A Difficult Relationship: Emotion and Video Games

Emotion is the cornerstone of art – the feelings evoked by a film, a song, or a book stay with us long after we finish the actual experience of the work. When these emotions return in everyday life, it’s not unusual for us to turn to these works of art in order to legitimise the emotion, or even make it more intense. We’ve all had break-up songs and feel-good films (in my case Black by Pearl Jam and My Neighbour Totoro respectively). For me, this is the most basic test that art should have to pass; does it make me feel something? Traditional art forms seem to manage this fairly effortlessly and, on the one hand, video games can serve this function in a very visceral sense. They are very good at evoking certain emotions; the frustration of not being able to beat a boss, the anger of dying after hours of play and zero saves, or even the confusion of a puzzle you can’t solve. These are somewhat different to the emotions we normally associate with art, but are they still valid? Many would argue that these are still quintessential parts of the human experience. When in times of stress many audience members may revert to these games in an attempt to exorcise themselves of this negativity in an act of catharsis. Games such as first-person-shooters, beat-em-ups and even sports games are perfect for this. While not synonymous with the emotions induced by music or books (and while not to some people’s personal tastes) I do think it’s important not to entirely discredit these games. Hundreds of hours of work have been invested in creating game mechanics and backgrounds and, for many people, they are serving a legitimate emotional purpose in everyday life.

However, while it would seem that the emotions of instant gratification have always been accepted in gaming, feelings within games themselves have not always been so well received. Some time ago (1999 to be precise) Final Fantasy VIII was released to great anticipation. To me this remains one of the greatest games ever created, however, even to its own fan-base it is, in certain aspects, much maligned. The complicated magic system played a part of this, though the chief complaint seemed to be that the main characters had a lot of feelings. Make no mistake, critically, the game was well received, but within the community the teenage cast were widely disliked. Their self-centred angst was a huge turn-off for scores of fans, despite the fact it was fairly realistic.

And perhaps that realism was the problem. While the characters in the previous title (Final Fantasy VII) faced a similar turmoil, for the most part they were more proactive about the whole saving-the-world thing. The series, in its very early days, was famed for its light-hearted adventures and the backlash against the characters in Final Fantasy VIII was, presumably, the reason why Squaresoft, the developers, returned to its jovial roots in Final Fantasy IX. But is angst not part of the teenage experience and something of an inevitability? Yet, despite its abundance, angst is mocked in our society as being self-centred and gratuitous, despite the fact it can be strangely fulfilling. Think of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Your reading of him probably depends on when you read the book and I’m sure we all know many people who loved the character as a teenager but, looking back as an adult, now find him unbearably whiny. In Final Fantasy VIII the stakes are so much higher that the malaise of the characters is legitimised. As characters fall in love and the fear of losing one another creeps in later in the games, the emotions we are faced with as an audience are that much more intense and not simply the teenage funk of before. Its emotional background has left Final Fantasy VIII a blemish on the series’ illustrious name to many and is still a point of contention between community members in certain dark-corners of the internet. For 1999, perhaps the game was just too raw for many.

Of course, this is just one example but in a medium as reliant on action as video games it isn’t really surprising that excitement is more widely accepted than sadness. While this is evident in the likes of Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and FIFA, there have been emotional video games for some time now in the likes of the Metal Gear Solid series, later entries to Final Fantasy and Shin Megami Tensei. These have all been successful games, though the sadness, the pensive meditation and earnestness of these games have often been written off as melodramatic or overly-sincere in the west. But it looks as though things are starting to change.

In the past few years there have been a number of games whose very success has been due, in part, to the emotional response they evoke. 2013 saw the release of The Last of Us. Set in post-apocalyptic America, the game follows Joel and Ellie as the pair attempt to find sanctuary. The gameplay is stunning, but the game’s real strength is the emotional bond that Joel and Ellie form. Their relationship feels very real; equal parts father-daughter and close friends. Moments in the story the pair may be torn apart are heat-rending, both for the characters and audience. Yet, fourteen years after Final Fantasy VIII, this was not only praised by critics, but the audience too. The Last of Us is a titan of emotional storytelling in video games and deservedly won Game of the Year. Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead is every bit as heart-breaking as its source material, perhaps more so as the audience’s choices directly affect the story and characters’ lives. Again, the first season won Game of the Year. The critical acclaim of That Dragon, Cancer even more recently only furthers the idea that emotion in video games is becoming more accepted.

The reason for this change, however, is not immediately obvious. As a society have we become more accepting of emotion? Aside from the phenomenal movie Inside Out (a film all about legitimising the spectrum of emotions we all feel) there doesn’t seem to be such an overarching theme. The world of gaming, however, has changed significantly. As video game sales have sky-rocketed, its audience has widened. Despite the fact that the stereotypical image of a gamer is still a nerdy teenage boy, research shows that the demographic that plays the most games now are women in their thirties. It could be that with the change of demographic that video games can afford to lose their machismo as they no longer require to pander to fragile-masculinity.

It’s certainly possible, though what’s clear is that video games are now more mainstream than they used to be, which can only be a good thing for the medium. As more people play video games the more legitimate the medium becomes, not just as entertainment, but as an art-form. The past decade saw the emergence of many games dubbed ‘art games’ such as Okami, Journey and Shadow of the Colossus. It seems that the industry and audiences alike have accepted video games as the art-from they were always destined to become and with the title ‘art’ comes something very important – emotion and the reliance of it in storytelling.

Video games seem to have made their peace with emotion and, while the big-sellers are still games of instant-gratification, it’s worth noting that lurking beneath the surface are a myriad of video games packed with feeling and depth. It’s well documented that video games need to become more diverse in terms of representation and experience, yet the broadening of emotion in the medium could prove to be the all-important first step.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', they are also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find them on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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