Confessions of a videogame sociopath

[[image:090514_aerith.jpg:Boo-freaking-hoo:right:0]]I had a bit of a epiphany recently. While listening to someone describe the emotional impact they felt after the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, I realized I was completely unable to relate. This started me thinking, and my train of thoughts eventually led to the revelation that I’ve never been impacted emotionally by any video game, ever.

The thing is, I’m a crier. I cry when I watch movies. I cry when I read books. Sometimes I’ve been brought to tears by a really well-made movie trailer or commercial. I sob at the end of The Iron Giant every damn time. So why don’t I care when a character in a videogame dies?

I think I play videogames differently than the people who cite Aerith dying as a pivotal moment in their life. I’m barely immersed — video games are often something I do while multitasking. I listen to audiobooks or podcasts while I work through single-player games. I usually skip cutscenes — although I’ve made exceptions for games whose narrative interested me in some way. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Metal Gear Solid 4 were two games I played partly because of the narrative, and both feature moments that were intended to be heart-wrenching… yet they left me cold.

Why doesn’t game narrative affect me the way other kinds of storytelling do? Is it the interactive aspect? Is it the fact that I’m bad at games, and by the time a character “dies” in a cutscene, they’ve died at my own hands over and over due to my inept play, thus desensitizing me to the idea? Maybe it’s a side effect of the uncanny valley, the fact that no matter how realistic the CG is in gaming, it’s not yet close enough to real life to stop being slightly creepy.

Or is the problem that game stories just suck? Maybe. But I haven’t given up on games as a possible source for narrative. Looking forward to the release of Heavy Rain, hearing about how seriously the developers are taking the narrative, I’m intrigued and plan on checking it out. Maybe this will the game that shatters my heart of glass? Until then, I’ll be over here, sobbing over this long-distance phone company commercial.

35 thoughts on “Confessions of a videogame sociopath

  1. Most of the effective video game scenes I can think of depend on music to drive emotion, so cutting out the soundtrack is probably a key factor.

    Cave Story and Portal are the only examples that spring to mind where the soundtrack wasn’t a key part of an emotional moment.

  2. “Is it the fact that I’m bad at games, and by the time a character “dies” in a cutscene, they’ve died at my own hands over and over due to my inept play, thus desensitizing me to the idea?” That, sir, is a damn good point.

  3. I would assume the primary factor is that honestly, games just aren’t that well written. They often have interesting stories, sure, but there is a huge difference between having a good story and being well-written. Lost Odyssey actually provides some really wonderful contrast there. The actual main plot-line is a really interesting conceptually. We’ve got all these immortals running around, them spending over a thousand years doing stuff, their mortal children and descendants interacting with’em, etc. But once viewed through the filter of constantly running through dungeons, various filler scenes, and general slow pacing, it’s quite hard to care. On the other hand, one of the game’s main gimmicks is constantly unlocking old memories of the main character, in the form of full-prose short stories written by, you know, an actual author. Particularly in context, these really show the contrast between typical game writing and good writing. Of course, even there you tend not to get a lot of emotional impact, because the running theme is melancholy stoicism.

    Plus the scenes and games people love to cite for emotional impact are generally just laughably bad examples. FF7 for instance tries to put an emotional death from someone being stabbed into a game with items that bring back the dead available at any store for a crazy low price, AND which makes a huge production of epic world-destroying attacks which barely hurt at all, making it inherently less impactful than, well, any character death in any other game ever really. Silent Hill 2 is another biggie for a lot of people, but that game’s entire plot is just a parade of one-dimensional characters who are just the living embodiment of various psychological issues.

  4. I think ,for the record, all these examples you’ve listed here are either George Lucas or Japanese heart-wrenching scenes which means you have to be in a very specific (read: immature) state of mind for their emotional scenes to not come off as stilted.

  5. I agree that some games aren’t too well written and in some games there is a disconnect between what you can and can’t do/control. I believe that the perception or distinction between a game and an interactive narrative plays a big part and that emotional impact is created with a good sense of flow and timing. Regarding the former, some don’t particularly enjoy Odin Sphere because they saw it as a hack and slash, while others focused on its unique characters and overarching story. Somewhat touching on the latter, (I hope this isn’t a spoiler) but I felt a surge of emotion before the last boss of Shadow of the Colossus, just after the “cliff scene”.

  6. I think Sanagi’s point is huge – the soundtrack plays a large role in manipulating the emotions of the player. I recall in one of the Lunar “making of” videos, Noriyuki Iwadare claimed that the music was responsible for some 50% of the emotional impact. That might be exaggeration, but I think it isn’t by much.

