Having been a gamer since about 1979, I’ve played my share of titles. During the early days, when the medium of gaming was trying to “find its way” in the world, we saw many attempts to evoke human emotion from game players. (I remember the first time I played “Haunted House” for the Atari 2600. I turned out the lights and played as close as I could to the 13″ TV to try and “see if I could be frightened by the game”.) If you try hard enough and if you’re imagination is wild enough, sometimes your mind can turn those blobs of pixels into high resolution chilling ax-murderers. (Whether or not graphical advancement in games has destroyed a part of our imagination or not is a topic for another post.)
One very compelling ad that I recall seeing in magazines when I was a kid was the classic Electronic Arts ad. In a matter unlike game ads at the time (and truthfully, unlike game ads today as well) the two-page spread had a shot of eight game developers posing in a very serious-looking ensemble and dressed in non-flashy “basic black” garb alongside the headline, “Can A Computer Make You Cry?” I remember sitting up in my chair a bit — even as a pre-pubescent lad — at the mere idea of a game developer trying to push games beyond the bleeps and blips that I was used to. How ironic is it that the same company who ran this ad back in the early 80s along with and another classic ad entitled “We See Farther” has more resources now that any other company, yet can now only ‘see as far’ as an annual update to their uninspired sequels completely devoid of risk. Shallow sequel after shallow sequel. It’s enough to “make you cry” — but not quite in the way that they had planned. Nonetheless, I look back fondly on EA’s early vision to dare to push the medium beyond levels once through unreachable. And although business savvy maneuvers and strategic negotiations and acquisitions are probably most responsible for giving us the behemoth that is Electronic Arts today, I have to believe that a ray of inspiration from that early vision shined down on the company and is also partially responsible for their twenty-first century success.
As far as gaming has taken us — from the Coleco Telestar all the way up to the PlayStation 3 — strangely enough, EA’s question has yet to be definitively answered. For all of the graphical advances that we’ve made — all of the 7.1-Channel Dolby DTS sound systems and 1080p displays running at 60 frames per second — has there ever been a game to honestly and truly tug at our emotions? And to the point of pushing us to openly…..weep?
This is definitely a question whose answer will vary depending on who you ask. There are some like myself who have been gamers for upwards of twenty years and who can’t honestly ever recall sitting in front of a display — computer monitor OR television — and physically and openly crying. (At least not about the subject matter on the cartridge/disc/hard drive). Others will tell you they’ve already been pushed to tears. Some will say more than once. I’ve read at least five magazine articles or blogs dealing with this very subject. I remember reading Gears of War lead developer and hardcore gamer Cliff Blezenski talk about playing a Japanese RPG and weeping because the character that he had befriended throughout a large portion of the game turned on him and wouldn’t respond to him. (Or something like that.) RPGs are probably the easiest targets for tear-jerkers due to their story-driven nature. You meet characters and spend 15-30 hours playing in a world with them only for them to die dramatically in-game. I think the closest thing to a moment where all gamers agree that they came the closest to showing emotion — and some even admitted to crying — was when Aerith died in Final Fantasy VII. I remember being taken aback a bit at her death — and I do recall being a little sad. (“Wow – that was really messed up. She’s…..gone.”) But I didn’t actually cry.
To me, RPGs are the easy way out. It’s almost like reading a book and having the words paint a picture of sadness. Recently the topic of discussion has been around whether non-story driven games can evoke emotion. One rumor was that God of War developer David Jaffe was working on such a game. This project has yet to be confirmed, but I think any effort where the general consensus is that the purpose of the game was to try to get me to cry probably wouldn’t be successful in doing so. At least not for me. I mean, I’d have my guard up from the opening credits. (OK, unless it was, like, “Beaches” sad. Then maybe it wouldn’t matter.)
