Can a Game Make You Cry?

Can a Game Make You Cry?
Confessions of a Crybaby

John Walker | 18 Apr 2006 08:04
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The giant stone door slams down, Bruno is trapped, the situation is over, and now just the horror remains.

"We've got to accept that in games we're not good at profound emotions. We're much better at visceral emotions. Guns are wonderful in gameplay, because they work. Classical gameplay is about trying something, failing, knowing why you failed, trying again, and eventually feeling, 'fantastic, I've done it!' There's no ambiguity about firing a gun and having it hit, or not hit. That's the visceral. It's much more obvious."

George and Nico stare at one another. There's silence. And they stare. And George's eyes widen, his face crumples, and he is punched by grief. Nico's face softens, her fixed scowl suddenly gone, and you know in that moment that she loves George unconditionally. It is the consummation players have longed for the series' whole existence, and it is more beautiful than anyone could have imagined. It is tragedy, remorse, grief, companionship, relationship, passion and love. And I cried. I just sat there, looked at this unspoken scene, and wept.

"We're right on the peripheral in trying to create profound emotions, or, in inverted commas, 'games that make you cry.'"

So, how does Cecil achieve this? How do his characters manage to matter? It comes down to a lot of thought and preparation. "There's a set of three areas that have to be established," Cecil explains. "First of all, you've got to believe in your characters. Second, you've got to empathize with them. And third, you've got to share their motivations. And once you've got all that, then hopefully you'll start to love your characters. And only at that point can you be effective."

Certainly suggesting nothing disparaging about the game itself, Cecil mentions Metal Gear Solid's characters as a comparison. "They're stereotypes. And because they created stereotypes, they've written them stereotypical dialogue. So you cannot care about them." He's right. I don't believe in them, I don't empathize with them, and I don't share their motivations, and hence I don't love them. I would be impressed by the player who wept when Snake died. And that's despite the desperate hollered wail of "SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!" by any one of his compatriots. It's a false "SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!" impossible to believe in, and in my experienced opinion, a source of great amusement with which to shout along. It doesn't matter when Snake dies - he exists to die, over and over. He offers the visceral emotion, and attempts nothing more. Should this be enough to make you cry, by the way, you win.

So why does Bruno matter so much? Cecil observes, "If we tried to kill characters off too early, before you'd started to care about them, then that would come across as very cheap." It comes back to his list of three checks: belief, empathy and shared motivations equal love.

"We made you like his character, and then we put in a believable choice. It's about loving them, and then believing in their situation. And then surprising the player. You were surprised that Bruno offered to do it, as were George and Nico, but you absolutely believed him."

Cecil and his team deliberately set out to embellish upon profundity. "Broken Sword 3 was primarily written by Neil Richards, who hadn't worked on the previous games. Neil brought a classical slant, coming from film and television, and his approach was quite different. We tried to bring forward the central characters, to make the main story more profound." And it worked. I love those guys.

This story has a pleasing punch line. Charles Cecil was speaking at the Edinburgh Games Festival in 2004, and shortly before, I'd forwarded him an email from a reader of the U.K. PC Gamer, stating that the very scene had made him cry. Cecil was speaking immediately after the bigwigs of EA, who puffed out their chests and boasted that their mission, since the '80s, has been to create games that would make the player cry, and that with this, that and the other, they believed that they were taking games to this place. Charles was then able to get up, take the mic, and begin, "Well, I recently received an email ..."

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