I have a confession to make. I shed a few tears at the end of Braveheart. It's not something I'm proud of, but it is the truth. It's the kind of personal investment most people can only make to a great movie. We're told over and over that games are meant to be fun, and they should be. Games are fun, but by their very nature, are they compelling? Designers need to think about games that make you laugh, cry and think. The benchmark of a good film or book - for me - is if it evokes some kind of emotion. As an industry, we've got excitement down. It's time to rethink some basic assumptions if we ever hope to grow beyond that.
The average videogame experience doesn't carry much more depth than the Die Hard trilogy. They're popcorn flicks where you're too busy to eat the popcorn. Games have the potential to be the most powerful entertainment medium. Events happen to "you," not some character on the screen. It's an edge begging to be exploited.
Imagine that nearly every single movie in theatres was an action flick. Every year, we get bombarded with them, but they're made even better by a compliment of different movies, movies that make you laugh and movies that make you cry. Take those other movies away, and I'd probably spend a lot more time reading. Videogames suffer this problem. The only emotions I've ever felt in relation to a videogame were excitement, enjoyment, curiosity, frustration, and very rarely, fear.
The artificial nature of most videogame mechanics is partly to blame. I cried at William Wallace's torture and death as I never could in a videogame. Death usually means frustration in games as your character respawns and takes a penalty. This is the paradox for the designer. Gamers claim they want to be in control, so how then do you make truly compelling things happen without wrestling control away from the player? Cut-scenes just don't cut it.
There is no single right answer, but more attention has to be given to the concept of failure and what that means, if games are to be more compelling. Without this aspect, it is nearly impossible to create drama, sadness or a true sense of attachment.
Let's use a theoretical mission based, single-player spy game as an example. In the average Bond game, characters simply run around and shoot things to achieve their ends. Perhaps the game is slower and more tactical, like Splinter Cell. Beyond that, what is there?
Start with some RPG elements that let you - the person - form opinions and bonds with the characters you meet. Whether it's the attractive worker at HQ that flirts with you as you prepare for each mission, or the crazy old inventor character who provides your gadgets, give each one personality. Then, write them into the story. When out on missions, these characters play an active role.
Then, rethink the concept of failure. For example, say one scene opens with you being interrogated. The puzzle has you verbally fencing with an enemy - say the wrong thing and a later mission gets harder - and doing a puzzle to escape your bonds. You fail. You take too long and the guards notice you squirming free. Rifle-butt to the head and the screen fades to black. In every game I've played, this means you re-load before the mission and try again. Right there, the spell is lifted and it is suddenly a task I - the user - need to perform, not a challenge my character faces. Rather than start again, the character could wake up in a musty prison cell with a new challenge to solve. If successful, they go to the level they may have eventually gotten to from a different direction had they escaped during the interrogation and explore a subplot slightly earlier. Eventually, all roads direct the player down a chosen - and compelling path - but this approach maintains the suspension of disbelief and lets the player feel in control. It's a recipe for emotionally charged gameplay.