The third “missing” emotion in video games is affection; maybe connection is a better word. How often have you felt really connected, emotionally, to a character in a game? Connected to such extent that when something happened to her/him/it you would actually care and not just keep playing or re-load a save game.
These connections, and consequently emotions caused by them, are probably quite rare when talking about connections to characters in video games. Similar to when talking about funny games I am again leaving out multiplayer games, since in these games feeling and emotions are mostly based on the knowledge that the other characters are controlled by people of flesh and blood. What I am looking for is characters played by you, non-playable characters controlled by the computer or some other part of a game that you can feel connection with.
If you have read the previous parts in this series of articles, you know that I like to compare and analyze video games with movies and foremost literature as a base. Emotional connections can be found in abundance in movies and books, at least if that is the writer’s intention. There is even a special genre (for movies) where the plot and story is more dramatically and emotionally driven.
Now to the big question: Why is it so hard to find games that can cause tears to fill in our eyes or at least make us fell a sting in our hearts when something happens in a game, like a character is hurt or abducted? To find the answer to this question I will list the games that have these characteristics and from these try to find what is needed from a game to make the player feel connected, emotionally, to a game.
Role-playing games (RPGs) are probably, generally speaking, best at creating connections with the characters in the game. Most RPGs let you create the playable characters, during which process you can give the characters a background, decide which abilities, strengths and weaknesses they should have and choose their appearance. Many people who play RPGs spend a lot of time during this character creating process, since it is hard to be satisfied, to feel that the characters get the best, almost perfect, conditions to make it through the game but foremost create character that you can feel connection with. As the name suggests, role-playing games let you play a (or many) role and the well made games in this genre usually succeeds in creating feelings and connections to the characters in the game. Unfortunately there are not so many RPGs compared to other kinds of games, and not all are that good.
In many RPGs you can “dump” person in your team/group, assuming that it is a RPG where you are controlling a group. This dumping of a person is usually done in favor of some other character you meet during your adventures. If you have played long enough with a character in your group, it can be quite hard to just dump her/him/it for some other character, just because the other one has some small advantage. This is because there is a connection between you as a player and the character in the game. As an example, the RPGs Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II had many well made characters with strong personalities, which made it hard for you to break up your group, since strong connections had been established between you and the characters, and also between the characters themselves by the computer generated interaction they have in the game.
Instead of talking of a special genre, there is also a part of games that more than others can create some emotions; I am talking about the ending of games. It is a bit reluctant to include this part of the game, since it is a non-playable part, but when talking about emotions it has to be included. Even if the story of the game has hardly engaged you, the ending that you finally reach after finishing the final boss/quest/level can include more or less touching scenes, including expressions of reunions, love, peace or rewarding revelations of some in-game secrets.
Action games usually don’t create many emotional footprints, but there are a few exceptions. If the game has a really good and immersive story and well written characters, then it is possible that at least some feelings will be present. One good example of is from Half-life 2: Episode 2. There is a scene where Alyx (your almost ever present side-kick) gets knocked down and hurt badly. This scene/part has high probability of evoking some feelings, even more since it is impossible for you to stop it from happening. Alyx has almost always been at your side, aiding you with hints, fire power backup or just as a companion. Letting Alyx, as close partner/friend being injured is a clever technique to create emotions in a game.
In the book Creating emotions in games (p. xxxiii) Will Wright (legendary game designer) mentions some basic techniques to make games more emotionally rich: “[the games need to take] the player on both an external and internal journey, enticing the player into becoming involved in rich game worlds, allowing the player to explore new identities as well as new ways of feeling and acting and placing the player in emotionally complex situations.” My own conclusion from the above games and genres is that we can say that RPGs, the good ones, are most likely to create bonds to the characters since the player take their roles and are usually also involved in “creating” them, heightening the chance of some kind of connection. Touching emotions are also very likely to appear in the endings of games, where the story, no matter how thin, usually gets a conclusion and dramatic scenes typically are being displayed. The example from Half-life 2: Episode 2 shows that most games can have emotional moments, provided that you are encouraged to care for the other character(s). So there is hope, now we can just wish that more game designers will create these emotionally complex games.