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

Article by Brendan Sinclair, .

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.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for SargeSmash #1 SargeSmash 4 years 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.
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  • Avatar for denewaring08 #2 denewaring08 4 years ago
    Maybe a first-time indie dev shouldn't be offering advice... but here goes, fellow devs: If your game has story... Invest in your writer. Invest in your characters, their life stories and their quirks and failings. Work with a team that has life experience, so they can bring that to the screen. If your project could have been a book or a movie, but it happens to be an interactive story, then someone - somewhere - will be moved.
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  • Avatar for docexe #3 docexe 4 years ago
    I’m just going to add that if technical advancements and photorealism were the key to “emotions” and storytelling, we wouldn’t be capable of emoting with animated characters, which is clearly not the case.

    Some acclaimed companies in the animation field like Pixar keep pushing the envelope when it comes to visuals, but the secret to their success as storytellers is not related to that. Indeed, their stories are capable of elicit emotion not because of the polygon counts or anything like that. It all has to do with the quality of the writing, the way they develop their characters (making even the villains endearing), the talent of the voice actors that portray the characters, and the honesty with which they convey the themes and message on their storylines.

    Those are the true elements on which videogame companies should focus if they are really willing to improve the storytelling side of this medium.
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #4 pjedavison 4 years ago
    A thousand times this. Some of the most powerful emotional experiences I've had in games come from low-res pixel art (To The Moon) or hand-drawn static backdrops with text overlaid (Kana Little Sister, Kira Kira). You don't need tech to engage the audience's emotions; you need good writing, and perhaps a music composer who really knows what they're doing too. :)
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  • Avatar for Thusian #5 Thusian 4 years ago
    I wonder if what think is that all emotion is empathy? They feel like they can't make characters you empathize with because they can't emote effectively enough with current tech? A) I think that's hogwash and B) even if it wasn't it ignores that games have player agency. When I get to the end of a Legend of Zelda game and I overcome a difficult boss I feel accomplishment, and confidence. I Feel as though young Link would after going from a wide eyed kid to legendary Hero.

    Heck on that point toon link is just about the most expressive Link there is and he is lower poly than most others.
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #6 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    I don't think there's some sort of magic recipe that makes for an emotional attachment, and an emotional attachment can mean many things. This type of discussion tends to mostly focus on making the audience cry or what have you, but joy is an emotion that tends to be ignored. Nintendo humbly goes for that one with all they got, yet some of the most beautiful and melancholy reactions I've had was with Nintendo games. Go figure.

    Nostalgia tends to get a lot of negativity for whatever reason, but it's an emotion like any other. Nostalgia isn't cheap, it's human.

    From the developers point of view, it's a matter of talent and original thought, technology is just technology. There seems to be plenty of talent these days, but little original thought. You can say writing, you can say music, but it's the whole that matters.

    From the audiences' it's a matter of taste. For example, I didn't have an emotional reaction to Journey, though it feels like everyone else did. I really like Telltale, but feel very little towards The Walking Dead. That's me. A higher polygon count wouldn't make it any better for me. They are what they are. A person can get a great emotional reaction from a Game Boy game if it's done right and matches his or her's tastes. Go ask Mother fans about emotional reaction, go ask Panzer Dragoon fans about emotional reaction, or old Lucasarts adventure games fans (an emotional reaction mostly done by comedy, not expressive drama). Emotional games have been around forever, now it's just the talk of the town.

    For guys like Cage or whoever, it's just a sales pitch. There's a lot of money riding on them, there's the want/need to be successful, so they exaggerate. Emotion is the new trend, it's what many people want to hear. There's the Ico effect going on now, games like Bioshock Infinite, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, etc. They all have something in common: pair the player with a lovely young lady and hope for an emotional bound. The pitch is always the same: "We want the player to fall in love". Now when hear that I almost want not to fall in love, It's like a challenge. "Don't fall in love, we dare you." I want to have my own reaction, not the one they want me to have.

    Take Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, for instance. The world is harsh and bleak, and so is the design of the game. The writing is minimal but extremely effective and beautifully delivered, the plot is told by game and world design, the characters are barely animated yet feel alive and real. The whole experience is cohesive, and it resonates with people. Not once did From or Miyazaki pitch both games with the word "emotion", yet the emotional toll when playing them is staggering.

    And that holds true to games made long before Demon's Souls. The people that make games I resonate with most, the Miyamoto's, Aonuma's, Suzuki's, Ueda's, Schafer's, Matsuno's and so on, rarely talk about emotion. It's all about the feel of the game for them. Miyamoto's E3 sales pitch for Pikmin 3 was about game design, how it feels to play the game, controls, and progression balance, not emotion.

    I'm counting the hours for Pikmin 3 because I love those surreal critters so much. That's an emotion and no one told me to have it.Edited July 2013 by Fresh_Paprika
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  • Avatar for YossiMH #7 YossiMH 4 years ago
    I disagree entirely.

    Noticeable polygon edges, low-resolution textures, interpenetrating geometry, aliasing, lack of self-shadowing, buggy lighting -- none of these are solved problems -- nor will they be entirely solved by the new generation of consoles. But all of them get between a game and its players, detracting from the player's sense of immersion and thus from their emotional engagement.

    This is true whether we're talking about the most photorealistic of triple-A blockbusters or the most abstract of independent projects.*

    Solving these and other technical issues would certainly not be *sufficient* for achieving the theoretical pinnacle of emotional engagement in interactive entertainment -- not by a long shot. But it is *necessary* to solve them in order to reach that pinnacle.

    * Unless we're talking about games which are *deliberately* trying to evoke a certain retro-inspired visual style. But this isn't an approach that makes sense for the majority of indie projects, any more than it would make sense for the majority of independent films to be made in black and white with no audio.
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  • Avatar for weevilo #8 weevilo 4 years 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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  • Avatar for pjedavison #9 pjedavison 4 years 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.
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  • Avatar for n00bsauce #10 n00bsauce 4 years ago
    @SargeSmash pretty much agree with everything you said. Newer tech is not needed to illicit emotion. Sinclair gets it right by mentioning Resident Evil which mainstreamed the survival horror genre. It's that developers are becoming lazier than the previous generations in terms of story writing, However I think this year in 2013, they've done better. But a good story writer and developer can make me understand that the person is sad without having the need of seeing the person frowning in its 1080p HD glory.
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