win state, a goal to accomplish, a way to survive. Now, the player must gradually come to terms with the fact that there is nothing he can do. There is no way to win, no way to save the situation, or keep this character around for later use. This is it. You lose.

By combining these two emotional impacts, the game delivers an exceedingly strong message about the danger and destructive force of nuclear war. Neither emotional resonance on its own would do the trick - just forcing you to lose a mission without the story context would be meaningless and frustrating, while having you watch a static story-based cutscene about the character's death would seem preachy and cliche. But together, the combination of the two delivers a startlingly effective experience, reaching out to the heart and soul of the player.

Because of the strength of this impact, I think it's very important in the study and creation of games for us to think about the nature of such emotional experiences - after all, the ability to evoke emotion is one of the strongest powers of Art, no matter what its format. We must learn to appreciate the nature of games in both their capacities to evoke emotion, and think long and hard about the best ways to combine them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Indirect Storytelling in Facebook's Packrat

I've been playing the facebook app game "Packrat" (copyright Alamofire Digital Collectibles) for over a year now. It's an addicting little sucker - a collectible card game wherein you use in-game credits to purchase cards from stores, or use cards you already have to steal new ones from other people. The cards belong to various themed sets, and each card has a point value. Low-level cards from the same set can be combined to form higher-level cards from that set (which, most of the time, cannot be gotten in any other way), and the object is to collect all the cards from a given set and "vault" them so that they can no longer be stolen from you. It can be played with or without active friends playing the game, although as with most facebook apps, there is a bonus for getting friends to join.

I didn't start thinking about Packrat as a form of narrative until recently - perhaps because they've only just started using it as such in a more blatant fashion. It's not direct, obvious narrative like you'd find in a novel or a movie, but much more subtle. It arises from the nature of the card sets, and how they're designed. Allow me to explain via example. The following is one of the current sets of cards, "The Razor's Plunder," and the cards required to make each card:

Base Cards:
Treasure Map Fragment
Metal Detector
Trail of Treasure
Iron Heart (a sort of steampunk engine)
Stone of Fortune
Marked Palm Tree
Unfortunate Treasure Hunter (a skeleton)

Built Cards:
Captain's Gig: Iron Heart x3
Treasure Cave: Metal Detector, Marked Palm, Unfortunate Treasure Hunter
Captain Auger Confrontation (a fearsome-looking pirate with a sword): Treasure Map Fragment, Trail of Treasure, Stone of Fortune
Converted Cutlass Arm: Pickaxe, Shovel, Iron Heart
Swashbuckling!: Treasure Cave, Captain Augur Confrontation, Converted Cutlass Arm
The Razor Triumphant (the Captain with a handful of gold): Swashbuckling! x2, Captain's Gig

Consider the direction in which these card combinations leads the mind. Like a connect-the-dot drawing, the makers of Packrat lay out a few key points along the way to allow the player to construct a narrative of swashbuckling pirates, hastily assembled mechanical limbs, and a struggle over hidden treasure. The details of the narrative may differ from player to player as they construct it in their minds, but the essential plotted course is there.

"The Razor's Plunder" is not the only Packrat set with an implicit narrative. Recently released sets include an "Independence Day" set wherein you make Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock, and combine them to form the Declaration of Independence. "Ink Wars" told the story of two rival tattoo parlors, one upscale and one rundown and sketchy, and the tattoos produced by each. Currently in progress is an "Ants & Grasshoppers" set, which seems to be a slightly revised version of the classic tale about work and procrastination. (The high card in that set is called "Bug Summit," and seems to be a meeting between the emperor of the grasshoppers and the queen of the ants.)

Packrat is an interesting example of a non-traditional narrative - but one nonetheless clearly intended by the game's creators. The combinations within each set are clearly intended to evoke some very specific images and causal relations. But the narrative itself - including its timeline - must be literally constructed by the player from these building blocks. It's a good reminder that our current models of narrative are not all-inclusive, and that it is still possible to think of storytelling in new, and entirely radical ways.