A Reflection on Video Games and Emotion

Every once in a while, I find myself digging through some articles and videos discussing what they claimed to be deep, meaningful moments in video games. There is certainly no lack for lists and think-pieces in this vein. Most of these are innocuous, but some stick out to me due to their melodramatic, earnest tones. It seems that every example given in these overwrought pieces drips with trite reasoning for how our hearts should be breaking when a character dies or the introspection we should be undertaking when faced with a particular decision. To be fair, these are real feelings one experiences when playing a game, from the rush you get when choosing a path you’ve never played before in Castlevania III to the suspense you feel when you encounter a turnabout in Phoenix Wright. Games make us feel. So what is it about some of these lists that come off as so maudlin, so contrary to the feeling the writer wanted to evoke?


Image from Big Shiny Robot

While much is to be said for the talent of the writer in question, I think there’s actually something more encompassing that makes emotional video game moments so difficult to capture. Simply put, the emotions experienced in a game are so personal and specific that replicating them through a proxy such as writing is near-impossible. Games are so much more than what we can boil them down to: the music syncing up with the dialogue will cause one’s heart to swell with the tune; the death of a character is tied to the connection the player has experienced with them; the fear of the monster on the other end of the door is in part fear of losing the game; Our emotional experience with a game is so ingrained in our interaction with the game that to take it out of that framework is almost like ripping out its heart, and the result is often bittersweet and grating.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive to this particular style of writing. I certainly spend a lot of time worrying that I’m not being overly sentimental or so subjective that I lose sight of my reader’s perspective. In fact, it’s quite possible that at one point or another I’ll fall prey to the type of writing I am criticizing in an attempt to try something new. The point of this criticism, however, isn’t to say that people shouldn’t ever write about emotional things. On the contrary, they should definitely engage in how we react to video games on a personal level. But what pitfalls could be avoided to make these articles, lists and what-have-you a stronger representation of the art behind video games?


And how does one avoid the pitfalls of an obvious, bad joke?

First off, stop trying to make the moment speak for itself. It likely can’t. The gaming experience is a unique one, one of a constantly moving narrative that the player takes direct part in. While this makes gaming a much more nuanced experience than reading a book and more interactive than watching a movie, it definitely comes with shortcomings, namely the inability to replicate moments. Of course, cutscenes provide a place where music, movement and dialogue can always be replicated, but they’re still reliant on the gameplay that got you there to begin with. As such, it’s far more difficult to lift a scene from a game and praise it for its emotionality than it is to take a passage from a book or a scene from a film. Of course, all three share the danger of being taken out of context, but a game’s emotional force is so tied with the larger experience that it’s easy to look at pixels moving across a screen and find it silly.

Perhaps, though, this is due less to the nature of the video game as an art form and more to do with the public perception of games as a childish pastime for shut-ins. Though this mindset is waning, it surely can account for some of the dissonance between the game itself and the experience therein. However, for all the reasons we discussed above, it is likely that a scene taken from a game will still not impact a person who has no context. Take, for example, the infamous scene in Final Fantasy X in which Tidus starts laughing like an idiot only to be joined by Yuna. While you’re playing the game, it’s obvious that Tidus is exaggerating his laugh to try to cheer Yuna up, and she is joining in kind, causing their friends to think something is wrong with them. It’s part of their development as a couple. Now whether or not you like the scene still depends entirely on how you have connected with Tidus and Yuna as characters, how your gameplay experience has colored your perception of the scene, and due to the game’s framing of Tidus as the main character. It’s HIS story, after all. Or is it? If you’ve played the game and felt differently, that too colors your perception of the scene. However, playing this scene to someone reading a list who may have little or no context to it will result in them feeling confused, annoyed and potentially thinking that scene speaks to the quality of all facets of the game.


I mean… What does this make you think? (image from bigtallwords, with link to an interesting piece on criticism)

So secondly, when trying to convey the emotional relevance of a scene, one should attempt to keep in mind the larger framework their claim is taking place in. Think about your reader, think about what they may or may not have seen. This isn’t to say all such articles should be so broad and general that everyone can understand them, but when considering the question at hand, or even just the title, be sure to frame the piece in a way that signals the context. “Top 10 Saddest Gaming Moments Ever” is a pretty big claim, and one wrong turn will dash any credibility you have in the eyes of some. Of course, there’s room for hyperbole, but it would seem that those who write about video games overindulge which further leads to people discrediting video games as shallow and unsubtle. When it comes to forums and fansites, people may just have to stop judging so harshly, but when something is posed as gaming journalism, we have no right to expect them to not look for credibility in our claims.

On the flip side of this, one should also keep themselves in mind. When making a statement about a video game, try to remember just what it was that made you resonate with the moment in mind. Think of where you were in your life when you were playing the game. Did that impact your interpretation of the game? If so, include that. That’s very subjective, but it’s very relevant to what you’re saying: that you found a game meaningful. How did the game’s score make you feel? How did that impact the moment you’re talking about? Was the music perhaps more meaningful to you than the dialogue or the events in the game? That’s also a relevant observation and you should announce it proudly. Not only will that better convey the opinion, it will make readers feel more comfortable with your claim, as you’ve explained your angle. Of course, this will still render the statement subjective, but perhaps we shouldn’t be so afraid of that. Perhaps the inclination to make grandiose claims regarding the heart-wrenching nature of a scene in a game is more of a defense mechanism, one employed to validate both the opinion of the author and the initial response. It can be a very vulnerable place to admit a game like Super Paper Mario made you cry. However, that’s where the larger framework comes back into play. Consider first whether or not your reader will actually get where you’re coming from, or if it only seems obvious to you because you had the experience.


Pictured: Something that made me cry. (from the Paper Mario Wiki)

Video games are an experience difficult to replicate in any other medium. Because we rely on writing and recordings to attempt to convey their meaning, it’s very easy to fall short of true representation. Until we can somehow communicate through direct experience without just having someone sit down and play the game, we’re just going to have to come up with ways to make up for the shortcomings. Articles, lists, Let’s Plays and all other forms of gaming journalism will need to step up their game if they want to be taken as seriously as the intensity of their claims would indicate. It’s not really a matter of talent, it’s overcoming an inherent breakdown that comes with expressing our opinions on our chosen topic. If we continue to exaggerate things that we can not adequately recreate for our audience, we not only look foolish, we also degrade something we care deeply about. Because one thing is clear from the nuanced writer to the fan gushing over their favorite scene in a game: they do it out of love.



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