Emotional (dis)content

October 19, 2008

Film critic Roger Moore recently posted his review of the Max Payne film in the Orlando Sentinel. Surprise, surprise the movie is not garnering well-received reviews. But Moore does make a particular comment in his review concerning the emotional weight of a particular incident in the new film. Having not seen the movie, but played the games (spoiler alert!) I am sure it concerns the death of the female lead Mona Sax.

In his review, Moore writes: “But as good as a couple of its action beats are, Max still suffers from the heartlessness that makes games emotionally inferior to movies. Nobody ever shed a tear over a video-game character’s death.” Now, I don’t particularly remember crying when Mona dies in Max Payne 2: the Fall of Max Payne–personally I believe Payne’s family being brutally murdered in the first game had enough emotional weight and placing in a female love interest complete undercuts his original motivation in the first game–Moore is more or less correct.

Now, I am sure that there are millions of Final Fantasy fans spamming Moore’s e-mail about Aeris’s death. There are plenty of game characters where the player does feel empathy and regret towards like Agro in Shadow of Colossus, Dogmeat in Fallout, and even more recent games such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and Half Life: Episode 2. I am not sure if at any time these people cried upon their passing. And why not? Games, especially RPGs, allow the player vast amounts of time to become attached to characters intimately through narrative and gameplay. Personally, I don’t believe it is the fault of the narrative format but of writers unwilling to take changes in game narratives. There are plenty of moments where I believed if a character died I would honestly feel very emotional towards their death. Part of me hopes that Alex will die in Half Life: Episode 3 when it is released sometime around 2010–the emo-wuss in me hopes she doesn’t.

The fault, I believe, primarily is attributed to the player and the sense of entitlement players expect from the developer. The trend today is for the player to make their own narrative while playing and it is doubtful that the player will want to be a sadomasochist and creative negative consequences for himself. A recent example is Fable 2 where if the player was attacked for extended periods of time it would cause irreconcilable damage and the avatar would become facially deformed. This was quickly taken out because many players did not want their avatar disfigured and would reload game to the previous save point. My apologies to Joseph Merrick.

Recently games have been receiving narrative acclaim for its simple use of interactivity in key points. Examples can be forcing the player to pull the trigger to kill The Boss in Metal Gear 3, watching To Kill A Mockingbird in The Darkness, and even blinking in Alone in the Dark. It’s a step in the right direction. Mass Effect gave the player the ability the option to chose who sacrifices their life to save the crew. But I think developers should go a step further. Specifically, in Metal Gear it should be the illusion of choice forcing the player to live with decisions that are, in all purposes, out of his hands. Shedding a tear for a character is one thing, but shedding a tear because it is your fault is a wonderful emotional avenue that I hope games will explore as they continue to mature.



  1. I hope I’m not flogging a dead horse by thrusting Bioshock into this conversation, but it’s a good example of a game which gives the player a choice and rewards or punishes them on the basis of their actions. Given that rescuing the girls actually works out better for the player, it’s not a particularly gut-wrenching choice, but, as you say, it’s a nice step in the right direction.

  2. Ha, Bioshock does have a way of popping into the game conversations. I actually left out Bioshock, specifically, because I believed the game had a more cerebral rather than emotional effect towards the gamer. Personally, the choice about saving the Little Sisters had little consequence in terms of rewards and punishment in my opinion but that is another blog post for another day. But I do have to say, every time those girls kept screaming “No” it was pretty unsettling to watch.

  3. Talk about a movie that made me bawl. The Elephant Man. Holy crap. I have it on DVD but can’t find anyone willing to watch it with me over and over.

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