Emotions are Mechanics are Emotions
As I continue to explore single-player titles, I’ve been reminded of the complexities of evoking and utilizing player emotions. While competitive online gaming certainly involves some level of emotion, and yelling at the screen, you must surely recognize the difference in depth of the experiences. I think most of us agree that any number of intensely frustrating rounds of online first-person shooters don’t hold a candle to a pivotal moment in a single player campaign, as far as memorability goes (Bioshock, anyone?)
I’m sure some of you are already jumping to the obvious differentiator, the story. Sure, multiplayer gameplay is typically far more shallow than single-player experiences, but that’s not to say a few lines of backstory makes player emotions an all-or-nothing issue. Modern AAA multiplayer titles like Overwatch are actively supplementing “straightforward” gameplay with stronger plots, backstories, and subtle in-game references. Looking at Blizzard’s social media accounts, you can see that a lot of their content is related to creating and developing stories that have no direct effect on gameplay or mechanics. Even plot points covering long-standing alliances (or rivalries) doesn’t limit playable characters for opposing teams in online matches.
Emotion isn't depth
Why take so much time to build these stories and add such creative depth? Is it just for show? To give fans something to talk about? While true, that barely scratches the surface.
Regardless of genre or platform, a game that doesn’t evoke player emotion will ultimately fail as a creative (and likely financial) production. In a hyper-competitive industry, nobody can afford to be forgettable.
Thankfully, it’s easy to evoke an emotion. Fear? Throw in a jump scare. Power? Have a weak enemy that’s larger than the player. Genius? Throw in a few puzzles that look more complicated than they really are. It's a compliment wrapped in deception. But it’s easy to compliment someone, and compliments have diminishing returns. The player will soon recognize the game is pandering to their emotions and unless your strategy changes, few will experience the entirety of your creation.
The best experiences evoke multiple, often conflicting emotions.
Recently, I’ve been making progress in Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. Deceptively simple at first, the variety of puzzles are ingeniously familiar yet innovative, requiring no explanation or dialogue to intuit solutions. While plenty can be said on the game itself, what’s more important is how artfully crafted puzzles make you feel. Frustration and satisfaction may come to mind, but think specifically about the minute-to-minute experience: when you finally solve the puzzle that’s been haunting you for days, or when you ultimately resort to Googling solutions for something that’s “so obvious” once it’s broken down. A well-crafted puzzle makes the player feel like a genius and an idiot at the same time, and that unpredictable fluctuation is what we can't get enough of.
While I haven’t been as up-to-date with The Witcher as I’ve liked to, I’m a long-time fan of The Elder Scrolls. In a similar vein, the player will feel incredibly powerful yet weak on a minute-to-minute basis. One minute you’re looting the corpse of a towering atronach or dragon, and you’re running away from a mudcrab the next. Think of how amazing you feel after taking down a Deathclaw in Fallout, and then how ridiculous you feel running away from an aggressive Mister Handy. From hero to zero, zero to hero, the roller coaster never ends. You’re here for the ride, not the destination, but you're sure it’s going to have a great ending.
The examples continue with horror (brave explorer or terrified weakling?), sports (klutzy or coordinated?), and others, but the contrast remains. Some players are more easily affected by emotional moments, others quickly grow numb. It’s impossible to create something that works for everyone, but you will certainly appeal to a larger audience when you seriously invest resources into capturing and manipulating player emotion. Don’t tell players how to feel, prompt them with mechanics and design.
What’s your most emotional experience in a game? Not like the ending of Red Dead Redemption, but something fleeting; temporary yet lasting. What game didn’t let you off the emotional hook? Leave a comment and compare with your friends. Who knows? You might have had completely different reactions to the same games.