Emotion vs. story in games

Shadow of the Colossus for PS2: spoilers ahead! Apparently people are calling this the pinnacle of game story-telling. The player must fight against colossi and horsemen to save a girl. Although a rather simple premise, apparently it’s quite the tear-jerker, especially since the hero is doomed to fail. However, one critic says that while emotionally manipulative, the game fails to convey a real story.

I found this very interesting since many claim that games fail to make players emotionally involved. One game writer posited that games and movies convey different emotions — he had never cried at a video game, but then he’d never felt like throwing his controller at a movie, either. Anyone who has ever played a game has felt emotions, however. Nicole Lazzaro of Xeodesign has presented at several conferences on this subject. She has pointed out seven emotions, from fear to fiero, that a player experiences without the benefit of developer-generated story.

Emotions clearly already exist in games, however a story gives context to those emotions, helping to create meaning. Shadow of Colossus, while successful in creating emotions, for one reviewer failed to give adequate context. From a game perspective, it may also have failed to give choice not only to the player, but also to the main character, and choices are the hallmark of a good game and good story. Tears do not a story make.

Have you played it? Did you think it had a story, or simply a manipulative emotional experience? Did you have fun?

Question Mark This week’s game dialog was spoken by Manny Calavera in “Grim Fandango!” Check next week for more Guess that Game Dialog!

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Published in: on July 13, 2007 at 10:59 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. Shadow of the Colossus was most definitely a work of art. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it’s the pinnacle of story-telling in games because, as you mentioned, the story seemed quite void. The emotional response, however, is tremendous, and I would say that that is really what matters. Paintings don’t have to tell a story. Music doesn’t have to tell a story. The mediums *can* support a narrative, but one isn’t necessary to convey an idea.

    On the topic of player choice, I find player choice to be the *stumbling block* of a good story. This is precisely the conflict facing developers attempting to tell a story through games – the tradeoff between player choice and narrative control. There’s a balance to be struck between the two.

    In the case of SotC, I would say that the lack of player choice is one of its strengths – you are forced to kill the Colossi, whether you want to or not. In doing so, the game forces you to question your motives and determine for yourself who the enemy *really* is. The lack of choice also augments the sense of tragic inevitability, which I felt was one of the strong emotional responses that the game invoked.

  2. You make a good point — just because a story isn’t fabulous doesn’t mean the emotional reaction has no value in and of itself. Most games in fact provide emotion (as I mentioned) without any story. I merely question, as you did, the assertion that this game has a good story when it seems rather it’s a good emotional set piece.

    I don’t agree that giving player choice is a stumbling block to telling a great story. Or rather, if it is a stumbling block, it is one that it is our duty to overcome. The ideal is to create great interactive stories, rather than linear ones. I’m reminded again of Chris Crawford likening playing games to the experience of watching a movie for five minutes, pressing pause and doing push-ups, then pressing play again. In my experience writing games, what prevents a true interactive narrative often comes down to budget and programming concerns. Branching, where player choice has a meaningful outcome, can be quite costly. We actually had the privilege of working on a game where the player’s moral choice has an impact on the gameplay and deepens the story without trivializing the choice. The more of these out there, the better off we’ll be.

    As for Colossi, this “tragic inevitability” seems true of any linear game. Granted, few games end on such a tragic note, but it was inevitable that Aeris dies in FFVII, regardless of the player actions. I think taking choice away could be powerful and interesting, if it weren’t for the fact that many if not all computer games already do so. Better to give players a choice that has powerful repurcussions, no matter which they choose.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree that linearity is generally a stumbling block to overcome. My point is that which you made – that a developer must balance linearity with the exponential costs of adding player choice. That was the balance I was referring to.

    However, to stay on topic, in the case of Shadow of the Colossus, I don’t think the lack of player choice really detracted from the game. As I’ve already mentioned, I think it served to add to the emotional weight of the game’s conclusion. It did for me, anyway. 🙂

    As a final random note, here’s another interesting perspective on the role of story and player choice in that game: I once read somewhere of another person’s experience playing Shadow of the Colossus. Reaching the final colossus, seeing the others fall by his hand and all the while questioning Wander’s motives, the player revealed the branching path that is available in every game – turning it off.

    It’s elegant – the lack of deep and meaningful context allowed at least one player to conclude the game in such a manner without forcing him to “find out what happens.” He saved the final colossus (and, consequently, Wander) in his own way. He made a meaningful choice in the absence of a deeply developed story. It was a choice that probably could not have been made given a deeper and more complex plot.

  4. To the point: I think the game had a very spartan story, befitting it’s very austere game design.
    It was a great exercice in emotional manipulation thanks to both of those being the way they were. The story justified the game, and the game was what made the story work (especially in the end).

    choices are the hallmark of a good game and good story.

    Oeudipus Rex, and all the followers it spawned, make good counter-examples story-wise. As far as game are concerned, I think a lot of sport games go against your proposition.

    Yes, I’m being contrarian for the sake of it. -_^
    Doesn’t mean there isn’t some truths to be gathered from all this.

    Also, stories are not necesary emotion bound/driven. A story like Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” makes you feel very little. It succeeds as a story because it is ludic, it is playful. While reading, you spend your time wondering “All right, where is he going with all this ?” and that’s the questioning that makes the story work.
    Mmmm… something to dig out of this random thought, I’m sure of it.

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