The Emotional Dimension

The emotional dimension of a game world defines not only the emotions of the people in the world but, more important, the emotions that you, as a designer, hope to arouse in the player. Multiplayer games evoke the widest variety of emo­tions, because the players are socializing with real people and making friends (and, alas, enemies) as they play. Single-player games have to influence players' emotions with storytelling and gameplay. Action and strategy games are usually limited to a narrow emotional dimension, but other games that rely more heavily on story and characters can offer rich emotional content that deeply affects the player.

The idea of manipulating the player's emotions might seem a little strange. For much of their history, games have been seen only as light entertainment, a means to while away a few hours in a fantasy world. But just because that's all they have been doesn't mean that's all they can be. In terms of the richness of their emotional content, games are now just about where the movies were when they moved from the nickelodeon to the screen. Greater emotional variety enables us to reach new players who value it.


Games are intrinsically good at evoking feelings related to the player's efforts to achieve something. They can create "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," as the old ABC Wide World of Sports introduction used to say. Use the elements of risk and reward—a price for failure and a prize for success—to further heighten these emotions. Games can also produce frustration as a by-product of their chal­lenges, but this isn't a good thing; some players tolerate frustration poorly and stop playing if it gets too high. To reduce frustration, build games with player-settable difficulty levels and make sure the easy level is genuinely easy. Excitement and anticipation, too, play large roles in many games. If you can devise a close contest or a series of stimulating challenges, you will generate these kinds of emotions.

Construction and management simulations, whose challenges are usually financial, arouse the player's feelings of ambition, greed, and desire for power or control.

They also offer the emotional rewards of creative play. Give the player a way to amass a fortune, then let her spend it to build things of her own design. The SimCity and various Tycoon games (RollerCoaster Tycoon, Railroad Tycoon, and so on), do this well. Artificial life games and god games such as Spore or The Sims let the player control the lives of autonomous people and creatures for better or worse, sat­isfying a desire to be omnipotent over a world of beings subject to the player's will. (This may not be a very admirable fantasy, but it's one that a lot of people enjoy having fulfilled.)

To create suspense, surprise, and fear, use the time-honored techniques of horror films: darkness, sudden noises, disgusting imagery, and things that jump out at the player unexpectedly. Don't overdo it, however. A gore-fest becomes tedious after a while, and Alfred Hitchcock demonstrated that the shock is all the greater when it occurs infrequently. For suspense to work well, the player needs to feel vulnerable and unprepared. Don't arm him too heavily; the world's a lot less scary when you're carrying a rocket launcher around. Survival horror is a popular subgenre of action game, as seen in the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series, that uses these approaches.

Another class of emotions is produced by interactions between characters and the player's identification with one of them. Love, grief, shame, jealousy, and outrage are all emotions that can result from such interactions. (See Figure 4.13 for a famous example.) To evoke them, you'll have to use storytelling techniques, creat­ing characters that the player cares about and believes in and credible relationships between them. Once you get the player to identify with someone, threaten that character or place obstacles in his path in a way that holds the player's interest.

This is the essence of dramatic tension, whether you're watching Greek tragedy or reading Harry Potter. Something important must be at stake. The problem need not necessarily be physical danger; it can also be a social, emotional, or economic risk. The young women in Jane Austen's novels were not in imminent peril of death or starvation, but it was essential to their family's social standing and financial future for them to make good marriages. The conflict between their personal desires and their family obligations provides the tension in the novels.

Подпись: FIGURE 4.13 The death of Aeris, from Final Fantasy VII

A good many games set the danger at hyperbolic levels with extreme claims such as "The fate of the universe rests in your hands!" This kind of hyperbole appeals to young people, who often feel powerless and have fantasies about being powerful. To adults, it just sounds a bit silly. At the end of Casablanca, Rick said, "The prob­lems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," but he was wrong. The whole movie, a movie still popular over a half century after its first release, is about the problems of those three little people. For the duration of the film, these problems hold us entranced. It isn't necessary for the fate of the world to be at stake; it is the fates of Rick, Ilsa, and Victor that tug at our hearts.

Don't make your game about the fate of the world if you are serious about producing emotional resonance with your audience; the fate of the world is too big to grasp. Make your game about the fate of people instead.


Weaver's Law: The quality of an entertainment is inversely proportional to the awareness of time engaged in it.

—Chris Weaver, founder of Bethesda Softworks

Most people think that the purpose of playing games is to have fun, but fun is a rather limiting term. It tends to suggest excitement and pleasure, either a physical pleasure such as riding a roller coaster, a social pleasure such as joking around with friends, or an intellectual pleasure such as playing cards or a board game. The prob­lem with striving for fun is that it tends to limit the emotional range of games. suspense, excitement, exhilaration, surprise, and various forms of pleasure fall within the definition of fun, but not pity, jealousy, anger, sorrow, guilt, outrage, or despair.

image038You might think that nobody in their right mind would want to explore these emo­tions, but other forms of entertainment—books, movies, television—do it all the

time. And, in fact, that's the key: Those media don't provide only fun; they provide entertainment. You can entertain people in all sorts of ways. Movies with sad end­ings aren't fun in the conventional sense, but they're still entertaining. Although we say that we make games, what we in fact make is interactive entertainment. The potential of our medium to explore emotions and the human condition is much greater than the term fun game allows for. A good game is entertainment that involves the player on a number of levels.

All that said, however, bear in mind that most publishers and players want fun. Too many inexperienced designers are actually more interested in showing how clever they are than in making sure the player has a good time; they place their own cre­ative agenda before the player's enjoyment. As a designer, you must master the ability to create fun—light enjoyment—before you move on to more complex emo­tional issues. Addressing unpleasant or painful emotions successfully is a greater aesthetic challenge and is commercially risky besides.


The idea that games should include more emotional content and should inspire more emotions in players has been gaining ground in the game industry for several years. Unfortunately, this has produced a tendency to look for quick and easy ways to do it, mostly by relying on cliches. The young man whose family is killed and who is obsessed by his desire for revenge or the beautiful princess who needs to be rescued both belong more to fairy tales than to modern fiction. That may be all right if your game aspires to nothing more, but it won't do if you're trying to create an experience with any subtlety. Contrast, for example, the simple themes of the early animation films and the more psychologically rich stories in the recent Pixar films.

Beware of books or articles that offer simple formulas for emotional manipulation: "If you want to make the player feel X, just do Y to the protagonist." An imagina­tive and novel approach to influencing the players' feelings requires the talents of a skilled storyteller. Paint-by-numbers emotional content has all the sensitivity and nuance of paint-by-numbers art.

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