And this is not to say that games haven’t evoked other kinds of emotion from us. Excitement and exhilaration are probably the biggest emotions that games have given us. The other day while playing Wii Tennis, after being down two sets to love, I found the competitive spirit and after many deuces and advantage points going both ways, somehow I pulled it out and found a way to win. It was such an incredible emotion for me. Anger is probably the emotion that game developers occasionally unintentionally gift us with. Some of their levels — with their cheap AI that leads to repeated death in the same spot during the game. Well, that too is enough to make you cry for the wrong reasons. (Or at least to make you break a gamepad.)
It’s been my experience that games like Shadow of the Colossus and particularly Ico have evoked the most emotion for me. Ico was one of the rare games that I actually made myself find the time to finish and it was so rewarding. Not only did it provide me with a sense of compassion and bravery in wanting to protect the young girl that you guide and protect throughout the game (Yorda) but it gave me a sense of fear when the dark spirits would try to harm her…..or me.
Fear is probably the one emotion where we’ve made tremendous strides over the past ten years. Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark, F.E.A.R. and Silent Hill are some of the more popular titles that have recently had the honor of scaring the daylights our of us. The developers have learned a lot from the movies. F.E.A.R. plays with our minds in much the same way as Japanese horror films like The Ring. One could also argue that the other games are all variants of some sort of horror sub-genre.
But I believe that among the wide range of emotions that we experience as humans — anger, fear, love, pain, frustration, longing, joy and rage, just to name a few — tear-inducing sadness is arguably the most difficult to provoke from a gamer holding a gamepad. And when someone finally has that E.T.-like project that strikes a common chord among gamers and non-gamers alike, we will have truly reached a pinnacle in game development.
And he’s laying down all this foundation to say what? Well….
I recently picked up Elite Beat Agents – a very campy, “Simon says”-like music game for the kid-friendly portable gaming system, the Nintendo DS. The controls are very simple – use the stylus on your Nintendo DS screen to tap out the beats in a pattern as displayed on the screen that usually corresponds with the music. (Sounds simple, but the farther you go, the more complicated the rhythmic patters and the more difficult the game gets.) EBA – with it’s simple graphics – had managed to take me through some major emotions. Initially, the game is very silly. In a classic super-hero like fashion, the game will drop you in on a scene from everyday life where someone is having a problem until they yell “HELP!”……and then it shows up on the radar of this dude who looks like every Hollywood attempt to cast the Joint Chiefs of Staff — where he will then call on these three guys dancing in “Men in Black”-like suits in an attempt to boogie your problems away. It’s all very campy — (at least it was on the surface.)
One of the keys to EBA‘s appeal is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. One of the levels involves a teenage girl who’s trying to win the affections of the high school hunk — only problem is that her babysitting jobs and the bratty kids keep getting in the way of their “private time.” So, in true Elite Beat Agents style, the three agents come on the scene and through their dancing powers, get the guy to liken taking care of these unruly kids to something he can relate to — football. It all works kinda well.
Throughout the first few levels, EBA had managed to make me laugh with it’s silliness. However, there is a level called “Canned Heat” (which uses the Jamiroquai song of the same name which was made famous by Jon Heder, as danced to it in Napoleon Dynamite.) The music is ok. The problem is that the pattern just doesn’t play out right. The beats don’t match the drum — they match some other part of the melody. So it’s counterintuitive to what they’ve been teaching you. In short, it’s frustrating. And after ten or twelve tries to beat the level — only to die in the same spot each time….the game began to get the best of me. A few times I even contemplated hucking the DS at the wall. But then, of course, I “knuckled-up” and found the determination and will to beat the level — and beat it I did (barely). While I felt a sense of exhilaration (there’s another one of those emotion-thingys) after beating the level, the residue from the frustration that it had caused me was still lingering in my system. And perhaps that was just the perfect setup for what happened next.
In all of the previous levels, the songs were upbeat and almost like J-Pop (Japanese Pop music). Also, all of the previous level advances gave the player the opportunity to try one of two or three different songs. But not this time. The level up that I received only gave me the option to play one level. One.
