As a gamer I expect certain things out of the games I play. On the list of priorities I have for a game I of course expect to receive an entertaining experience and some nice visuals or art direction. At times I may come across as an overly critical snob that expects every game to be an art nouveau masterpiece in the making, but I can be easily entertained in some ways to the point where those around me make question my tastes. For every game like Shadow of the Colossus that I like there’s an extremely simple title I also enjoy like Dead Nation to balance everything out. So I definitely know not every game I play will be an immediate masterpiece that will garner critical admiration across the board. But having played tons of games over the years, both as a gamer and as a “professional” journo/blogger, there is one thing that I haven’t really seen enough of in the games I play: narrative emotion.
In the last fifteen years we’ve seen video games make a remarkable leap as they’ve evolved from simple 2D side-scrolling beat-em-ups to epic sprawling 3D action adventure journeys that are almost comparable to what we see in films. But one thing that has somewhat surprised me is the almost sudden lack of maturity some games have when it comes to their plot and narrative direction. Again, I’m not expecting all video games to go the “War and Peace” route or for a game to surface that comes across like William Shakespeare’s ghost wrote it, but I still wonder why we don’t see more games with a stronger emphasis on providing an emotional connection for the player to grasp on to or at least present more emotionally engaging stories. In some ways video games tend to make players emotional whether it’s through being pissed off at a particular stage or even amazed at an action sequence that happened – two things I’m perfectly fine with. But why haven’t video games and those behind them try to transcend the traditional experience slightly by offering something that may cause us to break down and start crying or actually care when a character is killed?
The lack of video games not pushing the emotional side more may be attributed to the fact that is hasn’t been until recently that developers have had the technology to do such a thing convincingly. While what’s on paper ought to be enough to create an emotion vibe in a game, at times it does boil down to whether or not a gamer will actually care about a low-res character model compared to one that has an ungodly amount of detail like those found in Heavy Rain or even Gears of War 3. Developers did take a stab at doing the best they could with the hardware to create an experience rife with emotion (Indigo Prophecy, MGS 3: Snake Eater) and they succeeded in a few areas which I’ll talk about later. But the generation of HD consoles has in a way allowed developers, or at least given them the tools, to create a fully believable emotional experience yet we haven’t seen much of anything.
Maybe I shouldn’t say that this generation has been a bust of sorts on the emotional narrative front as games like Heavy Rain and even Grand Theft Auto IV have provided a strong emotional based story that I was certainly able to appreciate. Say what you will about Heavy Rain as a game, but the team at Quantic Dream did put together a decent if not slightly hackneyed and convoluted, at least towards the end, tale that made gamers care whole-heartedly about the characters they played as and what was at stake. As cliché as the plot of a son being abducted was, I grew a connection to the character of Ethan Mars which led me to not wanting to see his son die, even if it meant I had to chop my finger off.
Certain emotional aspects of Heavy Rain could’ve been pushed farther, but the writing as a whole still made me care about the characters based on the traits and idiosyncrasies that they had. Yeah, Norman Jayden may have had a wavering accent, but the core of the character and the battle he was having (AR addiction is a hell of a thing) made me want to see his journey through to the end and not fall victim to the Origami Killer during a nightclub fight.
The emotional aspect of GTAIV may have been a bit unfocused at times since the game couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be, but I was still able to grow a connection with the loveable Roman Bellic which made me care whether he lived or survived, even after incessantly calling my cell phone talking about traveling to a strip club once again. If Heavy Rain and GTAIV could muster up some sort of an emotional narrative which led to me, and likely other gamers, growing an emotional bond of sorts then why aren’t more games doing such a thing?
A brief cutscene from Heavy Rain.
