How games can make you cry

Read about a presentation at the Game Developers Conference 2010 today entitled “Five ways games can make you cry.” You should read the whole article if interested, but a summary is listed below for your convenience, along with some thoughts.

1. Scrapbooking – This common technique is used in films like Titanic and in games such as the Sims, which scrapbooks key moments in a sim’s life and saves them for the player to watch later.

Thought – Helps you to put things in perspective and appreciate the journey you took to get to the end.

2. Abstraction – The second method of narrative tearjerking is “amplification through abstraction.” To illustrate this point, he showed a clip from the anime drama Grave of the Fireflies, which chronicles the struggles of a young boy and his younger sister in Japan at the end of World War II.

Orphaned and shunned by extended family members, the starving pair take refuge in a mine shaft before the boy goes out to seek food. When he returns, he finds his delusional sister dying, having eaten dirt clumps and marbles thinking they were rice balls and candies.

Rouse said that if the scene had featured real actors, it might have been unbearable or cheesy. However, since it was an anime, the young girl is abstracted. She is a template for viewers to project images of young girls in their lives onto the experience, making the emotional punch more powerful.

Thoughts – Yes, there are certain things you can do in the anime/video game medium that just can’t be done as well in live action, and vice versa. That is why I feel that computer graphics shouldn’t be too lifelike. Remember the animated movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? There are probably many reasons why it didn’t do well, but one of the big ones for me was that it was too realistic. Instead of marveling at the quality of animation, I found myself subconsciously evaluating it as a live action film…and found it somewhat lacking as such.

3. Transformation – “The weak shall inherit [the Earth],” says Rouse, before showing the film paradigm of this concept, It’s a Wonderful Life. The Frank Capra classic centers on George Bailey, who stays at an unprofitable small-town savings and loan because he feels the need to help others buy homes. Discouraged, he ponders suicide and is then shown that his life touched others. Showing the film’s finale, Rouse said this is the classic example of people crying at a narrative’s happiest part, not its saddest.

Thoughts – Not sure if I would use the term “transformation” in this case, but that’s what the presenter used. The basic idea is a change or fitting/satisfying turn of events. Sometimes it can be poetic justice. It’s the feeling you get at the end of a good roleplaying game or novel after hours of leveling/following the characters and watching them grow through trials and tribulations.

4. Loss – “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

Thoughts – Noooo, Aeris…Well, that’s not necessary the best example, but it’s the first one that comes to mind. It seems to be human nature to take things for granted, so it should be no surprise that almost any sort of loss hurts virtually every time…unless you are robot. The more unexpected the loss, the more impactful it is.

5. Nostalgia – To illustrate this point, he showed a scene from the season finale of the first episode of the television series Mad Men. In the scene, the philandering advertising executive Don Draper makes a powerful pitch for a campaign for Kodak’s then-new slide projector. While showing photos of his own family during happier times, he talks about how “in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound.” He names the slide projector the Carousel, since it “lets us see the world as a child sees it.”

In Rouse’s opinion, games do the same thing as the Carousel. Whereas kids like to play dress-up, games let teens and adults don a different guise and enter a similar fantasy world. This can have a powerful effect in single-player, he explained, again holding up ICO as an example of emotionally poignant game-making.

Thoughts – Ah, ICO. If you appreciate video games as an artistic medium and have never played that game, go play it. NOW. It’s one of the best example of “video game as art” I have ever played, and it’ll probably hold that distinct for a very long time. Everything look better through rose tinted glasses, and if you can tap into that vein as a designer, you’re golden. ICO taps into those blissful days of puppy love; how could anyone with a heart not be touched?

Comments welcome!