Why Games Fail to Emotionally Connect

Adam Standing’s first piece for TGR looks into why games still give him the emotional Connection Failure error, taking a look at the highs and lows, from the West and the East, in his gaming life. 

In my youth I spent as much time as possible escaping reality and entering the fantasy worlds of books. Those characters and their worlds were totally engrossing, and I naturally found myself making emotional connections with them that enriched the story. But now that video games have taken over my world, I’ve found my new medium of escape doesn’t produce the same effect.

Why do video games fail to make those connections when they seem to draw the best from both books and movies? I don’t believe it’s because they’re totally incapable of making the link, as I’ve found glimpses and fragments of it happen throughout my gaming life. Ever since the wire-frame magic of Elite did its best to draw me past its vectors and into another world, I’ve wanted and expected video games to develop further, and delve deeper. Yet this advance has rarely shown itself, and for this I lay the blame at the failure of games to get even basic storytelling right.

Let’s take Infamous and Prototype as examples, since both approached storytelling in different ways. Infamous presented binary, good-or-evil choices that over the course of the game affected the protagonist and his superhuman, electrical powers. In contrast, Prototype took a linear approach and followed a defined story arc unaffected by the player’s actions in the game.

The binary choice in Infamous felt very ham-fisted and artificial. Although my character changed visually depending on my choices, it had no effect on the actual story. Also, the game spelt out these choices in the most ridiculous way, giving me such pantomime good-or-evil paths that I felt like I was playing a Sesame Street game. Diluting the narrative in this way ultimately didn’t work, and Infamous would’ve been better served by restricting its story to just one linear thread.
This was Prototype’s method-of-choice, and it felt a stronger game for it. But where it succeeded in narrative, it failed with its characters. The dark, brooding Alex Mercer was immediately unlikable, and he seemed a totally different person in the game compared to within its cut scenes. This fuelled my feeling of disassociation with Prototype, and made it’s world an entirely uncomfortable place to be in.

Both of these games display different styles of Western storytelling, but as PSN hit Flower has shown, you don’t need much more than pure visual imagery to tell an enchanting tale. On the end of the spectrum Braid hid its story behind complex puzzles and deliberately confusing perspectives, toying with players’ understanding of what was actually going on. These more artistic games come much closer to that emotional experience I’m after, although I’ve found their devotion to a particular vision can obscure the experience. For example, I feel that the only person to fully understand and appreciate Braid must be Jonathan Blow – its creator.

Maybe the answer to a deeper experience lies with us, the player. If I used my imagination and filled the heart and souls of characters myself, maybe that that would restore the emotional connection I feel games lack? Looking back into my gaming past produces a few examples of this approach working well. The first game that provided me with a moving experience was Amiga classic Cannon Fodder. As each of the game’s levels loaded, an image was shown of a solitary hill covered in graves – the graves of soldiers I had lost so far. As the new recruits marched towards the edge of the screen, ready to do my bidding, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of their lives upon me. It may sound like bleeding-heart liberal pap, but Cannon Fodder’s imagery made me think about the horrors of war, more so than anything else at the time.

Cannon Fodder was one of highest-rated games of its generation, and remains a classic.

But there was no engaging squad chatter or atmospheric graphics to build this emotional connection. Cannon Fodder just used simple, powerful imagery, and basic leveling-up features ripped from role-playing games, and applied them in a practical way. That same attachment to characters seems to have been lost in the meantime. The closest Western games have come is the free rein approach of some RPGs, yet the ability to change my gender, looks and history as much as I want has such little effect on a game.

In Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion I felt no ownership over my character despite pouring hours into their creation. The world around them never felt like the same one I inhabited as the player, and as rich as the environment was, it always felt disappointingly sterile. This was partly because of the voice acting; although the main quest characters had individual actors, nearly all other non-player characters were voiced by the same three people. It did make for some laughable moment, especially when dialogue lines were repeated incessantly, but it also made the world impossible to believe in. The stilted animation of its characters, and their design firmly slotting into the uncanny valley, made Oblivion feel far more alien than it should’ve been.

It seems that Western games have fundamental issues when it comes to providing deep and meaningful experiences. Only in the past few years have I realized that storytelling in Japanese games is far better at conveying emotion and drama. Being told a story and assuming a character in a particular world doesn’t sound as immersive as filling the details yourself, but it’s in these worlds that the most moving moments have occurred for me.

The world of Lost Odyssey is one such example. For all of its clichéd plot and Japanese RPG tropes, Lost Odyssey struck a deep chord with me, and showed how a mixture of storytelling styles could combine to provoke some raw emotions. And although it shares similarities with the Final Fantasy series, it showed a more mature attitude by tackling subjects like death and loss in an adult way When games attempt this, and focus on character and their progression through a game’s world, I can’t help but be swept away.

It was the development of the main character from aloof and detached to unbridled grief that made the first quarter of the game so dramatic. By revealing his memories piece by piece, I grew more sympathetic towards him as the game progressed. This change from unlikeable to understanding is what gave me that emotional connection to Lost Odyssey. There were times that the game’s infamous memories, told by simple text passages, moved me tears. It might be backwards to use such an ancient form of storytelling in a predominantly visual medium, but if it can elicit such emotions then I cannot fault its inclusion.

Lost Odyssey’s mature themes distinguished it from cutsier entries in the genre.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is another great example of a game putting characters above all else, but in another way. I was quite happy to ignore the deficient gameplay to invest in the game’s characters and their plights. With so much depth & attraction poured into Persona 4’s characters, it’s hard not to be moved by them – and alright, I’ll admit it, I have a soft spot for Chie. But the very fact that PS2 3D model can squeeze some amorous emotion out of me is something I find incredible. It shows that emotional ties are possible beyond the Lara Croft fantasies of old.

It’s no coincidence that the most recent games to make that emotional link are J-RPGs. Their willingness to devote time and effort into developing characters is what makes them so powerful to me. It’s just a shame that they still lock into recycling the same generic story, and using it more as a canvas for characters than creating an interesting world.

Finding games that emotionally connect seems a difficult task. Not impossible, but their failure to reach those heights comes from following a well-worn path of clichés and stereotypes. Recent releases like Infamous and Prototype stand guilty of this like so many others, whether it be through pantomime moral choices or failure to create deep characters. But Lost Odyssey and Persona 4 show glimpses of that elusive emotional connection, doing so by telling unique character-driven stories, packed with believable, dramatic moments. If the upcoming Heavy Rain can deliver on its promise of a mature story and a convincing world, then maybe it can start the cultural revolution I believe video games are capable of. Until then, I’ll be back in Persona 4, fuelling my Chie Satonaka obsession.

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