In my last post I mentioned the notion (also mentioned by Will Wright at SxSW) of guilt as a complex emotion games can convey better than other media. I’ve always been surprised that it never seems to come up in the ol’ “games can’t have the emotional impact of film so they shouldn’t bother with being anything other fun, and pass me the wii-mote” discussion.
My own personal anecdote of realizing the power of this was Knights of the Old Republic.
So I had been traipsing through the game, enjoying the story (trying to be a neutral bounty hunter type, which of course was a pain in the ass given the good vs evil force meter). But edging on the side of good, more often that not. So I had characters in my party that I got along with and liked, specifically the Twilek girl Mission Vao, and her Wookie pal.
Periodically, whenever it seemed like I was presented with a key good vs evil branching point, I’d save, and try out both. Many times Bioware just did an awesome job of making me think I had a choice when they usually routed me to the same point (they are masters of this illusion). But towards the end (spoiler alert), you finally choose to be good or bad, and if you’re bad, you can be very bad. I Force-Dominated the Wookie into killing the girl who saved his life, who he was life bonded too. Man, I felt dirty. I just got my friend, to go kill his very best friend, just to see if he’d do it. I mean shut-the-console-off-immediately-because-I-can’t-take-being-reminded-of-my-own-capacity-for-evil dirty (which reminds me of this book, The Lucifer Effect, I should write about, but I digress… where was I? Oh yeah, dirty!).
It’s more than that though. Games can much more easily convey any complex, conflicted, emotion – feeling two or more opposing ways about any particular subject. Because of power of the dilemma – put a player in a situation where they want both of two outcomes (or neither), and they will immediately feel conflicted. Tada! Games with emotional impact.
Now, film on the other hand, you really only see a very small set of movies that convey those sort of emotions (most recent in my mind are some of the movies of Wong Kar Wai – dammit if you don’t want those romances to always work out, but you know they never can and it would only hurt the people involved to try… sigh). Not only are the movies that successfully explore those themes rare, they’re usually relegated to art-house cinemas as being too complex for the average viewer.
But exploring stories with conflicted emotions in games is much more appealing, I’d argue – because displaying that on the movie screen is only ever going to be so compelling. The emotional distance between you, the viewer, and the character is particularly hard to cross for empathy in that case. I suspect that most people typically only see one side of the character’s dilemma, and can’t connect because they don’t understand why he/she acts conflicted or makes the other choice. By putting you directly in the situation and it becomes more compelling simply because it’s easier for a person to understand the complex emotions behind the moment, because it’s happening to them.
Now what in god’s name could we, society at large, be doing that could be framed in a personal context to make a player realize guilt over a what was actually a much larger social issue? Noooooo, nothing would fit that description.