    So if you’re turning off the music to enable you to multitask, I would say that’s definitely part of it.

  7. I’m going to vote with the “switch in interactivity” helping you disengage your feelings of responsibility during cut scenes. When you’re playing and someone dies,your reaction is “Damn, I have to replay this part again!!!” and for cut scenes, it’s “Well, that didn’t happen on my watch!”

    Games that force you into a no-win situation during play would be more engaging, but mostly in the controller-throwing rage-inducing kind of way.

    I find games are very effective at making me feel rage (both plot & gameplay-related, esp. the above-mentioned Shadow of Colossus).

  8. MGS4 had some intense scenes, but no single scene topped the final boss fight in MGS3. I highly recommend it. If you play through that whole game, beat The Boss, and don’t feel anything, you really are a sociopath… or you just hated the game.

  9. t’s a combination of failing to give a game your undivided attention and picking the wrong game stories. You need to forget about MGS4 as it is trash and instead go for Metal Gear Solid 3. Few games are worthwhile in their writing and narrative, but you have to try with the precious few that are. Turning off the music and skipping cutscenes (!) are just facets of your failure to supply your undivided attention to a game.

    I do find it odd that you aren’t led to cry by a game invoking–and thus reminding you of–a situation that was dealt with in some other medium like a movie, and dealt with there movingly (and thus usually much, much better). I suppose skipping cutscenes would do that.

  10. I honestly don’t much remember my reaction to the Aerith scenario – I think it may have been semi-spoiled for me – but just recently Valkyria Chronicles got me pretty bad with a plot-induced death. I remember getting pretty emotional over the turning point in Suikoden V too, even though I knew it was coming. But I tend to pretty easily get sucked into fictional worlds if they’ve been built up and fleshed out enough.

  11. Games never have the desired emotional impact on me unless they don’t have VAs, oddly enough. Zelda always evoked emotions from me in retrospect because the story is so simple and gives you such likeable characters that it’s sad to see them go. Couple that with the music and you’ve got a winner.

    MGS3 did little for me emotionally. How some of you guys cried at the end, I don’t know. Sure, it’s an intense situation, but eh. Anyway, it’s a completely badass game regardless. I like Big Boss more than Snake, which I never thought would be the case.

  12. It sounds like you don’t care because you refuse to allow yourself to care. You’re not going to be moved by the most heart wrenching scene in they most emotional movie ever made if you’re distracted playing sudoku or folding laundry and don’t allow yourself to empathize with the characters.

    The Aerith death scene is entirely overrated, not to mention unacceptably poor looking these days. But there are some great emotional moments in Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Klonoa, Lost Odyssey, Valkyria Chronicles, Suikoden II, and others. And Iwadare is right. The music plays a huge part in setting the mood. But if you’re not actually paying attention, it doesn’t matter what a game throws at you. It won’t stick.

  13. Well I think you answered your own question when you said that you multitask while playing almost all games. If you don’t allow yourself to become immersed in something then it seems next to impossible for it to emotionally impact you. Go see a sad movie while listening to your ipod and texting and I get the feeling that it wont be a very moving experience.

  14. I listen to my iPod and skip cutscenes because games stories don’t engage me on the same level as stories told via other medium. I don’t believe it is the cause, merely a symptom.

    Part of the reason I played Metal Gears 3 and 4 was for the story, and so I didn’t indulge my normal habit of multi-tasking: still nothing.

    Also, when I played Final Fantasy VII I didn’t have an iPod and hadn’t yet picked up this habit. Since this was the game that many fans pick as the seminal moment that showed them game stories can matter, I think my point still stands. There is something else about game narrative that doesn’t fulfill me the same way as books or film.

  15. I’m exactly the same. I never get emotional in games. I do get a ton of thought provocation from it. I never get immersed in the atmosphere or anything. My reasons are different than yours, though. But I believe they’re very similar.
    I rarely look at games, or any form of entertainment for that matter, in an immersive manner. I will always look at a game and think about the point of everything from the developer or user experience point of view, or I just have fun with the gameplay. For example, I really enjoyed Mother 3 because it really got me thinking about the state of the RPG genre and the pace it formed.
    The reason I think this is similar to your reasons is because I tend to think while I play, all the time, like when you’re multitasking your brain needs to be focused on plenty of things. This is in contrary to when you might watch a movie, or TV, and just blankly stare at the screen absorbing the story. It’s been proven that watching movies does not take any concentration or thinking, and thus it’s easier to get emotionally moved by it. People who play games with that mindset, barely thinking on their own, will get emotionally moved.

