How Can Videogames Make Us Cry?

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Richard Rouse III, designer of The Suffering, listed five different tools that designers can use to elicit an emotional response in gamers.

People have always asked the question, “Can videogames make us cry?” Richard Rouse III set out to answer that question in a panel at GDC 2010. Rouse, known for designing the The Suffering and now at Ubisoft Montreal, is certainly equipped to answer this question, having written a book called Game Design: Theory and Practice as well as being an accomplished designer himself. He cited the Electronic Arts advertisement from 1983 which originally posed the question of crying in games, and despite some designers claiming that the topic is outplayed (Including Steven Meresky who told Rouse that his panel was “so 1993.”) it remains an important issue to the industry to this day.

So how do we do it? The first way Rouse suggested was through reminiscence. There is something heart-wrenching about looking back through your life and witnessing everything that you’ve accomplished. Rouse effectively used the Johnny Cash song “Hurt” to illustrate his point and played a clip from the video which shows the old musician looking at scenes from his life. “Johnny Cash hasn’t had a particularly sad or tragic life; in fact, it’s sort of a triumphant life. He’s at the peak of his power at the end of his life,” Rouse said. But the fact that Cash sings the song in such a weary tone, at the end of his days, you get a feel for the tapestry of what he has accomplished. Other forms of media use this framework of looking back, such as the films Titanic or The Notebook.
In games, Rouse specifically points to the conclusion of Fallout 3 as using this technique. “The end of the game is sort of a sad time in itself. I’m not going to be able to play this anymore and look of all these great things I’ve accomplished,” Rouse said. He encouraged designers to take this farther. “I’m not sure this is necessarily tear-worthy, but I think it shows the direction that can be pursued. Fallout 3 is a fairly primitive version of this framework and something more advanced might do the trick.”

Next, Rouse talks about amplification by abstraction. Sometimes, the less “real” a game looks or sounds can heighten the emotional response. The indie game Passage was a great example of this concept. The fact that the characters were so pixilated and unreal allowed gamers to put themselves into their place more easily. “The reason this works at all, and people have talked about crying playing Passage, is because it’s these two little pixiliated characters not some photo real person who you’re leading through this world,” Rouse said.

Another way to get an emotional response is through the transformation of characters from weak or flawed into something greater. A perfect example is It’s A Wonderful Life which makes people cry every year during Christmas. The gaming analogue might be something like the climactic moment in Bioshock where many of the people you’ve been helping rise up and aid you (I’m being especially vague as to avoid spoilers but you get the idea. Incidentally, Rouse didn’t use any spoiler tags in his speech.)

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“There’s more to this ending that deals with issues of family that is very touching, but for me, that was the moment right there. Although, I must admit, I didn’t cry,” Rouse said. There was a burst of laughter when the somewhat violent ending was playing and Rouse said it was just like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Perhaps the juxtaposition didn’t work, but the point he was trying to make is that perhaps it’s the happiest and most triumphant moments in games that can make us cry.

The theme of loss and recovery can be very powerful. TO illustrate this, Rouse showed a clip of an old silent film called Sunrise in which a man plots to kill his wife, can’t go through with it, and then loses her in an accident. The man goes through an extraordinary journey of finally realizing that what his wife was worth to him only to have her taken from him. The film goes an extra step in drawing out emotion though when it’s finally revealed that his wife survived the accident after all. You don’t realize what you have until it is gone.

Gaming examples for this emotion are Floyd in the text game Planetfall and even GlaDOS in Portal where characters who are nuisances or even trying to kill you can still exhibit that pain of loss when they are gone. Rouse then compared this to the experience he had playing Nintendogs with his 2 year old daughter. They created a dog called Goofu and would spend hours together with him doing the more complicated parts and the daughter doing the feeding and petting. “Then when I was away on a business trip, my wife called me and told me that Goofu was gone. I was destroyed by this news,” Rouse said with a laugh. “I was seriously depressed for like days. But when I came back, we played it and this amazing thing happened where Goofu came back.” Apparently, Nintendo had built in a mechanic where your dog can run away if you don’t feed it or play with it for a while but there’s a chance that it will find its way back home. “There was just this amazing moment when Goofu came back. I was actually brought to tears.”

The last way Rouse discussed in which games can make you cry is with nostalgia, which actually encompasses a lot of the elements already discussed. He showed this great clip from Mad Men in which Don Draper is pitching the Carousel slide projector for Kodak. This idea, that experiencing the joyful pain of life over and over, can be very moving and has definitely brought me to tears in the past. Games can do that too, by showing us what we’ve seen and allow us to feel nostalgia for how we used to play when we were kids.

You may agree with some of the ways Rouse outlined that games can make us cry, or even which specific examples he used, or you may vehemently disagree. And you may have some talented people arguing on your side.

At the panel, I overheard a guy behind me say, “If I were doing this panel, I don’t think I would have used any of those things. I honestly would have given that speech completely differently.”

When I turned around, I saw that the guy who said that was Warren Spector.

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