Friday, February 21, 2014

When Videogames Win

So I already did a list of what aspects of videogames are truly "awe"-some, but now I want to do a list of emotions that I feel videogames can evoke more or better than any other medium. Essentially, this is a list of emotions that videogames can evoke at awe-inspiring levels.

1. Loneliness
A screenshot from Dear Esther

I just played Dear Esther for the first time this week, and ended up going through it twice. Essentially (maybe--the game's kind of ambiguous), it's a game about a man dealing with the loss of his wife, and that sense of loneliness and longing is recreated by the game itself as you walk along an island totally alone, not even seeing your own reflection to reinforce the presence of humanity in the game's world. To make it worse, the game has 10 "ghosts" that only show up extremely briefly or when you're not looking directly at them, taking away any other human presence right as it's noticed--or even before it's noticed, as most players miss most of the ghosts entirely. No piece of media has ever made me feel so lonely. I actually found myself obsessively searching for the ghosts the second time I played because I didn't want to have to walk through the island all alone again. It's simply awesome to me that the game didn't just communicate that someone else was lonely, it made me lonely in a very real sense.

2. Triumph

This one's obvious, perhaps, but so essential to the medium. Jane McGonigal helped popularize the term "fiero" as the specific word for the feeling of triumph after you've tried something over and over and finally perfected a skill. Essentially, she argues, videogames give this feeling stronger and more reliably than any other activity on Earth. Ultimately, she argues, this trait of videogames should be incorporated into reality as much as possible.

I felt this myself recently as I played through Guacamelee!. The game itself isn't terribly difficult if you're familiar with basic conventions of action and platformer videogames like Super Mario Bros; however, to unlock an alternate ending to the game where you actually save the girl, you have to work ten times as hard to collect five orbs that come at the end ofextremely difficult sequences. I spent the better part of a Sunday going through just one of these sequences to try and get it right, but when I did it the sense of relief, triumph, and accomplishment was so tangible it was awe-inspiring.

Yes, vidoegame accomplishments aren't "real," but they're so satisfying and passionate that no other medium even comes close to delivering the same experience.

3. Paternal Love

If you're not familiar with recent videogame history, this one will seem totally out of left field. However, if you paid any attention to the major releases of the last couple years, you see a strangely persistent pattern emerging of games where the player is stuck in a protective fatherly role: The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, The Walking Dead, just to name a few. Say what you want about the inherent sexism of overusing this trope (you're probably right) but despite that these games have brought out emotions in people they didn't even know they could feel. And I'm not just saying that, people have actually reported this to be their experience. As one redditor put it about The Last of Us:
This game taught me that I have a very strong paternal instinct. I was bawling like a baby during the prologue, even more so than my little sister who cries at almost everything even slightly emotional. I also went into "dad mode" very early with Ellie and was extremely protective. That's why the first time I saw her die (at the sniper part) was very jarring for me and I actually felt really guilty.
The fact that this game was able to bring out that instinct in me when I didn't even know I had it is amazing. It makes me feel like (at least I'd like to believe) that I'd be a good dad.
Think about your stereotypical "gamer" in your mind. Do you see them saying these things? Has any media you've ever viewed or participated in caused such a reaction? Is it not amazing that a vidoegame did that to a person? Is that not worth something to the world?

4. Fear

It's no accident that while horror films often get all but ignored by critics lately, many horror games are 
actually among the most respected ever developed. Horror in a film is hard to not reduce to simple tricks and jumps or gratuitous gore and violence. The problem is modern audiences are too familiarized with the medium and the medium itself is too passive. For horror to work right, it needs to be a very physical and active experience, such that the viewer feels in danger while knowing full well they are not. That dissonance is the kind of odd delight horror provides--being able to step into those dark and scary places without actually having to deal with the danger.

