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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I am a crybaby. And I don't care what you think. Well, that's simply not true, is it? If I didn't care what you think, I wouldn't be setting out to write a piece, on a widely read website, explaining why the crybaby gets the best deal. I deeply care what you think. In fact, if you don't like me, I may... sniffle... come on, let's get on with it.

This week's titular question is obviously a silly one. Answer: Yes. Next issue please! I think anyone who might take the stance that games cannot make you cry is either a sociopath, has never played Angel of Darkness and tried to walk in a straight line, or simply a big, lying coward. Begone, cowards! Today is the day of the ludicrously emotional - we shall triumph and probably get all weepy as we accept our victory.

Let me put things in context. I can't watch a Muppet movie without crying (please, no jokes about Muppet Treasure Island - I've deliberately never watched it). Not just in the amazingly sad bits where only evil monsters made of angry stone wouldn't shed 14 buckets of salt water, but pretty much all the way through. There's just something about them, something about the love behind them, the passion that fuelled (past tense, thanks to their vile murder via the Disney purchase - more crying here) their very existence. The purpose of this aside? To hyper-stress what a sap I am. The sappiest of the sappy. It's established. We can progress.

I believe that being able to burst into tears while playing a game is a great boon to a person. And I'm taking this as far as it will go. Were you to break down and sob every time you lost a race in Project Gotham, I'd have nothing but the deepest of respect for you. I'd think you a weirdo, but I'd respect you. Why? Here's the rub: You would be connecting with the game, and being transformed by it.

I want to present an example: 2003's adventure, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. It was a splendid game, frustrated slightly by its wobbly steps into three dimensions, and certainly underplaying its historical/mythological base in an attempt to win over a console generation, but all the same, a thoroughly engrossing post-point-and-click adventure game. Having played the previous two in the series, during the '90s, I'd always enjoyed them, but never felt an overwhelming relationship with the central characters: George, the daft but big-hearted, American, world-traveling lawyer; and Nico, French photo-journalist, and the deeply sarcastic will-she-won't-she target of George's affections. Something changed about the third game - perhaps it was the accursed 3-D betraying a positive consequence via the portrayal of emotions on the character's faces - but this time they began to matter.

There's a scene toward the end (spoiler fans) where George, Nico and long-term friend Bruno are in a pyramid. It's all coming down, and death is imminent. The dilemma: The only way to keep the door open to leave is for someone to stay inside. It's sacrifice time. Now, this is not a new idea on any level, and killing someone to create an emotional response can be a sledgehammer technique. But Broken Sword did something clever.

"It's all about empathy," says Broken Sword's creator, Charles Cecil. "In a third-person game, like in a film, it's all about empathy. You never think you are that guy, but the aim is to have you experiencing the same emotions as the him."

Bruno, a man probably in his 70s, tells George and Nico very firmly that he will stay inside, and they must save themselves. There isn't time for deliberation, and Bruno's severity is convincing enough in that moment. They run for the exit.

"You've got to believe that you share emotions with him. With George, we're trying to tread a very careful line between association and empathy. Clearly you're not George, but we want you to have more association than you would in a movie."

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