Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Game Theories: On Emotional Dissonance

Back in the earlier days of gaming when the technology was much less advanced, games tended to avoid trying to elicit any kind of complex emotional response from the player, choosing to focus primarily on fun gameplay. But as the technology has improved and budgets for games have increased, we've seen games attempt to create sequences that provoke a strong emotional response from the player.

Typically we see this in the form of the cinematic cutscene. Modern AAA games have the tools and talent on hand to make cutscenes using all of the same tricks used in movies to manipulate the emotions of the player, including complex musical scores and detailed facial animations that communicate the thoughts and feelings of the characters richly enough for the player to buy in.

John Carmack once said, "Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but its not that important." And certainly some games follow this approach to a degree. But games in the first and third person shooter/action genre in particular are almost always putting in cutscenes to setup the story and motivation for the player. And typically, the player is subjected to a cyclic cutscene/action bubble/cutscene format, where each cutscene is supposed to give motivation for the action in the next section, and to build characters and story that make the player want to continue to find out what happens next.

The problem that I see with all of this is that there has long been a dissonance between the narrative that the cutscenes present, and the actual gameplay that takes place. Typically the player is tasked with killing dozens of people during a game sequence, often hundreds or thousands over the course of the entire game. But in the cutscenes, the game tries to make the player feel an emotional connection to the main characters, and often make the player care when a main character is hurt or killed. Since the player is playing through the body of the main character, this creates a dissonance between how the character "acts" during the gameplay sequences, and how they "act" during the cutscenes.

If you've just shot a few dozen people to death during gameplay, and are then presented with a cutscene where your character is distraught that a single person on their side has been killed or wounded, after which they vow revenge as the music swells and we see a close up of the determination on his face, it all seems rather silly and schizophrenic.

Or when your character gets shot repeatedly while trying to take down a fortified base, pausing briefly behind cover to heal each time, only to then be mortally wounded in a final cutscene, it again feels wrong, since the game has been establishing that getting wounded is generally no big deal to your character, and the only time that it is is when the character is not in your control.

Or consider when a cutscene tries to establish the shock and horror that your character feels at his actions of killing, which is in complete dissonance to how you felt as the player playing that character. The game sets it up for you to enjoy running around killing dozens of enemies as this character, only to then try and convince you that the character actually feels bad.

When you combine emotional narratives with fun gameplay, it creates a huge disconnect when that gameplay consists of actions that would make the character look like a complete psychopath in the real world. We enjoy shooting enemies in the face or blowing them up with rocket launchers because in the context of a game it is fun. But none of us (bar the psychopaths) would in any way enjoy re-enacting that in real life against real human beings.

So when a game tries to meld what we do during gameplay with a believable character feeling normal human emotions during cutscenes, it creates dissonance, and the more realistic and lifelike games get, the deeper this dissonance will get.

I suspect that as game technology improves further, and particularly with the introduction of VR, we may start seeing games diverge more into ones that are largely story and character driven, focusing on player choices and exploration, and ones that are more action based. To some degree we already see this with the multiplayer online shooters that are almost entirely about fun gameplay rather than story, and single player games that while still including combat, are more frequently starting to include "just the story" modes (as a nicer way of labelling easy difficulty) for people who want to play mainly for the story and characters rather than grinding for hours in combat.

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