I am a crybaby. And I don’t care what you think. Well, that’s simply not true, is it? If I didn’t care what you think, I wouldn’t be setting out to write a piece, on a widely read website, explaining why the crybaby gets the best deal. I deeply care what you think. In fact, if you don’t like me, I may… sniffle… come on, let’s get on with it.
This week’s titular question is obviously a silly one. Answer: Yes. Next issue please! I think anyone who might take the stance that games cannot make you cry is either a sociopath, has never played Angel of Darkness and tried to walk in a straight line, or simply a big, lying coward. Begone, cowards! Today is the day of the ludicrously emotional – we shall triumph and probably get all weepy as we accept our victory.
Let me put things in context. I can’t watch a Muppet movie without crying (please, no jokes about Muppet Treasure Island – I’ve deliberately never watched it). Not just in the amazingly sad bits where only evil monsters made of angry stone wouldn’t shed 14 buckets of salt water, but pretty much all the way through. There’s just something about them, something about the love behind them, the passion that fuelled (past tense, thanks to their vile murder via the Disney purchase – more crying here) their very existence. The purpose of this aside? To hyper-stress what a sap I am. The sappiest of the sappy. It’s established. We can progress.
I believe that being able to burst into tears while playing a game is a great boon to a person. And I’m taking this as far as it will go. Were you to break down and sob every time you lost a race in Project Gotham, I’d have nothing but the deepest of respect for you. I’d think you a weirdo, but I’d respect you. Why? Here’s the rub: You would be connecting with the game, and being transformed by it.
I want to present an example: 2003’s adventure, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. It was a splendid game, frustrated slightly by its wobbly steps into three dimensions, and certainly underplaying its historical/mythological base in an attempt to win over a console generation, but all the same, a thoroughly engrossing post-point-and-click adventure game. Having played the previous two in the series, during the ’90s, I’d always enjoyed them, but never felt an overwhelming relationship with the central characters: George, the daft but big-hearted, American, world-traveling lawyer; and Nico, French photo-journalist, and the deeply sarcastic will-she-won’t-she target of George’s affections. Something changed about the third game – perhaps it was the accursed 3-D betraying a positive consequence via the portrayal of emotions on the character’s faces – but this time they began to matter.
There’s a scene toward the end (spoiler fans) where George, Nico and long-term friend Bruno are in a pyramid. It’s all coming down, and death is imminent. The dilemma: The only way to keep the door open to leave is for someone to stay inside. It’s sacrifice time. Now, this is not a new idea on any level, and killing someone to create an emotional response can be a sledgehammer technique. But Broken Sword did something clever.
“It’s all about empathy,” says Broken Sword‘s creator, Charles Cecil. “In a third-person game, like in a film, it’s all about empathy. You never think you are that guy, but the aim is to have you experiencing the same emotions as the him.”
Bruno, a man probably in his 70s, tells George and Nico very firmly that he will stay inside, and they must save themselves. There isn’t time for deliberation, and Bruno’s severity is convincing enough in that moment. They run for the exit.
“You’ve got to believe that you share emotions with him. With George, we’re trying to tread a very careful line between association and empathy. Clearly you’re not George, but we want you to have more association than you would in a movie.”
The giant stone door slams down, Bruno is trapped, the situation is over, and now just the horror remains.
“We’ve got to accept that in games we’re not good at profound emotions. We’re much better at visceral emotions. Guns are wonderful in gameplay, because they work. Classical gameplay is about trying something, failing, knowing why you failed, trying again, and eventually feeling, ‘fantastic, I’ve done it!’ There’s no ambiguity about firing a gun and having it hit, or not hit. That’s the visceral. It’s much more obvious.”
George and Nico stare at one another. There’s silence. And they stare. And George’s eyes widen, his face crumples, and he is punched by grief. Nico’s face softens, her fixed scowl suddenly gone, and you know in that moment that she loves George unconditionally. It is the consummation players have longed for the series’ whole existence, and it is more beautiful than anyone could have imagined. It is tragedy, remorse, grief, companionship, relationship, passion and love. And I cried. I just sat there, looked at this unspoken scene, and wept.
“We’re right on the peripheral in trying to create profound emotions, or, in inverted commas, ‘games that make you cry.'”
So, how does Cecil achieve this? How do his characters manage to matter? It comes down to a lot of thought and preparation. “There’s a set of three areas that have to be established,” Cecil explains. “First of all, you’ve got to believe in your characters. Second, you’ve got to empathize with them. And third, you’ve got to share their motivations. And once you’ve got all that, then hopefully you’ll start to love your characters. And only at that point can you be effective.”
