2012 In Review: The Year Games Messed With My Emotions.
It is very seldom that I find myself having to wipe my eyes at the end of a video game. Shooter, RPG, Open World, Action/Adventure, and Simulator; all genres that I enjoy, yet rarely is the emotional impact of a game so great that I am moved to crying, either from joy or sadness. Usually I enjoy a self congratulatory moment, bask in the satisfaction of completing a game I enjoy, and move on with my gaming career. I might look back at a game with fond memories, or use it as a model for what other games in its genre should aspire to be. But emotional attachment to the point of crying? Hardly. Tear jerking moments and plot lines that make me actually care about the characters is usually saved for hit movies and bestselling books, where the award winning writers seem to hide themselves.
But, what happens when game developers start delving into what makes you tick emotionally? To make you experience connection with a character at every base level? Simple: Powerful gaming experiences that take you on emotional roller coaster ride..
To my shock, this year not one but three games grabbed my emotional attention span and tied it to a chair until I finished each one (far from dry eyed, mind you). Compelling story lines beautiful and awe inspiring landscapes, new and innovative game-play mechanics and characters that refused to let my emotions escape unscathed; all managed to combine in each of these games to become moving experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my gaming career. While these games might share one or two similar mechanics between them, they differ greatly in many ways. I welcome this difference, because it allows each game to not only be it’s own game, but also to affect you differently. These games are: Journey, Dishonored, and The Walking Dead: The Game.
Thanks to the sheer number of games out there, there are overlapping game-play mechanics, characters, genres, and story in each of my choices. Journey and Dishonored are both fairly open world and let the player progress at their own pace, while Walking Dead is a set story plot with the ability to drastically alter how NPC’s react to you with each choice you make. Journey and The Walking Dead were both originally download only games, a strong success for the ever growing digital market! Dishonored is a brand new IP looking to challenge notions about the action/adventure genre not being able to offer thought provoking consequences to actions. The Walking Dead and Dishonored both focus on a named character who is charged with the protection of a young girl, while Journey focuses on your own personal journey through the game, albeit perhaps with a random online co-op partner. All three games are visually unique and eye catching: Dishonored is a bioshock-esque style of human animation with it’s own twist, The Walking Dead relies on cel shading to achieve it’s distinct looks, and Journey is like nothing else except what only ThatGameCompany can produce.
But all these similarities and differences aside, how did each of these games manage to hit me so hard emotionally?
The Walking Dead likes to punch you in the emotional gut. A lot. Whether you’re having to decide who gets to eat the last of the food or which of two people to save, you don’t really end up feeling good about it. The game portrays the side of a possible zombie apocalypse in a realistic way: A war of attrition. No matter what you do, it’s a bad world and it’s only going to get worse as the people you fail or reject will eventually come back to haunt you later. But the real reason the game made me emotional is how attached you become to the characters of Lee and Clementine. Lee is a man who made a mistake in the past that he regrets. And depending on the choices you make as him, he may or may not try to obtain redemption for those misdeeds. This is especially true in the case of Clementine, a young girl who latches herself on to you when you find her all alone in a terrifying world. I would often find myself trying to do whatever I could to make sure she was okay, to the point of giving her extra energy bars and leaving none for myself, or talking to her to calm her nerves. The building mentor/guardianship of this little girl that is thrusted onto Lee, and how he reacts to it left me in tears at the closing screen of Episode 5. I’m not sure TellTale Games can manage to rouse me again so much in Season 2 after dropping me off such a large cliff, but I’m down to find out.
Dishonored is somewhat similar to The Walking Dead: You find yourself in a situation where you must do everything possible to secure the future of a young girl in a desperate situation. Dishonored had my emotions wrapped around it’s finger within the first five minutes; as you walk Corvo the Royal Bodyguard into the palace returning from a long trip away, young princess Emily appears and throws herself into your open arms for a hug. The instant you see the joy on her face at your return, and see how fast your arms spread to welcome her affection, an instant connection between these characters was forged in my mind. Because she was so important to Corvo, she became important to me. As Corvo’s world collapsed around him, I swore revenge on all who betrayed everything my character loved. Yet because of the effect Emily had on me in those short few minutes in the beginning of the game, I couldn’t bring myself to kill any of my enemies because I didn’t want her to see me as a murderer. And once I had rescued her, I realized how much I had become emotionally invested in her: Every time I came back to the Hound Pits Pub after a mission, I ran around frantically until I had found her, just to be sure she was safe. Dishonored had me tearing up at each of these moments, both good and bad; and I find myself excited for more games from Arkane Studios if they manage to hold up this level of character development.
Last but not least, Journey. Journey, Journey, Journey. How doesn’t this game make you feel like crying, laughing, or a combination of both? You begin the long and arduous trek towards a far off mountain with no idea who or what you are, or why you must go there. You make your way through an environment designed to make you feel small, leaving you with nothing but awe and a sense of loneliness as you try to understand your purpose for existing in this lost land of sand and snow. I found myself exploring every possible hidden spot, attempting to fly to places I thought might be reachable, if only to find a new tidbit explaining this mysterious world to me. The very first time I slid/surfed down a sand dune, I gave a laugh of pure surprise and joy, and instantly had to repeat the experience. Imagine how I accidentally woke everyone in my house at 3am with laughter when I reached the “surfing” level. The music is so perfectly written that it becomes an emotional cue so powerful that words are not needed to trigger your feelings. ThatGameCompany tries so many incredible things with Journey, and the sense of wonder they give you is well deserved. By the time you reach the final snowy approach to the light, you’ve experienced emotional ups and downs, delights and possible scares, and you’re ready to victoriously finish. The ending of the game left me almost in tears begging my character to stand up, to keep going, and to keep pushing on. I was incredibly in the moment, and the following shout of triumph for my robed figure was quickly silenced by pure awe as we broke through the cloud cover. After that moment I couldn’t stop smiling, laughing, and just simply let myself be amazed by the beauty of the world. I walked into the light with a tearful farewell to my chirping Traveler, saddened by the loss but also immensely happy for what I had achieved through them. Perhaps Journey is so emotional because you can so easily apply it to your life. But it is most certainly more than just a game.
All in all, I will carry the experiences from these three games into the next year of gaming with me. I want Video Games to continue to grow in this emotional aspect, and become more to people than just images on a screen. I want more gamers to find themselves at a loss for words at the end of a game, and less interested in another phoned-in year after year re-hash. I predict that 2013 will be a year more well-known screenwriters and voice actors than ever before begin seeing the possibility in gaming’s unsown fields, and exploring the ever growing world of interactive entertainment with new and exciting ideas. Emotional ups and downs may not be exactly for every gamer out there. Maybe you just want to blow off some steam on Call of Duty or kill a few minutes with Angry Birds. Different games exist for everyone. But when just one game can change your entire outlook on the gaming world as a whole, the question becomes: Why aren’t you playing it?