  16. I think it’s important to remember that cutscenes aren’t really video games; they’re just short films made with the same graphics engine as the game you’re playing (unless they’re CG cutscenes, in which case the divide is only deepened). The fact that most of the dramatic value in a game comes from its cutscenes (with some exceptions) is indicative of the difficulties of that “gameplay-story integration” developers are always talking about in their press releases.

    That said, I do see the ability for said cutscenes to affect one’s emotional state during gameplay. But then it’s just a question of context; the dramatic value isn’t coming from the game itself. And if you still watch the cutscenes and don’t feel anything, it probably has more to do with crummy writing than anything else.

    Leaving aside the problem of cognitive dissonance (such as the Aeris/Phoenix Down example, which could apply to a ton of other RPGs), I think the biggest problem is that video games exist in a weird state of purgatory between storytelling art and competitive sports. Nobody goes into a movie or reads a book expecting to “win” at the end, and conversely, nobody plays a game of football for “the story”, but both these traits often apply to video games. Shadow of the Colossus and Metal Gear Solid 3 both impressed me with their stories, but there was still that competitive desire for triumph even at the game’s most pivotal moments.

    I think that video games will eventually grow out of this problem one way or another, depending on how the format evolves and how it becomes perceived. Remember, video games are still very, very young. Every new kind of media, be it film, comic books, or television, has been accused of being inherently inferior to what preceded it, and every time that accusation has been proven wrong.

  17. I think the people who cried at Aeris’ death are the same people who get attached to the “different” neighbors in Animal Crossing.

    FFVII doesn’t really give you any reason to get attached to Aeris. The best way to do that would have been to make her a good character to use in battle, so at least we could be upset that we lost a strong ally, but as it is, Aeris is just there to move the plot along.

    It would have been sadder if Tifa died because there was something deeper there between her and Cloud and the whole climax of the story.

  18. @Jackalope: to say a cut scene isn’t a video game is rather close minded. That’s like saying the credits aren’t really part of a video game, because you can’t play them, the same with a start-screen. No, it might not be interactive, but it’s part of a video game that’s integral to the plot and their fore, one of the strong motivating factors to play the game. You can believe that it’s a clumsy narrative device for games to employ, and only bad games make use of them… but to say it isn’t a game is silly.

    And to be fair, on a technicality, Phoenix Downs never revive the dead, they merely awake the unconscious.

  19. @Ken: I wasn’t trying to say cutscenes weren’t a part of a game, and I don’t dislike them on principle; I was just pointing out that they’re to animation or film than they are to a game. I guess how integral they are is a matter of opinion, but I personally wouldn’t judge a game by its cutscenes the same as I wouldn’t judge it by its credits or menu screen. Not to devalue those things, or even equate them, but they’re not what I bought the game for – and I admit, I’d rather play a game that’s fun than one with a good story.

    PS – But why then can a single sword stab kill somebody, but when Sephiroth throws a PLANET at you in the final boss fight, it only knocks you out?

  20. I haven’t gotten around to FFVII yet, but Final Fantasy VI made me cry the first time I played it. I’m sorry Cid, I really was trying to save your life!

  21. Sanagi you are absolutely spot on about music and games. That’s the exact reason why games like Silent Hill, Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger are so good at evoking emotion.

  22. @Jackalope: Just because on average you don’t like them, doesn’t mean they don’t hold potential for awesome that haven’t been tapped yet. Take the credits in fl0wer: best credits ever. The credits in Noby Noby Boy are probably more fun than the game itself. I’ll admit games like Xenosaga make cutscenes out to be the bad-guy. But when they’re in controlled doses, or worked into the game in efficient and fun ways, they’re great (I’m thinking MGS4 in the beginning when the camera pans from a brief cutscene and settles behind Snake’s shoulders where the furious action continues seamlessly and you’re given control). Games are still young and game developers are still figuring out how to use their tools effectively. After all, it took over half of the last century for film makers to realize they could slow films down for added effect; there’s no telling if and how cutscenes will change in the future.

    PS – Yea, that part about Aeris dying bothered me too, I think it’s why I prefer my RPGs to have battle systems that are grounded a bit more in reality (think Shenmue)

  23. I practically bawled my eyes out when I found out The Boss’ true mission in MGS3…

  24. I think gaming narrative suffers with the length of a game. Commercials and movies tend to far shorter than games. Thus, the psychological payoff of getting from point A to point B is far shorter. In the timespan that it would take to finish a movie, you might beat a few stages in a platformer, grind a bit in an RPG, or slog through a few firefights in an FPS. The immediate payoff in games with pertinence to the storyline is quite rare.

