Trauma and Consequences in Narrative Games

A friend recently told me an anecdote about a game involving space travel.1 There wasn’t much of a story to the game overall, but there was a narrative element insofar as your actions were supposed to have moral consequences. Basically, do bad things and you’ll go to the dark side. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that players determined that the best way to start this game was to throw a guy out an airlock.

This action wasn’t for humorous value or to demonstrate right off the bat how badass your character was: it was a strategy. The extent to which an evil act affected your morality was relative to everything you had done before it. Start the game with the most evil action possible, and you have nowhere to go but up. Only the good guys could eventually acquire the best ship in the game, and this strategy made that goal more easily attainable. This is just one of many examples of how games fail at emotional engagement because they are more about winning than about feeling.

Game creator Alex Ward took some flak for ranting against the idea that you “beat” games—you don’t say that you “beat” a movie after watching it for the first time, do you?—but he has an interesting point. Why should we think of games as things to be beaten rather than things to engage with, things that inform and enrich us? The simple answer, of course, is that most games are designed to be beaten. With the exception of open-ended games like Sim City, games present us with tasks to complete and neat little rewards to earn. Game designer Jonathan Blow offered a brief but particularly lucid take on this phenomenon in a talk he gave about innovation in games:

I mean, how important is it really that you shoot 20 pretend Nazis and get the blue card key? It’s not, but if the game gives you a wacky gun that lets you stake guys to a wall, you tend not to notice that the rest is uninteresting. Because hey, cool gun….

Stories don’t need this kind of innovation to resonate with the audience; neither do paintings, or songs….

If we are going to reach our potential when innovation dries up, we need to be important. We need to speak to the human condition.

We need to make games that people care about so much, they can’t not play them.

I have heard many industry professionals complain that story is often tacked on as an afterthought, but the problem with emotional engagement in games goes even deeper than this, I think. Even games that give special attention to story may be less emotionally engrossing than narratives in other media.2 The problem, I think, is that only a relatively few gamers and game designers have considered how we might make games engaging that aren’t necessarily fun.

Nowhere is this problem more evident than in how we respond to death in video games: as a frustration, not a tragedy. And why should it be anything but frustrating? When characters die in games, it’s a temporary setback. When characters die in other narrative media, it’s part of the story. Failing in video games happens outside the story—it’s your failure, not a dramatic turn but an issue of skill-building, of video game literacy.3 It’s like reading a book that commands you to restart the chapter before turning the page if you didn’t quite follow the difficult words. Death is not death in games, but a trivial loss, picking the cup that didn’t happen to have the ball hidden under it.

Death and failure do matter to us in narrative, however, when we are forced to confront them. Shuen-shing Lee argues that forcing players to lose games may be one way to actually make the player feel tragedy. Aside from the examples in that article, we might think of the video game adaptation of King Kong as an another example (spoiler alert from a really good game!), and Shadow of the Colossus as an approximate, cleverly handled example. (End of spoiler alert.)

Along similar lines, A survey on emotional response to games by Bowen Research suggests that a particular character’s irreversible death in one Final Fantasy game had serious emotional resonance:

Gamers said about Aeries’ death: “I couldn’t play the game for like a week after that, because I was so depressed.” “Friends still talk about their surprise, shock and denial when they reached that point in the game.” A father was playing the game with his two young sons, and apparently Aeries’ death was too much for them: “For months, we couldn’t even listen to the musical theme … without one of the boys bursting into tears.”

This recalls for me a paper presented by Martyn Pedler about trauma in serialized superhero stories. Aside from their origin stories, Batman and Superman can’t ever really be permanently injured, as mandated by certain marketplace realities. The only way to really mix things up and conjure real emotion nowadays, then, is to injure or kill their supporting cast.

The simplest way to apply this in games, then, would be to give players a “sidekick” or other character to protect. Some game scholars have argued that this works particularly well in encouraging emotional attachment, but I’m going to have to disagree. One of the (admittedly many) reasons that the much-maligned game Daikatana was a flop was that its revolutionary “sidekicks” actually felt more like an annoying liability. For me (and at least one GameFAQs contributor), the most annoying part of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is a scene in which you must prevent a horde of monsters from burning a moving wagon carrying some innocent friends of yours. The wagon just keeps riding around in circles as the horses keep getting spooked, and meanwhile it’s on fire, so you have to put out the fire and kill the stuff that’s spooking the horses. It is repetitive and frustrating, but not emotionally affecting. Ditto for one of the last scenes in God of War (obvious plot twist spoiler warning!), in which you, playing Kratos, must prevent many Kratos clones from reenacting how he murdered his own family. (End of spoilers.)

