As videogames ascend the ranks of popular media – they are now played in at least 75% of American homes, according to the Entertainment Software Association – they have begun to shed their image as merely an entertaining diversion for kids who should probably be studying or out playing sports. Though they still carry a certain stigma for many people – and for not a few politicians – most of the country and much of the world now understands gaming as a worthwhile pastime for people of all ages. Studies show that what gaming takes time away from is not sports or school, for the most part, but television. Onscreen entertainment is moving into the interactive realm. Viewed from the proper perspective, the rise of gaming is merely an evolution, not a dangerous revolution at all.
But just how far can videogames rise? The words “screen art” used to bring to mind the names of great movie directors like Hitchcock, Truffaut or Scorsese. Now, they conjure up the names of gorgeous videogames like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion or Shadow of the Colossus. Can the “art” of videogames ever make the transition from assets to expression? Or, put another way: Can a videogame make you cry?
Any time this question gets hauled out, there are a few key moments that are cited as the most tragic in videogame history. Chief among them is the unexpected death of the character Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. Fans who had come to know and love Aeris over the course of the story were shocked to witness her death at the hands of the evil Sephiroth, the game’s central villain. Some games, like some movies, do a better job of painting character than others.
By the time Aeris dies, her personality has been so well developed, we’ve grown attached to her; we care about her and we want to know more. To see her fall at the hands of Sephiroth is a loss that touches gamers as much as tearjerking scenes like E.T.’s departure or the students’ “O Captain, my Captain” tribute to Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society – or any number of other movie moments – touch moviegoers every time.
An on-rails single-player game like Final Fantasy – if it’s very well written – can do that only because it’s the gaming subgenre closest to a feature film. There is one plot and one outcome, and while in a game there may be slight variations in how you get to the end, there is really only one author of the action, and that’s the development team.
But there are games other than Final Fantasy, and unlike traditional media, in which the viewer is only ever a passive participant, some games can allow the gamer to take a more active role, not just in the action but in the authorship of the plot and development of the characters, as well.
Take an open-world game like Grand Theft Auto or Gun, for instance, or the recently released Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, which has been capturing gamers’ imaginations in droves. All of these games have their pre-determined plots, as well. The series of missions send players on what’s essentially a long-range quest to build street cred and gain control of territory, take revenge on old enemies, or just save the world, depending on the kind of adventure you prefer.
But open-world games also allow their players to create their own plots, and that’s where the possibilities get more interesting. There is no fixed set of people or places who may become important to you, but a rich mix of both to choose from. Most of the central characters in open-world games are governed by the same set of narrative rules as those in on-rails environments, of course. But to be banished from the ‘hood by a rival gang in GTA or shunned by an NPC who had become an ally and friend in Oblivion can be just as painful as losing a companion adventurer like Aeris. Can it make you cry? Perhaps. But what it can do, regardless of the tears or lack thereof, is start to more closely approach the plot of a “literary” novel, in which people, places and things have a much more evocative presence. It asks players to contribute their creativity to the game. You’ve invested yourself in the game, not just as an observer but also as one of its authors, and if it was you who wrote that meaningful encounter into the gameplay – not through any software mechanics but by letting it mean something to you – any unexpected reversals are bound to have a deeper impact.
One of the places players have the most “authorship” is in MMOGs. Here, though, the “writing” of your experience is more collaborative. While you can invest in parts of the game in much the same way as in open-world, single-player games, there is a fair portion of the experience that is controlled neither by the game itself nor by the player in question, but by other players roaming around the same environment. And if you’re in a PvP-enabled virtual “place,” the authorship is even more diffused. Your own creativity is only part of the story. Some of your deepest connections may be formed, not with NPCs or favorite places in the world but with other real live human beings. Could such relationships make you cry? Why not?
If you’ve ever worked closely with someone to overcome a series of challenges over a period of months, you know the joy that can result from being part of a well oiled team. If you’ve ever been betrayed by a close friend in your offline life, you know the pain that can arise when such a team fragments and falls apart. Though less may be at stake in an online world, the emotions are no different. But are these emotions and interactions art?
Who’s to say? But it just might be, if by “art” we mean an expressive work that touches our emotions. It’s just, in MMOGs, the emotions being affected can vary wildly from person to person. For some, such games will rise to the level of art; for others, they will always be only games.
As with the difference between on-rails and open-world single-player games, MMOGs come in a range of flavors, as well. The external trappings of swords versus spaceships are of little consequence, here.
More important is the extent to which players are able to interact with and affect the world around them. At one end of the scale is a game like World of Warcraft, in which important connections may be formed between players, but where those players never have an impact on the virtual world. No matter how many trolls you do away with, after all, more will always return to take their place. Adventurer after adventurer rides through the same unchanging landscape, and while your character may improve greatly over time, the backdrop against which your story unfolds remains static.
Slide along the scale a bit, though, and you come upon worlds like PlanetSide and Lineage – places where the landscape holds more than just a series of challenges to be beaten and then left behind. Both games feature players as central to the action, working both with and against each other to shape their virtual worlds by capturing and holding important points of territory. This is the battlefield, MMOG-style, and it mimics many of the emotions that are conveyed by the best big-screen portrayals of war, with one important difference: The players themselves share in the glory of conquest or the ignominy of surrender; it’s you that stands triumphant after taking a rampart or hardpoint, and it’s you that stands over your fallen ally on the field of battle (though, of course, he’s fallen only temporarily; there’s little doubt about whether he’ll get up). The potential for tears of joy or bitterness is far greater in worlds like these.
But what’s really at stake, here? Resource nodes are one thing, but what about scenarios in which a full-scale war – not just a battle – rages across wide swathes of territory? Anyone who knows me well knows which MMOG I’ll trot out next: It’s the space opera EVE Online, of course, where alliances of well over a thousand players wage war against each other, with control of dozens of star systems filled with valuable resources of many kinds hanging in the balance. Alliances rise and fall over the course of many months, politics rend what were formerly powerful ties, and you learn to depend on the people you fly with, because EVE is a world where death hurts. Your story unfolds on an epic scale, and it’s a story in which the world can be bent to your will – in contrast to the constantly regenerating landscape of World of Warcraft.
When the question is raised of whether a videogame can make you cry, it’s usually in the context of art. Can the plot of a single-player game be made to include both engaging gameplay, and the kinds of characters, attachments and tension that can be used to create emotional moments on down the line? I see no reason why not. Though we’ve encountered this relatively rarely in the history of gaming, there’s no reason to believe developers who are interested in making games into literature (not, mind you, interactive storytelling) won’t find a way to accomplish it on a more consistent basis.
Where MMOGs are concerned, though, it’s a different story. Though there’s a hefty single-player element in many MMOGs, the collaborative authorship that takes place in such games means that layering in a deep and moving plot is probably impossible.
But MMOGs have an advantage over single-player games for the same reason. The connections that form there are not between player and finely wrought fictional characters, but between real people on both sides of the bond. And it’s the forming of such bonds – and the breaking of them – that is what moves people to tears most often in “real” life. The loss of a friend, the experience of belonging to a cohesive group of people, the interdependence that develops among colleagues – these things are no less real in an MMOG than they are in our physical lives. The possibilities are in the players’ hands.
If you’re deep in your game, why wouldn’t it move you to tears?
Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.