    I think that lack of immediacy is why you do so many things while you play a game, Levi. You are not getting the immediate reward feedback of a movie or commercial in your games, so you manufacture it yourself. You build your gaming “point A to point B” on the bridge of immediate feedback: texts and podcasts that gratify you long before the game ever does.

  25. I don’t know. Some games are quite good at filling the time it takes to reach Point B to the brim with juicy, juicy atmosphere. Silent Hill 1 & 2, Braid, Panzer Dragoon, Flower and of course Ueda’s games all wrap the “game” parts of themselves in as much evocative atmosphere as they need to in order to make the actual “playing the game” aspect an emotional experience in itself. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that when a person praises a game’s storytelling ability, odds are they aren’t speaking of a “pure” story, but rather the atmosphere created by a certain audio/visual direction–the way the game looks and sounds, its use of color and lighting, the subjects it chooses to portray etc. The vast majority of games can’t be separated from their atmospheres, and the vast majority of games tie their atmospheres to their gameplay, which I imagine is why the vast majority of game to film adaptations are absolutely unbearable. Too many degrees of separation.

    Some don’t even fully work in their own contexts; as was already pointed out, Aeris’ death in FFVII makes no sense within the game’s established rules, when resurrection items are cheap and freely available. Many RPGs also make the narrative flub of casting the player as leader of a group of “pacifistic” revolutionaries who mow down hundreds of enemy soldiers through the course of the game, but totally freak and cry cosmic injustice when one of their own gets injured. Games in general have a lot of narrative quirks, and it’s gotten a little better with time, but I think stuff like this comes down to a conflict between people who get excited about storytelling possibilities in games, and developers who still consider stories in games to be afterthoughts, justifications for doing whatever the game calls for. Also that a lot of designers come from a programming background, and may or may not know their way around the wordsmith kitchen.

    That being said, there are a handful of games that have moved me, and that I think could easily work in other mediums.

  26. One more thing. Missed this on the first read through and wanted to (vaguely, avoiding spoilers) expand on what I thought was a pretty good directional sleight of hand.

    Somewhat touching on the latter, (I hope this isn’t a spoiler) but I felt a surge of emotion before the last boss of Shadow of the Colossus, just after the “cliff scene”.

    Because my impression was that this was a red herring. The controls were so frustrating that, during the cliff scene, my overall sentiment was, “Hah! That’s what you get, you wobbly bastard!” and the ending made me feel awful for thinking that way. If that’s just coincidence, Ueda is some kind of idiot savant.

  27. David: “Noriyuki Iwadare claimed that the music was responsible for some 50% of the emotional impact. That might be exaggeration, but I think it isn’t by much.”

    If anything, I think it’s usually more than %50.

  28. Don’t worry, Aerith’s death scene was just very crude and she was a boring character. Now you just need to play Suikoden I & II and see that the fault is not in you, it’s in FF7.

  29. The only time I have ever come close to shedding a tear while playing a video game was during the ending to Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway.

  30. I think looking to get direct physical responses out of games when trying to evoke emotions is a bit misguided, if only because people don’t laugh at everything they find funny or cry any time something makes them sad. The “crying” metric also draws unnecessary and even wrong equivalences between movies and games. A lot of good points here have already been made, particularly the way most stories feature glaring inconsistencies between game mechanics and narrative.

    To me though, I see games as being a lot more capable of more complex emotions than “sad.” Shadow of the Colossus has a tragic element, to be sure, but for me the grander emotional sense was just feeling kind of…bad about what I was doing. For me, it’s the only game I’ve played in which *not* continuing to progress the story at any particular actually feels like a reasonable ending, if not a conclusive or satisfying one. The question wasn’t, “what will happen next?” which most games seem to go for, but a “should I keep going?”

    And while movie characters are often appealing for their personalities, I feel the most attached to characters who the game has made me feel like I’ve been through a lot with, which is why I like the cast of Phantasy Star II more than most modern RPGs, for example. It’s really like they suffered with me the whole way, even if they barely have any lines! But the ultimate example is still when I had to get rid of the Kikuri-Hime I used for 3/4 of SMT: Nocturne because she just wasn’t good enough to face the last two bosses. After everything she’d done for me, I really was pretty crushed that she wouldn’t make it to the end at my side.

    I’m pretty sure that making a game that’s horribly long, difficult and frustrating is not the only way to do this, but I haven’t seen any others so far.

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