Like I said I can understand that not every game can or should offer something that is akin to an Academy Award winning story. But I think in the end given the evolution games have achieved and their growing size which in some cases dwarfs that of actual films (the budget for a Rockstar Games production is more than what the new Ghost Rider film cost to make) I feel like gamers are just being undersold and aren’t getting the most that they can out of publishers and developers. A perfect example of a current gaming staple that could use a bit of an emotional boost is none other than the modern warfare/FPS genre. Maybe I’ll piss a few people off in the next few minutes, but as it stands it’s somewhat appalling that no one out there has the balls to at least provide a war based experience that expands beyond the typical dudebro conventions to provide something with some emotional substance. Now by no means am I saying that war of any kind should be glorified or glamorized in a way, especially if the setting or inspiration is what’s happening in the Middle East right now. War is a tough thing that shouldn’t be taken lightly, yet in a way video games today simply fail to actually show war for what it is: a hellish experience. I won’t bag on every popular war video game that’s been released in the last few years, but it’s shocking to think that each of them has simply been a Hollywood blockbuster experience with no real meaning to it at the end of the day.
Video games are of course about escapism, but wouldn’t it be more intriguing to play a game in which you can grow a connection to your comrades and actually care if they died at the end? However light as the plot for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare may have been I will admit that I had a “Holy Shit” moment once the bridge scene finale kicked off and I saw a few of my comrades bite the bullet. But beyond that there wasn’t even any basic camaraderie established beyond the always typical military clichés we see in dozens of games or action centric war films. I don’t know how many of you out there saw the 2008 HBO mini-series “Generation Kill” or read the book that it was based upon, but why can’t we see a video game with elements like what that series had? For those who haven’t seen Generation Kill (I implore you to scope it out if you haven’t) the show was basically the most realistic representation of the Iraq invasion. It wasn't just how the action was portrayed that made Generation Kill authentic, but it was how the soldiers talked to one another, whether it was about Jennifer Lopez's rumored demise or taking a moment to breathe after an enemy encounter that made the show have an immediate emotional connection since all the characters were likeable. A video game may not have the same immediate luxuries as a mini-series does to grow a series of characters, but we still don’t see developers try to expand their characters and the worlds that they live in that often. Instead most developers follow the same typical character archetypes which leads to a slightly entertaining if somewhat dull experience that is like dozens of other games we’ve already played.
The root of any game achieving a good emotional connection or having a story that isn’t focused on blowing stuff up of course relies on the writing, which is why Indigo Prophecy and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater were two games that managed to be great despite whatever technical limitations they had. Indigo Prophecy may have had some issues, more so than Heavy Rain which Quantic Dream also developed, but it was still an emotional tale that made me care about what was at stake, even up to the very end when things went in a weird sci-fi direction. MGS3 on the other hand is probably one of the greatest emotional stories of all time, even if it has a bit of a soap-opera quality to it in the many twists and turns that occur throughout the game. MGS3 may have still been yet another action based sneaking mission, but at the center of everything was a story that was tragic and characters that were completely complicated and fleshed out. Hideo Kojima always seems to focus on the story of the game, even to the point where it’s slightly detrimental like the finale of MGS4, but for me it’s still something I can appreciate since someone is putting the time and energy into providing something that brings some emotion to the proceedings beyond just being excited when a big boss finally goes boom.
Video games are supposed to be a source of entertainment but I consistently feel that given the way the market is swaying we’re going to be stuck in a rut for a long time. Games have grown over the past decade and slowly and surely they’re opening up to include more aspects, some of which are focused on providing an emotional experience of some kind to the player. But however many attempts developers attempt to provide an experience entrenched in emotion like that of Heavy Rain or Alan Wake, the majority of games released will still be the by-the-numbers affairs that simply do nothing to advance the industry as a whole – no matter how entertaining they are. In a way it can be somewhat frustrating to see developers either not take advantage of the tools they have or in some cases restricted by publishers or consumer trends which in the end doesn’t do anyone any good. I probably sound like I got on my soap box once more to complain about the video game biz, which is partially true, but I’m just a gamer that’s passionate and wants to see some true emotion be present in the games I play if only to provide better experiences for gamers and elevate games to the level they so rightfully deserved to be placed on.