From Pixels to Emotion: The Search for Feelings in Games
Charlie was a good man. We had flown through all of Sector six together. He didn’t socialise with the other crew much, he knew he had a job to do and he just got on with it, as any good pilot would have. He was my go to guy, he had more experience than the rest of the crew. In our time we had seen ship mates come and go, some got ill trying to sort out an infection on a mining colony, other’s met their gods during fierce battles, each death was noble and without question of orders. Charlie’s death was more important though, Charlie’s death was the first one I cared about.
We had been in a space battle just inside Sector Seven, just some lowly space pirates trying to cause trouble. They got a lucky shot to the Med Bay and started a fire. As it spread I took the only cause of action I could, I left the men at their posts and opened the Air Lock to get rid of the inferno. It worked, the fire went out. But just as the final missile from my ship left it’s launcher they got one more round off before oblivion, the final “F-You” to the fleet, they hit the control room and locked the doors in their current state. With the ship now cut in half through lack of oxygen; I knew what had to be done, someone would have to go and fix the door controls to allow air back through the ship. Charlie was the one who would do the run. As he left his pilot chair I realised it was a suicide mission, he stepped through the doors into the airless corridors and made his way to the control room. He started work on fixing the doors, with his health draining he got the job done, but not quick enough, Charlie died today saving the rest of the crew, and for this I thank him.
FTL (Faster Than Light) is an indie game I picked up on the Steam Winter Sale, and although at first glance this space sim looked overly complicated and more than I can handle within 20 minutes I was hooked, watching my named crew mill around the ship sorting out the orders I gave, jumping to new locations and blowing up ships just because I wanted to be the only space captain in this galaxy.
Games, as with all forms of entertainment, are there to provoke a reaction; be it laughter, tears, anger or confusion. FTL is not a game I would have predicted to have a reaction with me other than stress. I cannot comment on the developer as to how they felt about the emotional attachment to these few pixels, but it doesn’t seem like an aim. Obviously there are intrinsic benefits to having a crew member around a long time, for those that haven’t played the game the more time you make a crew member spend on a task the more experienced they are at it, so losing someone could be annoying as you have put time into it. But with Charlie’s death it felt like something more. I was truly annoyed and bummed out that I lost this crew member. There are many Sectors in this game, many areas to explore, I was only a few Sectors into the game so it wasn’t like we were long term acquaintances. Maybe it was due to my being new to the game or who knows what deep seated psychological issues I have.
I know a few people who have cried at games, poignant moments where emotions and experience just get the better of you and cause a true response from within. I’ve never had this, perhaps I’m not playing the right games, or perhaps, as some ex-girlfriends have accused of me, I have a cold heart. Either way games and emotions are rarely together, unless it’s anger or stress from dying.
I’d love to have that connection with this form of media. Films and TV have made me have the solitary tear roll down a cheek in a way that only a man with a beard can do so butchly. But for me the world of games has yet to evoke this reaction. I know exactly what the connection is between all the films and television shows that have made me cry, it’s all about self sacrifice. For some unknown reason to me this is the tap that needs to be turned to make me blubber, again in a butch manly way. I think it’s wrong to say games don’t have the right angle with the writing yet to evoke the reaction, there always has and always will be great writing in games, I fear the issue is partial emergence.
Films and TV suck you and make you feel for the characters in a passive voyeuristic way, but games are meant to be played, and often the only time the writing is actually there to provoke a reaction is through cut-scenes, the moment where you are unable to interact with the story. The semi-emergence sucks you in with gameplay but then spits you out like flavourless gum as soon as it wants to give a meaty bit of exposition or story.
I’ve been searching forums and articles by other heartless nerds like myself to find games that have produced a tear, some I have played and felt nothing, and others that sound intriguing. It may be a case of wanting validation for this media we all love so much, wanting it to in my own mind have the same impact as non-interactive media or perhaps all it boils down to is wanting to test myself and developers. As it is, so far, Charlie’s death is the only thing that has come close to making me feel sadness and regret over the loss of some pixels.
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