Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Bringing the Pain

Robert Rath | 31 Jan 2013 16:00
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Many games depict pain or use pain-like mechanics - but some do more. A select few manage to bridge the physical divide and actually make the player feel their character's injuries through human empathy. It's no secret that humans feel the pain of others psychologically. That's why men wince when they see someone hit in the groin or a whole stadium groans when a running back takes a bad hit. For the same reason, we generally don't like to see pictures of bodily harm. Scientific research has found some evidence so support the idea that seeing injuries in others can provoke mental reactions or even physical sensations in a viewer. In 2009 a University of Birmingham study found that one-third of participants reported feeling physical sensations like tingling, aching, or sharp pains when shown images and video of people injured or in pain. Afterward, a neuroimaging study confirmed that the pain matrix in these responders' brains lit up upon seeing the imagery, with activity focused in the areas of the brain involving sensory perception. (People who didn't feel response pain mostly reacted with the emotional portions of their brain.) This may be the work of "mirror neurons," a fairly new type of neuron that scientists have confirmed in macaque monkeys and theorize may occur in humans as well. To oversimplify, mirror neurons may be what helps animals learn through mimicry and react at a gut level to the emotions of others. For example, if you're watching a basketball game, the exertions of the athletes might fire neurons in your brain consistent with aerobic exercise, causing your heart to beat faster in excitement. Alternately, if you see someone pick up a teacup it may light up the same areas of the brain you'd use to pick up a teacup yourself. It's by this type of injury and pain association - which artists have employed intuitively for centuries - that certain games can reach out and touch the player.

What made Call of Cthulhu's injuries so shocking wasn't the gameplay consequences of injury, but the sound effects that communicated them. For example, on one playthrough I was exploring a fish processing plant, searching for a first aid kit I'd seen while climbing around the catwalks. That's when I heard the gargling voice of an Innsmouth thug behind me. As I wheeled around, his shotgun literally cut me down at the knees. Jack dropped. I swore, sighted my revolver and drilled the cultist through the skull. The healing menu confirmed what I feared: two broken legs, no splints, no bandages. I was twenty yards from the first aid kit. Jack walked slow and heavy, almost a crawl. With each step, I heard Jack's shattered bones crunch and grind against each other. He grunted and practically whimpered. It set my teeth on edge, and I resorted to giving him a shot of morphine - which I'd avoided, fearing addiction - to bring him through the last stretch. Call of Cthulhu uses audio to a pretty unnerving effect generally. You'll hear otherworldly voices whispering to you as you lose sanity and Jack muttering arcane knowledge he shouldn't know, but none of that bothered me as much as the sheer awfulness of that 45 seconds I spent hobbling toward the medkit on shattered femurs.

In contrast, Far Cry 3 communicates Jason Brody's pain visually. Animal attacks are the most direct example, particularly sharks and crocodiles that latch onto Jason's arms. Here, the developers accomplish pain transference mostly through shock- you usually don't see the animal coming, and when violent imagery suddenly fills the screen it transfers the trauma of the attack straight to the player's brain. Car crashes are similarly brutal, as Jason gets forced up against the wheel and his arms splay across the dashboard. But, for my money, it's Far Cry's grotesque healing animations that really bring the pain. A one-bar healing might include re-setting a dislocated thumb or hand, but it only gets worse from there. Jason pulls nails out of his arm, enormous shards of glass and shrapnel from his hands, and in the most graphic examples, he digs bullets out of his arm with a scalpel, a stick, or his teeth. Each action induces spurts of blood and the sound of popping bones and squelching flesh. The painful imagery of this healing system serves to illustrate the impact Jason's behavior is having on his own body, with his lack of reaction suggesting that he doesn't fully understand the reality of his situation. Despite killing hundreds of pirates, getting shot, and burning half a tropical island, Jason Brody remains what he was when he arrived - an idiotic tourist who sees Rook Island as his playground. However, it's worth mentioning that these healing animations are also a holdover from the game's more serious predecessor, Far Cry 2, which had twice as many impromptu treatments that were even nastier. Either way, they work. The only time I feel connected to Jason as a character is when he pops his joints back in place like a Jacob's ladder. Jason Brody is a contemptible person, but everyone can relate to a human being in pain.

Recent advancements in game technology have tried to bridge the physical gap between the player and their avatar. Efforts such as the Wii, Kinect, and Move have largely failed, as have the more exotic products, like vests that simulate being shot. However, those who attempt to link our physical bodies to our virtual bodies are forgetting that corporeal sensations don't reside in our hands and feet, but in our brains. We don't need feedback tools or accelerometers to connect with our virtual selves. Humans are social creatures that naturally want to connect with others - what we need are good design decisions made with humanity's capacity for empathy and mirroring in mind. Ultimately we don't play games with our hands, we play them with our brains.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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