When I set the cursor over the sole level, there was an image of Christmas tree, snow, and what looked like a family — while a very campy 80’s song played as the foreshadow to the beats I would have to tap out: “You’re the Inspiration” by Chicago. I knew the song well, but it never really did anything serious for me. It’s a nice song. Kinda mushy and sad. But it certainly hadn’t brought me to any emotion before. And with little expectation other than a quick run through a very simple level, I started the level.
In EBA, before the gameplay begins, they set the scene to show you why the agents will be called in. In this prelude, little Lucy Stevens is talking to her mom and dad about her wishes for Christmas. It’s snowing and you can feel the cheer in the background bell-riddled music. As her dad is leaving (presumably to go to work) Lucy tells her dad what she wants for Christmas from Santa. Before dad leaves, Lucy tells him to make sure he comes home for Christmas. (Now the way that the game has been going, my guess was that dad would spend the rhythm part of the game out finding the toy that little Lucy wanted in a last minute crowded Christmas rush.) In a weird twist that I totally didn’t see coming, the screen blanks and the music slows down…..then the words flash on the screen…..”Six months later”. The scene clearly isn’t Christmas anymore and the snow is gone from the house. Lucy picks up a photo of her dad and begins to say to her mom, “When Daddy comes home….” Mom quickly stops her mid-sentence. “Lucy – you need to forget about Daddy — he’s not coming home — ever. He was in an accident.” And with that, they threw me into the game. No shout from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “Agents Are GO!” as he had in every one of the previous levels. Not even the shrieks of “HELP!” from the mom or even little Lucy (either of which would have been a bit morbid, but completely appropriate considering their emotion.) No — they just start the music up and throw you into the game.
As I’m tapping out the beat to You’re the Inspiration and trying to figure out where these folks are taking me, I suddenly realize that I can’t just escape the lyrics. They’re essential to me beating the level. And so, as I’m hitting the screen with my stylus, I’m hearing beautiful lyrics from the cover band that isn’t too far from Peter Cetera’s original crooning. This coupled with the images of the little girl and the mother — first looking at old photos of the dad…..then baking a “Happy Birthday Dad” cake…..are starting to get to me a bit. And quickly my mind goes back…..some twenty years to the ad in the pages of Commodore Magazine. It was no longer a question of whether a computer game could make one cry. The question was now much more direct — would this one make me cry? And with that I made my way through what was a pretty difficulty rhythmic patterned level.
So, did I cry? No – and not because I “manned up”. The end of the sequence takes a rather odd and weird turn. I certainly could have written a much more emotional ending to it. It’s not horrible and it didn’t ruin the beauty of the level. It just didn’t make me cry.
In retrospect, yeah — this was a pretty cheap way to draw emotion. Almost like watching a sad commercial. Or too much Lifetime TV. It’s not a matter of when you’re going to cry — it’s just a matter of which show will get you. But the developers of EBA probably didn’t care anything about the whole ‘Can a Computer Make You Cry’ thing. They probably just wanted to make a beautiful level. And make one they did. It was just as special the second time I played through the level. And neither time did I shed a tear. But the key for me was the fact that “we’re getting there”.
When I think about Ico and Out of This World and now this out of place level in Elite Beat Agents, the amazing thing about each is that they’re no technical marvels when compared to the detail that games like Gears of War or Dead Rising have. They’re almost games that could have been done on the first generation of PlayStation machines. (Well, maybe not Ico. But Out of This World came out in the late 80s and Elite Beat Agent’s graphics don’t look much more advanced than a Super Nintendo game. And this is a good thing. It means that polygons and eye candy may tickle our fancy, but for some of us, graphics alone aren’t enough to push our emotional levels beyond areas we thought possible.
So, “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” Surely it can. For me, one almost did. And for the sake of pushing games into a more mainstream arena, let’s hope that there are more experiences that can awaken emotions in us all.