When does the sidekick work as a game mechanic, or at least not work in the opposite way as intended? Personally, I didn’t mind whats-her-name in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time as much: at least she tried to help shoot arrows at the enemies, rather than just standing around and getting killed, but I didn’t care about her enough to actually feel bad when she died every now and then (or even to remember her name, for that matter). I was really irked at Yorda in Ico the first time I played (and I doubt I was alone), but when I played a second time months later and was much better at the game, I didn’t mind her so much. The only time I really cared about her as a character, though (again with a minor spoiler alert), was when she risks her own life to save mine, and shows genuine compassion during a couple movie sequences. I was genuinely touched by the end of the game. (End spoiler alert.)

If my own experiences are any indication, perhaps sidekicks work best when they exist for some reason other than to just be saved. It would be interesting to experiment with this and see how it might work in other configurations. In Final Fantasy VII, Aeris had to die as part of the plot, but I wonder if it’s possible to make the player feel even more guilty by making the death of a compatriot seem preventable. (Or, perhaps even more rudely, to put the player in a situation where someone close to the protagonist must die, and the protagonist must choose who.)

These musings represent just a few ways to consider these sorts of issues, which have been rattling around in my head (and draft posts in WordPress) for weeks now. Please feel free to chime in if you have examples of other games that effectively inspired an emotional response, or if you have any other comments about how trauma and consequences are handled in games.


1. I think this space travel game was BBS-based, maybe Trade Wars, but I don’t know for sure. ↩

2. I don’t mean to suggest that the only possible interpretation of recent research is that games are indeed less emotionally involving than other media. Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile that this study has gotten gamers talking about their own emotional connection (and lack thereof) with games. The Kotaku article linked here suggests that games may be less engaging because of the slower pace of games, spread over the course of many more days, though if anything, I’d argue that this should help. Serialized television series (including on DVD) have demonstrated that stories can be longer and even more engaging for fans, I think, than your typical ninety-minute movie.↩

3. I don’t want to encourage game designers to come up with excuses for the overused conventions of video game narratives, but I would like to mention that I’m surprised that more people haven’t tried to work around such issues. There are ways to make repeated character death work within the story, like by playing a character who has a limitless supply of clones. There’s some real potential for emotional resonance there, I think, like when you walk into a hallway littered with dozens of your own corpses. ↩

4 thoughts on “Trauma and Consequences in Narrative Games

  1. Please feel free to chime in if you have examples of other games that effectively inspired an emotional response

    (This comment has some spoilers about older Final Fantasy games, but they are older than FF VII so if you didn’t mind reading about Aeris’s death in the post then you’re probably OK to read on)

    Aeris’s death frustrated me alot. I remember thinking things along the lines of “this shouldn’t be happening, this can’t be happening”. Maybe this frustration was because it was sort of novel to have a “main” character get murdered in front of my eyes, or maybe because I just didn’t like the forced failure.

    I definetely had an emotional reaction when Palom and Parom (the twin wizards) voluntarily turned themselves to stone to save your group in Final Fantasy IV. I can even remember the music that played at that scene. Thinking about it now actually made my eyes water. (Wow… that’s weird). Anyways, this was also forced failure, but it somehow felt better since they did it voluntarily, so it feels more like it was your choice, since you were on the same team…

    Final Fantasy VI had some good examples as well. There’s a scene where you’re on a floating continent that is crashing towards the earth, and you’re given the choice to wait for the auxilliary character “Shadow” or to leave him and get to safety. I don’t think that there is any harm in waiting for him, but if you don’t wait I think he actually does die.

    Now that I think of it, most of the FF games have momments like this. I guess that’s why I play them.

    I like your idea of having to make a choice between saving the life of one character or another, and it might be interesting to be forced to choose between a more “powerful” character and one who has some emotional connection (a love interest, for example)… Or maybe the choice you make could have an impact on who does or does not become your enemy in the future.

  2. As I revisit this post for a proposal I’m submitting to a conference, I think it might be worth responding to this statement:

    In Final Fantasy VII, Aeris had to die as part of the plot, but I wonder if it’s possible to make the player feel even more guilty by making the death of a compatriot seem preventable.

    Yet another spoiler: Actually, this is exactly what happens in Metal Gear Solid, when you need to push a button really fast to withstand torture. I felt really bad the first time I played because this minigame is a turning point in the overarching narrative, where failing means the death of an ally. (I reset it after losing rather than playing through with that failure on my conscience.)

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