Conveying deeper meaning in video games is a hot topic among designers looking to broaden games’ positive social influence in the next generation. The arguments have become familiar — games as a narrative medium have a long way to go to convey meaning and values while evoking genuine and spontaneous emotion in players, but the interactive and uncontrollable nature of games constrains designers’ ability to use narrative the same way as literature or cinema.
Most of the ideas of conveying meaning and emotion in next-gen game design center around narrative and a balance between controlling story experiences and allowing flexibility in gameplay. I would like to propose that video-game narrative may never reach the depths of meaning that literature or cinema enjoys, but games have an even more powerful ability to convey these things directly through experiences. Rather than try to explain exactly what I mean, I’ll analyze two small, indie games that have left powerful, emotional impacts on players purely through the experience of gameplay.
Passage is as small as it gets. Players are restricted to a small, horizontal screen space in which to move characters that take up no more than a handful of pixels each, but Passage is carefully designed to allow players to spontaneously undergo a deep and personal emotional experience. Designer Jason Rohrer knew exactly what he wanted players to feel, but he didn’t try to force it through narrative — he built the game in such a way that players would have their own emotional revelations.
You’ll have to play the game to fully understand, but in a nutshell Passage is about the journey of a man through his life, from youth to old age and his eventual death. The entire experience is centered on walking from one side of the game world to the other side. However, the choices and constraints in the game leave a wide range of possibilities open. First, players are never told that they can move up or down to experience the full scale of the world. Players can choose to simply walk from left to right for the entire game, which causes some players to reflect on their narrow way of thinking and experiencing life after learning about the possibilities that were right under their noses the whole time. Players can choose to take on their journey with a female companion, or to go it alone. Solo players can choose to go back if they wish, but the clock keeps ticking towards their death. Some players say that they changed their minds after leaving the woman behind, only to realize that it was then too late to go back. Some say they felt disappointed by their choice to go solo when their solitary grave pops up, wondering what the game would have had in store if they had chosen the companion. These are all metaphors for life that can inspire deep introspection.
For me, I had a realization that I could not travel around the world as freely with the companion — there were places one person could go that two people could not — but that the journey wasn’t any worse for the constraint (to me that’s a metaphor for single vs. married life). Another powerful experience I had was that I did not want to keep moving my elderly protagonist forward after his companion died. I waited and let the main character die right next to her.
Tourette’s Quest is the creation of developer Lars Doucet, who wanted people to be able to experience firsthand what it is like to live with symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome. Tourette’s Quest is a simple rouguelike game similar to the original Legend of Zelda, but with a unique and powerful twist. The main character suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, and players have to deal with his symptoms in real time. Players may plan to kill a monster, pick up a key, and walk towards a door, but they must stop and deal with the character’s nagging ticks in the process.
For me, the experience offered a rare glimpse into the lives of people with Tourette’s Syndrome. I began to understand how patients are constantly pulled back in their daily routine, spending time managing their symptoms while they live their lives and carry out routine tasks. Anyone who is a caregiver or loved one to a Tourette’s patient can get a glimpse of what their loved one goes through every day, which can bring about powerful emotional breakthroughs and bring people closer together through mutual understanding.
What Does This Have To Do With Next-Gen Game Design?
There have been triple-A games that have given me deeply emotional experiences — Gears of War 2 and 3 are great examples, as are the two Starcraft II campaigns. In each case, the emotion came through excellently delivered storytelling and character development. I felt the same level of emotion in these blockbuster games that I’ve felt from certain movie experiences. But when I played Passage and Tourette’s Quest, the emotion was much more meaningful, more real, because it came from within myself. This is the key that triple-A writers and designers have been looking for.
Imagine if the choices you made in Skyrim led to real emotional consequences, or if the gameplay mechanics of The Sims caused you to examine your ideas about family and relationships. Imagine if something like perma-death in Silent Hill could make you truly afraid to turn the next corner, or if Grand Theft Auto could make you reflect on the choices you’ve made in life. Emergent emotional experiences are the key to conveying depth and meaning in next-gen video games, not just better storytelling. Actually pulling that off is a job for a better designer than I, but Passage and Tourette’s Quest prove that it is possible.