The discussion on storytelling in videogames, especially that around its inherent value, seems to be centered around whether interactivity seems to, somehow, lessen the value of such kind of fiction. Still, as early as the mid-60s, interactive fiction emerged as one of the earliest forms of gaming, going on to enjoy great success in the following decades. Thus, assuming every kind of “written storytelling” as an art form, even the arguable less noble expressions, it would be only logical to include “interactive” as part of the same brethren, with adventure games a natural prosecution of that very same interactive fiction genre.
It was actually one of those adventure games that asked that neverending question, as related by Sierra’s 1988 ad for King’s Quest IV. But, even as late as 2013, it seemed the question was still relevant: “can a videogame make you and another human experience an emotion that’s deep enough to touch adults“? Apparently, it was considered “weird” for a crowd of computer gaming enthusiasts to be tearful in front of a videogame. It would be interesting to see if a similar discussion emerged, in the early 20th century, when movies became more and more complex featuring dramatic twists and turns, such as Robert Wiene’s Orlacs Hände (1924) or Ernst Lubitsch’s exquisite melodrama Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925). Was the public surprised or were critics taken aback by finding themselves in tears in front of something as trivial as “a movie”?
There is a substory in Yakuza: Like a Dragon (2020), a 5 minutes narrative, where the protagonist Ichiban runs into a bunch of trash on the streets. He discovers that it belongs to a headstrong pawnshop owner who has no intention of cleaning up, despite the authorities and neighbors’ complaints. A fight ensues (it is Yakuza, after all): after being beaten down, the owner breaks down in tears while recounting that the trash is all memories of his wife, left behind after she died while working long hours to support his frivolous lifestyle.
It’s a short vignette, one not even particularly celebrated in the history of the series, mostly remembered for the abundance of off-the-wall characters and situations (there is little contest when the same game features yakuza members in diapers). Still, I found myself in tears while listening to the story of the pawnshop owner who hangs on to the memories of his wife because it’s all he’s got to go on. The obvious answer to the question, about games and their power to make the player emotional. There really should be no surprise in crying in front of a game, as there isn’t anymore for a book or movie.
But, is the comparison between emotions in passive and interactive storytelling really a fair one?
As the medium embraced more and more complex narratives in recent years, games – especially the “mainstream” market – seemed to have become a modern manifestation of the classic blockbuster Hollywood product. Referring, in particular, to that period in the 90s when movies were apparently being judged on the magnitude of their budgets. Still, AAA status has, obviously, nothing to do with the emotional power of a product. The competency of games to emotionally move the player definitely correlates to how public perception towards interactive storytelling has mostly changed over the years.
The role of the narrative designer has also become central in development, as opposed to that of a generic scriptwriter. Perhaps, then, it can be assumed that the ability to emotionally move the player should be inherent to how video games function at their core. “Emotions”, in interactive fiction as a medium, has become the terrain where game design and writing should converge.
In Namco and Tri-Crescendo’s Wii-exclusive aRPG, Fragile Dreams – Farewell Ruins of the Moon, emotions were a big part of how memorable the experience as a whole felt. The post-apocalyptic scenario was specially designed in order to evoke feelings of loss and distant memories of things that used to be beautiful, now left in ruins. This emotional journey was easy to appreciate, despite gameplay that seemed to offer little of interest compared to other action RPGs of the time. The design featured a small, but important, detail: the player carefully explored the dilapidated spaces while waving a flashlight, via Wiimote, in unison with the main character. While it all might have felt a bit too much at times – despite jRPGs being notorious for pushing on the touching side of the stories – Fragile Dreams felt like the perfect conduct for being cradled by one’s emotions and letting tears do their work.
Would it have been the same experience without the, honestly, unnecessary motion controls?
Back then I was in a weird stage of my life: caught between two relationships, one ending and the other beginning. Desperately, I was trying to hold on to the memories of the first, too stubborn to let go, while also being curiously afraid of what might come from the second. Naturally, Fragile Dreams didn’t help in making any kind of radical life-changing decision: as a substitute for a psychiatrist, it would be a pretty poor one. But the RPG granted me a rare – in console gaming of the time – somber space to reflect and draw a breath, while also being surrounded by all these different strong emotions. It felt like finally being accepted for the imperfect being I was. Despite videogames always being identified as the perfect “escape” from one’s troubles and problems, Fragile Dreams felt like the opposite was true: I was there to face my problems, while making my way through an obscure path (while also not being far from “the middle of the journey of our life“) via the aforementioned waving of the flashlight.
It is – perhaps – no surprise that I haven’t gone back to the game since.
NieR, as a jRPG experience, is also one worth mentioning. As opposed to most other titles in the genre, Yoko Taro’s RPG was unique in how its storytelling was spread among different genres: at one point, even going as far as becoming a full visual novel. Taro’s approach seemed to put gameplay in the background, with storytelling at the center of the overall experience: NieR was designed around the stories Yoko Taro wanted to tell, rather than the opposite. While its overall design as an action RPG was – arguably – not completely successful, with many secondary stories being little more than timewasters, as far as jRPGs go, I would personally consider it one of the more interesting approaches in designing interactive storytelling.
The original NieR (Replicant) was released to lukewarm reviews in a time (2010) when the genre wasn’t really being appreciated for its mature storytelling and critics’ attention had taken a backseat. Interesting to note how its sequel, Automata, despite a similar narrative and overall action RPG gameplay mixed (to a lesser extent) with other genres, was met with universal acclaim seven years later.