Certainly suggesting nothing disparaging about the game itself, Cecil mentions Metal Gear Solid‘s characters as a comparison. “They’re stereotypes. And because they created stereotypes, they’ve written them stereotypical dialogue. So you cannot care about them.” He’s right. I don’t believe in them, I don’t empathize with them, and I don’t share their motivations, and hence I don’t love them. I would be impressed by the player who wept when Snake died. And that’s despite the desperate hollered wail of “SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!” by any one of his compatriots. It’s a false “SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!” impossible to believe in, and in my experienced opinion, a source of great amusement with which to shout along. It doesn’t matter when Snake dies – he exists to die, over and over. He offers the visceral emotion, and attempts nothing more. Should this be enough to make you cry, by the way, you win.
So why does Bruno matter so much? Cecil observes, “If we tried to kill characters off too early, before you’d started to care about them, then that would come across as very cheap.” It comes back to his list of three checks: belief, empathy and shared motivations equal love.
“We made you like his character, and then we put in a believable choice. It’s about loving them, and then believing in their situation. And then surprising the player. You were surprised that Bruno offered to do it, as were George and Nico, but you absolutely believed him.”
Cecil and his team deliberately set out to embellish upon profundity. “Broken Sword 3 was primarily written by Neil Richards, who hadn’t worked on the previous games. Neil brought a classical slant, coming from film and television, and his approach was quite different. We tried to bring forward the central characters, to make the main story more profound.” And it worked. I love those guys.
This story has a pleasing punch line. Charles Cecil was speaking at the Edinburgh Games Festival in 2004, and shortly before, I’d forwarded him an email from a reader of the U.K. PC Gamer, stating that the very scene had made him cry. Cecil was speaking immediately after the bigwigs of EA, who puffed out their chests and boasted that their mission, since the ’80s, has been to create games that would make the player cry, and that with this, that and the other, they believed that they were taking games to this place. Charles was then able to get up, take the mic, and begin, “Well, I recently received an email …”
So, there, an example of my becoming a complete blubbering wreck over a game. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times, games can make you cry. So, why is that a good thing?
I’d like to present the completely unscientific suggestion, with utter conviction, that such profound responses are the emotional equivalent of looking through 3-D glasses. Allowing oneself to buy into a story and fall in love with its characters, despite its appearing on the computer screen, is to place the ridiculous looking red and green specs on your amygdala and have the game come alive in a transforming way.
It’s a giving over of oneself, a humbling step to allow a greater experience. Which means I wish I did cry whenever Snake died, or whenever my polygonal car collided with a tight corner’s barrier. It would, admittedly, make games like Tomb Raider too harrowing to play, constantly grieving the death of poor Lara, but each and every gaming session would be all the more powerful, important and life-changing.
Oh, but I’m mocked. Because of my pride and conviction in having such loose tear ducts and having a big mouth, others quickly know of my weepy gaming and perpetually soggy keyboard. Anyone who foolishly mentions The Longest Journey in my presence will hear great tale of how much I love April Ryan, and how important she is to me, how transforming her story has been, and how I cried and cried at the revelation of her adventures. And they look at me, unnerved, perhaps taking a couple of steps backward. At that point, not seeing any sense, I’ll probably confess that the latest Tomb Raider – Legend – brought dampness to my eyes with Lara’s newfound motivation … Ah, and there it is again.
I never cared about Lara before. Think about how unemotional her deaths are. Oh, Lara’s been chopped up by some blades. Oh, Lara’s drowned. Oh, Lara’s fallen onto spikes for the 50th time in a row. There was no emotional resonance, no sense of loss. This time, she explains why she raids tombs, and we see, in flashback, the horror of her mother’s death, partly her fault, and learn of her father’s subsequent public mocking in the face of his apparently crazy beliefs. Suddenly, thanks to a new development team (hopefully after the AoD developers had been fired into outer space), Lara has motivation. Exactly the ingredient Cecil referenced. She was grounded, made believable, and then given motivations with which I could empathize. And gosh, she brought a tear to my eye.
And then, it’s blank, scared faces, quickly replaced by the mocking. But I don’t care! I am a crybaby, and I’m proud! And I say crybabies of the world, let us stand together, arms around each other’s shoulders, probably rather overwhelmed by the situation and getting a bit sniffly, and see off these mocking fools. Because it is they, those that look down on the emotionally mature, those that condemn us for forming relationships with our characters, that lose out. It is they who watch their games in flat, monotone misery, unable to let go of their pride, their stubborn grit, and let the tears flow.
They deserve our sympathy, fellow crybabies. Do not hate them. They are the losers, and we are the winners. Shed a tear for them – it’s what we’re best at.
John Walker is a giant crybaby, games journalist, and professional weepy wimp. He’s always going on about crying on his own website, http://botherer.cream.org. It’s embarrassing, really.