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Experience and Emotion in Games

Posted by Nick Dinicola on October 24, 2008

About a month ago, I saw this piece on Gamasutra about how id Software deals with story in its games. In it, the creative director of Rage, Tim Willits, explains that a major part of a game’s story is the experience of playing it.

“If you take [Lord of the Rings’] story and distill it down to its really simple elements, that’s a top-line, simple story,” he says, entering what he called the “controversial” part of his talk. “But when you read that novel, you are immersed in all of the details and experiences in the middle.”

Willits recounted many of the plot points of the LOTR trilogy. For example: “You get excited when Frodo’s being chased.” By contrast? “Doom — what’s top line? You’re a space marine; UAC opens the portal to hell by accident; you kill the demons; to go hell, save the world.”

“If you wrote about your feelings, about your excitement, the excitement you felt when new areas were uncovered [in Doom] — if you wrote it well, it would be a great story,” Willits says. “People call it a ‘bad story,’ because the paper story is only one part of the game narrative — and people focus on the paper story too much when they talk about the story of a game.”

So according to Willits, the many subtle emotions a player feels while playing a game are just as valid a story element as any major plot twists. I have to agree, and I think this points to a unique trait games have over other mediums of art. All art is dependent on the emotional reaction of the audience. Games are unique because they can achieve that same emotional reaction in two very different ways. The first way is through a narrative, like  books or film. We take control of a character as he/she deals with some central conflict, and we’re made to care about this person though character development, dialogue and interaction with other characters. The second way has more in common with music or paintings in that it mostly ignores any narrative and instead focuses on eliciting emotions directly from the player through experience.

It’s this second kind of game Willits is talking about. These games rely on their interactive nature to immerse players in a fictional world, to make us feel like we’re a part of this world and not just observing it through someone else’s eye. While it’s true that we’re usually still playing as a character, that character is just a name with no personality; they’re more like a costume we put on while playing rather than a person’s shoes we step into. Also, while it’s true that these games must still have a little bit of a narrative to set up the central conflict of the story, how exactly that conflict is resolved doesn’t matter as much as our experience of resolving it.

There are two games in particular that use this “experience” method to achieve an artistic end. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Shadow of the Colossus. Both of these games have main characters with almost no personality, and both games use a rather thin narrative as a catalyst for the action. Yet both games also have some strong emotional moments because of how they draw us into their worlds.

Games, unlike film or books, can make up for thin stories and thin characters with a great experience, and still be considered artistic because of it. The title of the Gamasutra piece sums it up nicely: The experience matters.


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