Another worth mention is a title I’ve featured on the blog pretty early on, Blackstone Chronicles. Despite being a graphical adventure, most exchanges the player has with the characters take place through static dialogue, the few actually interactive characters only shown in paintings. It is as close to a visual novel as a point’n’click first-person adventure could get, at least back in 1998. I would argue this conscious design decision is, probably, the main reason the emotional experience is still left intact, hinging on the strength of the voice acting and the haunting stories of torture and pain that took place within actual mental institutions back in the early 1900s.
Animating realistic and poignant sequences like people relating memories of torture and suffering, in 1998, would have been feasible only with real actors. Even having the right budget to do that, it would have taken a huge effort to make it right. The way Blackstone Chronicles brings the characters to life is – instead – judicious, directly connects with the player and left me shedding tears.
On the other end of the spectrum, an experience like What Remains of Edith Finch (sometimes referred with the vaguely derogatory term “walking simulator”) is one that would be impossible to replicate in a “non-interactive” medium. Giant Sparrow designed the gameplay, as a whole, as the main channel to communicate to the player the different personalities of the members of the “cursed” family of the story, along with how they felt in pivotal moments of their lives. Every room in the house has been purposefully designed to express each of the characters’ uniqueness: exploring and poking around is essential in getting into the story and its emotions. A beautiful example of that design is how the developers narrated the episode of the older brother of the protagonist: trapped in a repetitive job, while also daydreaming of distant lands and a different fate.
The character’s own experience is brought to the player by juxtaposing the repetitive nature of the cannery work (pick up fish, cut head, throw away) with a embryonic action/adventure RPG to be played at the same time. The example encapsulates perfectly the uniqueness of the interactive fiction: the player really feels, on their hands, the terrible boredom of a repetitive work experience trudges along with the enticing dreamworld. Except for that final price to pay.
It is not only narrated, it is strictly connected with the gameplay experience. The player will be shedding tears by the end of Edith Finch’ story because we’ve seen and experienced – first hand – how the curse of the family ended up affecting everyone’s lives and brought us to where we are, lost, but ready to begin anew with our newfound knowledge. Getting to grips with that emotional baggage takes time and curiosity to explore: it is not a passive interaction, but an experience.
The final memorable experience – again by the same developers – that seem to uniquely work in its own interactive fiction space is The Unfinished Swan. Featuring precious little in terms of direct writing, the overall light narrative arch is expertly interwoven with its simple, but deep, gameplay mechanics. Designed like a stroll through an ancient storybook, the player moves the main character through several locations, starting from a completely white location (or palette) to places that feature more and more details. Its main gameplay mechanic of throwing paint to make the world come to life is used to connect to the overall narrative theme to “finish” things: giving life to what surrounds us or a purpose, a meaning. That same emotional message would not feel the same stripped of its gameplay mechanics and overall loose narrative structure.
The common thread running through all these different experiences hinges on the different interpretations of “interactive storytelling” and, especially, how the mechanics of game design affect the way such emotional content is related to the player. Writing and experiencing narrative in videogames, as opposed to books and movies, can be considered unique in this aspect. While interactivity is not required for a title to elicit sadness in the player, I believe emotions in interactive storytelling feel more natural when videogames don’t follow blindly the way cinema (or literary fiction) portray emotions.
In discussions about “saddest games ever”, Life is Strange and the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead are often mentioned. While it would be fair to agree that they didn’t hold back with their emotional punches, it is also noticeable how – outside of directly controlling the main character and making choices – the player is little more than a passive spectator of an episode of a TV show. The emotions flow on the strength of both the writing and the actors that bring the characters to life. This suggests that both features could easily be translated into another non-interactive medium, nothing would be lost in their emotional connection with the audience.
Generally defining videogames as “Interactive storytelling” could – in fact – be slightly misleading at times. When analyzing such experiences like The Last of Us or Assassin’s Creed, the narrative facets of such titles (the cutscenes) seem to generally function on a completely detached plan from their strict gameplay. That is not to imply that their writing or emotional impact is, then, lessened, but it does highlight, though, the tendency, especially noticeable in AAA titles, to function on separate plans: perhaps it’s no surprise that “movie” versions of these games appear frequently on YouTube racking up millions of views. Are the active controller holders experiencing the emotions, described in such titles, any differently compared to passive spectators of the cutscenes?
In 2021 it seems the overall discussion on interactive storytelling as a medium isn’t yet ready to fully embrace the – unthinkable – notion that crying can be as easily related to games as with other, more traditional, kind of fiction. Perhaps, the infantile notion of “playing” is still strongly connected to the general notion of “games”: in our overall consideration, the medium still considered much too young to be aiming at such superior and noble goals, to be considered for adults. The revered Montessori method of education reserves quite a noble role to the notion of “playing”: it is a child’s work. Growing up, the only change occurs in the games that we – as a society – choose to play: they still remain our main occupation, we still need to play to be stimulated, to remain involved and reminded of our role in society.
As weird as it would feel to advise someone to play Fragile Dreams to feel better in their daily struggles or check out What Remains of Edith Finch to invite to a poignant reflection on the meaning of family, it would be completely appropriate. Crying also represents a moment of catharsis, cleansing oneself from negative emotions. The objective of these experiences in interactive storytelling seems to be just that, in the end: starting anew.
The intrinsic quality of being “interactive” is central to the way these experiences bring us to our emotional breaking point, ready to be filled again with the next experiences that await. The player is tasked only with keeping a vulnerable state that invites shock, emotions and tears. Videogames have been around long enough to easily notice the changes in their language over the years: it would be appropriate for the gaming public at large to accept that. They mirror changes in our social structure, can portray conflicts or crises, inviting and stimulate discussions on matters of personal and gender identity. Also yes, indeed, they can make you break down in tears.