Looking at it that way, videogames seem built to be the best horror medium ever. And they've done much to become just that. The "survival horror" subgenre of vidoegames is one of the most robust and successful in the industry. Games like Silent Hill 2, BioshockAmnesia, and Alan Wake have all pushed the medium to new heights of storytelling and player interaction that have blessed all genres of games. Movies just can't give you the feeling of stepping into the danger like a game can. In a game, the horror is twice as horrible because you actually have to respond. You can't just scream--you have to run. And when you can't run, you have to try and find some way to fight. And yet intellectually you are aware the whole time that the actual danger is absolutely zero--a videogame is even safer than a haunted house, really--and so the delightful dissonance of horror is taken to its greatest extreme yet as the fear is higher than ever, but the safety remains that of your very own home.

Now, you might question the value of horror as a genre at all. Why do we care if videogames produce fear better than any other medium? Well, in many ways, videogames make horror not only better, but more useful. Rather than just scaring your pants off and then leaving you out to try, videogames actually help us learn how to deal with fear--how to react to jump scares quickly, how not to freeze in tense situations. You might laugh at that idea, butresearch says this is actually true. Any action videogame can do the trick, really. (By the way, that same article points out that 68% of American households had videogames in 2010. Today, surveys show 97% of kids play videogames. These are higher numbers than even I thought.)

5. Moral anxiety

I struggled with how to phrase this one, but I think you'll understand what I mean. All mediums of art and expression have grappled with tough choices before, and they always will. Movies like Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List deal quite obviously with such choices, and anyone familiar with books and film could easily and quickly produce a sizable list of other examples. I myself have seen and read plenty about tough moral decisions and watched on as characters had to figure out where their moral compasses really pointed and what of all the possible options really worked best. I've felt the power of such struggles, and easily jumped to wondering what I could ever do in such situations. But then I started playing videogames where the choices literally were in my hands and everything changed.

In the action/adventure game Batman: Arkham City you play as both Batman and Catwoman, alternating as the story goes on. At the end of one of the Catwoman sequences, one that comes after maybe 15-20 hours of playing this game and fighting countless thugs, swinging from countless buildings, and foiling who knows how many baddies' plots, she sees Batman trapped by the Joker right as she walks successfully out of a vault with a ton of cash and valuables ready to make a clean break. She looks left and right, knowing left is toward the trapped Batman, and right is toward her clean break with the goods and freedom. The scene then stops and you are put back in control. Which way does Catwoman go? Which way do you go?

This is a depressingly obvious moral choice. Of course you go save Batman. But the point is you actually have to make the choice. You actually could just go right and walk out and let the hero die and evil win. In fact, that's what I did the first time I played this sequence, because I couldn't believe they would let me. Well, they did. I took Catwoman out the door to the right and off she went. Then the credits started rolling and I listened as voiceovers told me how Batman died, Wayne Manor was burned to the ground, and the bad guys won and the good guys all died. The end.

I instantly regretted my choice. I couldn't believe how dumb I was--not only did I make a terrible moral choice, I also denied myself several hours of the game by mercilessly cutting our hero's story short. I instantly went to try and load my last save or something, but I couldn't. I just had to watch the credits roll and feel my guilt. I was in awe that I had actually been given such a choice, and that I actually chose the wrong one.

Then this happened (skip to about 2:00 if you just want to see what happens after the credits):

What a relief! I resolved right then to never make a stupid choice in a videogame again. At least in the fantasy of videogames, I would always be the perfect hero.

But then I played The Walking Dead, and I found out that sometimes in vidoegames, like life, the right and wrong of a situation aren't always as clear as Catwoman's dilemma.

Choices in The Walking Dead videogame series by TellTale Games are never black and white. The series is set up like a TV series in "seasons" of five episodes, and in every episode there's at least one significant decision that will actually alter the course of the rest of the season (and even into the next season). Often, these decisions involve saving one person over another. To make things even worse, the game only gives you so much time to make these decisions, forcing you to think on your feet and go with your gut. Every choice has very clear consequences, and you are forced to deal with these consequences for the rest of the game. One of the most poignant for me was in Season 1, Episode 2 when you have to decide who gets food and who goes without for the day. Watching a character make these decisions in a TV show or movie is one thing, but actually having to pick yourself is a whole other experience, and one that often left me struggling more than a little internally, wondering how I could ever deal with these things in real life.

