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Wrestling with Next-Gen Emotions

What do Shinji Mikami, David Cage, and Bobby Kotick have in common? The notion that storytelling is a technical hurdle as much as a creative one

By Brendan Sinclair. Published 9 months ago

New consoles are just around the corner, which means we're entering yet another golden age of marketing stupidity. Whether it's vague promises of "harnessing the cloud," declarations that the new machine is 8, 10, or 40 times more powerful than its predecessor, or fun facts about how many billion transistors have been crammed into gamers' new toys, the industry is showing all the shame of a used car salesman these days.

Now this happens with every new generation of consoles, but hardware makers always seem to struggle when it comes down to telling gamers why they should actually care about these promises of power. The perfectly legitimate--if perhaps a bit underwhelming--reason is that players will get better looking games on the new systems. And yes, in some cases the more powerful systems may allow for a few novel games that would have been technically impossible on earlier consoles (Mario 64 wasn't going to happen on the Super Nintendo, after all). But that reason isn't enough for a proper marketing push. It doesn't communicate the idea of this new tech as a must-have. It won't trend on Twitter, or inspire people to start camping out on the Best Buy sidewalk. It doesn't create a buzz.

With the power of next-gen graphics, I will finally develop the ability to care about another living creature.

So instead, developers, publishers, and hardware makers alike try to translate that promise of power into things they think gamers might care about. They try to convince players (and probably themselves) that these new systems will facilitate some sort of breakthrough for gaming. They'll pole vault the industry over the uncanny valley, create true artificial intelligence, and figure out a perpetual motion machine while they're at it. But one of the more persistent and perplexing assertions is that this power will produce emotion.

David Cage is perhaps the lead figurehead/punching bag for this point of view. As the Quantic Dream founder said at the PlayStation 4 reveal event, "When people ask me, 'What is the feature you want the most on next-generation platforms,' my answer is always the same. Emotion."

Cage then went on to talk about polygon counts, advanced skin shaders, 3D depth of field, and other technical tricks. The Heavy Rain director did not mention the value of skilled storytelling, supporting all of the choices presented to players, or coherent worlds with consistent logic.

"When people ask me, 'What is the feature you want the most on next-generation platforms,' my answer is always the same. Emotion."--David Cage

Sadly, Cage is not alone in his belief--or at least his public decrees--that technology is the barrier holding games back from inspiring emotional reactions from players. And it's perhaps telling this sentiment is not coming exclusively from the creative side of the industry.

In 2009, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick created a stir when he told investors he was trying to take the fun out of making games and instill a culture of skepticism, pessimism, and fear. Elsewhere in that same conference call, Kotick said Activision was working to push the envelope in emotional game experiences. As for how the company was doing that, Kotick talked about a real-time rendering and mouth movement technology Activision had been working on for the next-generation of systems (which we now know as PS4 and Xbox One), suggesting it could revolutionize the industry, and finally allow games to establish a compelling emotional attachment with players.

More like Boredom Bridge. My emotions don't even get out of bed in the morning for anything less than 8GB of unified system memory.

Back to the creative side, Shinji Mikami told GamesIndustry International last month that next-gen tech will make his new horror game "a lot scarier." The only scary thing here is that this sentiment came from Mikami, creator of the original Resident Evil and a key figure in the survival horror genre. He of all people should understand how much of horror is in the audience's minds, the nervous anticipation when the threat is suspected but not seen, the power of imagination to create monsters far scarier, uniquely tailored to their own fears, and more vivid than anything rendered in 4K resolution.

As anyone who has loved a game before probably understands, emotional engagement is not dependent on polygon count. In fact, it's often the most abstracted or graphically crude games that engage players the most, games like Passage or Freedom Bridge. By offering so little up front, these games force players to fill in the blanks, to flesh out the world of blocks and bleeps until it exists as much in their own imaginations as it does on the screen.

These new systems are simply better tools for developers. And it's true, better tools can facilitate better creations. But expecting them to make better creators is like expecting Beyond: Two Souls to make more sense than Heavy Rain because David Cage got a new version of Microsoft Word.

The best community comments so far 10 comments

  • SargeSmash 9 months ago

    Yep, there's a huge disconnect here. These guys don't seem to understand that it's not the tech that really drives emotional attachment. After all, there are tons of movies that fail to elicit an emotional response, too, and those have live actors and a linear narrative. Yet they fail. It's the writing, the ability to convey subtle cues, and games, even if stylized in graphical style, are capable of the same thing. They just usually aren't.

    It also doesn't help that a decent portion of the audience doesn't have the life experiences to make such a connection in the first place. Since I've played games, I used to never tear up during scenes. Now? There are times it happens, and in games that run on 16-bit tech.

    Tech isn't the answer, folks, and this article totally gets it right.

  • pjedavison 9 months ago

    There's an interesting contrast here between the emotions you feel as a result of the story and the emotions you feel as a result of playing the game. Both are valid things to consider, and different creators tend to focus on different things. It's quite a rare game that manages to successfully nail both... because it's rare that game creators are actually TRYING to nail both. As has been said below, the idea of "emotion" in games usually focuses on trying to get the audience to feel something as a result of the story -- usually something that will provoke tears, because that's arguably the most obvious and impactful emotional impact due to its physical effect.

    One game that I can think of that did a pretty good job with both is an old PS1 game called The Adventures of Alundra. It was a Zelda-style action RPG, and it had a great story with some interesting characters. The translation by Working Designs (RIP) helped a lot, too. It was emotionally engaging due to the fact that said story didn't pull any punches and wasn't afraid to break out the tragedy when necessary... but its gameplay was also emotionally engaging, too, because it had some of the most brain-frying but satisfying puzzles I think I've ever encountered in that kind of game.

  • weevilo 9 months ago

    @Fresh_Paprika Very well put. The games I tend to find elicit any kind of authentic emotion don't parade that as a bullet-point or feature of the game, it just arises naturally from interesting characters and settings, and the gameplay either takes a back seat or complements the narrative experience.

    My favorite examples of games that get it right are the original Planescape and Psychonauts. With the former, there's not much to remember about the gameplay other than it being an obvious Infinity engine RPG, but the landscapes, characters and stories in that game are just there to be experienced in a way that only a video game can offer, and not shoved down your throat by a hired-gun screenwriter with a narrative agenda (I'm looking at your new Tomb Raider). Psychonauts stands as one of the few validations that my happy memories of all the great Lucas Arts adventure games of the past aren't just a product of nostalgia and childhood. It's one of the few games in the last decade to get me to actually literally laugh out loud, and a lot of that comes just with random interactions like slapping Nils into the peephole in the girl's cabin.

    I'm not expecting AAA publishers to suddenly abandon their quest for a bridge over the uncanny valley with 50 million dollar voice acting and mo-cap budgets to get us to have some feels, so I'm putting my hope in some of the Kickstarter games coming out like Broken Age and Tides of Numenera, though I'm a bit wary that these games are just going to be graphical updates to old ideas.

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