The Comedy of Tragedy: Emotions in Games

Originally I wasn’t going to post anything today, mainly because I’ve only got one-hundred more pages left to finishing The Count of Monte Cristo & I can’t read the book fast enough for my liking, but I saw a video on The Escapist’s website that really got me thinking.  The video in question is “Crying Through the Laughs,” posted by Jim Sterling as part of his Jimquisition series.  To sum up the point of the video, most games released today fail to understand how to get across emotional impact.  The current trend seems to be to make these dark, “emotional” (ie. sad) games.  However, what developers fail to realize is that if your game is depressing from start to finish, then it actually loses any impact.  If the world starts out screwed at the beginning of the game, any further trouble is really just pointless.  In the same way, broody characters aren’t engaging or tragic figures if it seems like they’ve never been happy a day in their life.

Sadness & tragedy only work when you have happiness as a counterpoint.  What do I care if an angry character acts even more angry?  If their friend dies & they get angry, but anger is how they respond to everything, it doesn’t affect me.  It’s when situations draw unique responses from characters that we really get a sense of how it affected them, & are affected ourselves.

Most developers seem in a rush to bring out all of this emotional response that they don’t take the time to set up a baseline to show how these events change things.  I can give a perfect example of what I mean.  A while back I bought a 360 game called Venetica from a local discount game retailer (when I start actively playing the game I’ll give my First Impression).  Now, if you’ve played any amount of video games I’m sure you know by now that one of the most common ways to establish a motive for a character & attempt to connect with the player is by killing off said character’s family.  Parent, sibling, spouse, child… whatever it is, if a character starts with these things in the beginning of the game you can almost guarantee they’ll be dead soon.  But I swear, Venetica has to have set a record for killing off someone close to the main character.  The game starts on an idyllic little village having some kind of celebration, quickly cutting to the main character chatting with her love interest about him going to war.  Barely a minute in & the game has soldiers attacking the village & killing off the love interest.  I really ought to start a new game just to time it.  But I swear, it’s around five minutes.  And my only emotional response was, “What just happened & why should I care?”  Complete void of emotions.  I don’t know anything about the dude, what their life was like before this, how they met, anything.  I can’t even remember his name.

Venetica certainly isn’t the first or last game to miss the mark in this way.  Here’s a short list of examples I can think of off the top of my head:

  1. Max Payne – yeah, I know his family was murdered, but he doesn’t seem like he’s ever enjoyed anything in his entire life
  2. Final Fantasy XIII – I blame this mostly on the stupid fact that the backstory is almost completely told through text, but there aren’t really any scenes to show that the world wasn’t already a crappy place to live in
  3. Gears of War – because apparently men aren’t allowed to express anything but anger
  4. Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Adam Jenson is broody from the very start of the game, so you don’t even get the satisfaction of playing like you’re bitter about getting the implants.  He sounds the same regardless.

But rather than focusing on how to do things wrong, I want to talk more about the games that do it right & why they’re effective.  Before focusing on game examples, I want to go back to The Count of Monte Cristo.  I’m not going to go into heavy detail on the book besides saying I think everyone should read it or at least watch the movie version with Jim Caviezel because it’s equally awesome.  But basically a man gets betrayed by people he thought he could trust because they were jealous of him, he finds a treasure & plots revenge against them.  The reason this is such an amazing story, to the extent that you actually want him to succeed in his revenge, is because the first chunk of the book is setting up what his life was like before this tragic betrayal.  When you see that Dantes (the main character) had a perfect life going, was a kind-hearted man & did absolutely nothing to deserve what happened to him, it breaks your heart when you read how he changed afterward.

I could continue with other literary examples, but that’s not what you’re all here for.  You want to know what games handle emotional expression well.  Of course these are just based on my own experience, but I think it demonstrates ways to show tragedy without making the game one long, depressing cluster.

  1. Dragon Age: Origins – the Human Noble origin story in particular comes to mind, but all of the origins start out with everything being just another day before the storm hits.  You start by wandering around your home, talking to friends & family.  The Human Noble’s parents sacrifice themselves so they can escape.  The Dwarf Noble is betrayed by one brother, loses another & is exiled from their home to die.  The Mage has to choose whether or not to betray a friend.  The City Elf isn’t fast enough to save their cousin from being raped.  It all sets up a plethora of different emotions & motivations for your character’s actions.
  2. Dragon Age II – Leandra’s death really got to me.  This is halfway through the game, so there were plenty of opportunities to see how mother & child interacted.  I also list this game because it shows how to do broody characters right.  Fenris is the token broody hero, but he avoids being clichéd or annoying because a) he has a valid reason behind his behavior & b) he shows other sides.  Through the course of the game he’s also insecure, sad, caring & even shows a sense of humor.  Thinking about him choreographing dance routines always brings a smile to my face.
  3. Mass Effect – hell, it takes the Reapers three games to invade Earth, & that happens so quickly that it really portrays a sense of hopelessness.  I also cried more in the final game than in any tear-jerker flick I’ve ever seen.  Thane’s death in particular had me bawling.  But these scenes are so emotional because we’ve gotten to know & care about these characters.  Even the ones I didn’t particularly like I still didn’t want to die.
  4. Final Fantasy VII – the reason Aerith’s death is still talked about is because the player went through most of the game with her.  She was a main party member.  They knew who she was & what she was like as a person.  I’ve heard a lot of people say they didn’t start to hate Sephiroth until after he killed Aerith, showing just how much of an impact her death had to them.
  5. Half Life – the first hour of the game is just wandering around offices, getting ready for another day at work.  This gave players a feel for the world of Half Life to contrast with the rest of the games.  Would it have been the same if it started at the invasion?
  6. Xenoblade Chronicles – it was nearly ten hours into playing before I even came across the catalyst for the rest of the game.  Witnessing the awkwardly blossoming between Shulk & Fiora sets you up for the tragedy later & gives weight to Shulk’s motives for revenge.

There have been other games that have emotional weight, but I think these six give a good showing of what it takes to have… resonance.  Good games let us experience the events ourselves rather than telling us what to feel.  We get invested in the world & characters.  There are distinct differences between the tragedy & the way the world normally is.  Characters have more than one note, so that when they do get sad or depressed, we understand & empathize.

And most importantly, these games know how to balance their tone.  Because the same ones that make us cry are often the ones that make us laugh.

(I will admit that it’s acceptable for some games to be blatantly depressing if it serves their purpose, like with Silent Hill 2.  However, even these games don’t stay on the exact same note.  In Silent Hill 2, I argue that the whole game is a slow spiral into despair.  The brief glimmers of hope that James’ wife is still alive is all that propels him & the player on, but there is only one more tragedy after another until the greatest tragedy (the truth) is revealed, which really does feel like the bottom has fallen out & there is no hope left.)

Crying Through The Laughs by Jim Sterling at http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/jimquisition/6281-Crying-Through-The-Laughs

– GamerDame

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2 Comments

Filed under Random Thoughts

2 responses to “The Comedy of Tragedy: Emotions in Games

  1. Shenmue was pretty emotional, at least in the beginning. Final Fantasy VII of course, but I think you also have to consider X, especially with the way it ended. Interesting read.

  2. cyberfemmefatale

    I played Venetica this summer, and it was absolutely hilarious to me how quickly they killed off the love interest, and yet how important that death is to the rest of the game. Just a warning, the game was super glitchy/buggy for me. I played on PS3 though, so maybe the Xbox version won’t be so bad. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it after you make your way to the ending.

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