No matter how good a movie or book is, it can never put tough moral choices actually into your hands. Videogames can, and do, and every year they seem to do it in even tougher and smarter ways. The power of that emotional struggle is awesome, and its something only videogames can give you.

6. Relationship

A romantic scene from Mass Effect 3 where the
player has chosen romance with Tali.
Fans of any media often express feelings of a kind of relationship with their favorite characters, but videogames take this to a whole new level. We already talked about this a bit above with The Last of Us, but consider the Mass Effect trilogy, where the player literally develops relationships with characters in the game, and can go as far as picking a romantic partner inside the game. One writer on a forum for the game said the following:
I finally got around to playing the masterpiece that is Mass Effect 2, and I noticed something about myself. I cared about each and every crew member in their own way(Especially Miranda and Garrus). Cared so much, in fact, that I was extremely nervous about the "suicide" mission, and I practically cheered when everyone in my crew survived. I know that this was Bioware's intention, but I was treating my shipmates like they were my best friends, and I had known them all my life.

This felt odd to me, as I had never experienced this in a film before, or any other media. I suppose that in games, YOU are interacting with them, not watching some braindead hero save the galaxy...again. Tell me...have you experienced this emotional attachment? Not just in Mass Effect, mind you.
This writer sums it up nicely. The idea of interactivity definitely increases attachment. However, another aspect is game length. Games are typically much longer than movies, allowing deeper and fuller character development--in the right hands, of course. And once again, this is an aspect of videogames that's only improving with time.

Videogames don't spur relationships just with computer code, however. There are several accounts of multiplayer videogames causing strong relationships between former strangers, including the strongest of all: marriage.

7.  Discovery

The city of Shambala (Shangri La) in Uncharted 2
We've all seen Indiana Jones or National Treasure and sat back in wonder as the great treasure room opens up in front of the action hero. But would that wonder be deeper if you found the treasure yourself?

That's the promise of videogames like the Uncharted and Assassin's Creed series. And in my experience, the wonder truly is deeper. Games today actually use exploration and discovery as main selling points, knowing that this is one of the most enjoyable and pleasurable parts of the games. The wonder of discovery and exploration is exactly what keeps players in these worlds for hundreds of hours.

8. Loss

Every gamer knows the sting of defeat, but some games really make you feel the loss of favorite characters or difficult levels of missions. One rising trend in videogames lately that particularly emphasizes this emotion is permadeath. Permadeath is the idea that when a character dies, they die. No extra lives. No respawn. No second chances.

The memorial wall in XCOM: Enemy Unknown

One game that does this particularly well is XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Already a notoriously difficult turn-based strategy game, stopping the alien invasion in XCOM is only made worse by the fact that if you let any individual soldier die on a mission, not only do you have to deal with the guilt of allowing his or her death, you lose all the time, effort, and resources you poured into levelling up and outfitting that soldier. The game even has a "memorial" that lists the individual names of all the characters you've lost in battle, including candles, photos, and military "Taps" playing in the background to honor the dead.

9. Hope

Jane McGonigal, the same writer that popularized "fiero," also has repeatedly emphasized how videogames teach players to hope for success. The difference between life and videogames, she says, is that you always know any challenge presented to you in a videogame isalways possible. This paradigm shift from "real life" is huge, pushing gamers to believe in themselves despite enormous difficulty levels.

And it's that hope that makes difficulty levels like the upcomingThief's "Ultimate Thief Mods," including playing the entire 10+ hour game without even being seen or heard once, marketable. If you're even noticed, you have to restart the whole game over again. And the craziest part about it is you can expect someone will actually do it, and probably within the first couple weeks of release. All because videogames inject awe-inspiring levels of hope in your own abilities to achieve the seemingly impossible.

10. Anger

Perhaps this is a bad one to end on, but it is true that maybe nothing else on the planet makes people more mad than videogames. Don't take my word for it, though, have a gander at this video:

So, there it is. Ten emotions that videogames bring out in us stronger than any other medium, often with awe-inspiring results. No, they're not all positive all the time, but they all have positive uses, and if harnessed correctly, might even change the world.

This is the second in a series of posts written for a Literature of Awe class I'm in this semester.

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