By Austin Conway
When the Playstation 4 was revealed early last year, Quantic Dream’s David Cage took to the stage and spoke briefly about emotion. For Cage, the PS4’s advancements in hardware offered the opportunity to create more realistic characters that would display various different emotions with subtlety; he compared this jump in technology to the evolution in films that allowed for less exaggerated performances that were typical of films in the early days. Cage referred to an emotional connection between entertainment and audience as the “Holy Grail,” something most storytellers in the industry would probably agree on. Perhaps the point of contention for most however isn’t over the desire to elicit emotion, but instead the means of execution in doing so.
The desire and drive to develop attachment and empathy between the user and the experience is not a recent goal nor is it a medium specific crusade. Where books and movies have been making us cheer and weep since their conception, the interactive medium has unfortunately struggled in this aspect. Achieving the “high score” and maintaining a good “killstreak” have taken precedence over caring about the heroes’ journey. What has changed recently is the notion that many game developers have aspired to become storytellers, drastically changing not only the resulting experience, but also the medium as a whole.
Various maverick developers have approached the subject of emotion in games differently, often resulting in diverse executions and interpretations. Cage believes more advanced hardware will be key in regards to developing more believable and realistic deliveries from actors. It would seem for Cage that emotion is derived from a level of realism, relying heavily on the idea that a great emotional attachment/investment is linked to a convincing (and perhaps subtle) performance. Cage is no stranger to placing importance on acting in his games.His most recent release, “Beyond,” featured both the likenesses and performances of Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page. A specific kind of motion-capture technique often reserved for big budget Hollywood films was used to capture and display the actor’s emotions during scenes, gameplay, etc.
Not all developers seek to establish emotion by trying to replicate reality, however. Developers such as Naughty Dog often place more emphasis on a game having an emotional script than it does an emotional performance from its actors. While Naughty Dog certainly uses actors for characters, it is important to note that said characters are brought to life with hand animated expressions, a stark contrast to Cage’s method of trying to scan every aspect of an actor’s likeness and delivery. Naughty Dog often resorts to developing a strong script which roots itself in complex themes and imagery; the result is a narrative that can be interpreted differently.
The emotion towards a character is not found in the realism of his/her performance, but instead that character’s interactions with the world and cast. Titles like “Uncharted” and “The Last of Us” do not strive for aesthetic realism; the emotion is not found in how realistically a character cries but instead is found in conversational exchanges between characters or specific gameplay sequences themselves.
Also unique is the idea that some developers feel that emotion bypasses a realistic performance or a well written script, offering instead an experience that is slightly more universal. Recently, indie developers have turned to unorthodox means of storytelling when it comes to stories that are perceived to be emotional. Both “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” and “Journey” bypassed actor-driven performances or powerful dialogue to establish a sense of empathy with the player. “Brothers” told the tale of two siblings on a quest to save their father; no discernable language is used, and the game itself is fairly stylized in appearance. “Journey” utilized a grand musical score (and no dialogue) to connect with the player and tell its story in a Fantasia-esque way. Both releases relied heavily on their visuals to convey plot, narrative and character while at the same time tackling deeper themes.
Perhaps the takeaway is that there is no one way to develop an emotional connection between the experience and the one who experiences. As technology continues to evolve, things continue to look more “realistic,” yet there is no sure guarantee that something that looks real can automatically elicit real emotions from its audience. It is also worth noting that subjectivity and emotional response are linked: after all, there is no universal trigger that makes everyone respond in the same way. As Disney and Pixar have no doubt proved over the years, an audience member does not need “the real” to react.
Perhaps sooner, rather than later, a videogame might move you to tears…