Emotional Resonance: A Look at Why I Play

This is new for me. Writing. Its not that I’ve never written before for people, I’ve just never written in this context. You see, I used to be a pastor and writing was a critical part of my role. I would preach every few Sundays and this would require preparing a 1200-1600 word sermon. This was a weekly commitment, requiring study and documentation and organization of my thoughts into a cohesive narrative that could be followed audibly in the span of 30 minutes.

So, like I said, I’ve never written in this context. And to be honest, its a bit intimidating. Yes, I have written pages upon pages for grad school (the 2 years of part time of it I took), and I have written the same for my pastoral position, but never this. Never something written not only as a hobbyist, but as someone that has always had a suspicion that videogames can offer more to us than fleeting entertainment.

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I grew up in a home where my gaming wants were quickly met while also it being viewed as a phase I would grow out of. Funny enough, that never happened. Games have morphed along with me. They have gone from the simple delights of Super Mario Bros to the harrowing look at human relationship and drive that is The Last of Us. There are countless times at which I look at those two pieces of entertainment and art, and am astounded that we still call them the same thing: videogame.

Videogame is such a simple word, but it also captures the idea of play and stimulation that only can be provided by these moving pixels. Why just this week I have dabbled in 3 videogames: GTA 5, DOOM 2016, and Broken Age.

These offer such different experiences and evoke such contrasting emotions it is astounding.

GTA 5

GTA 5 is, to many, the pinnacle of game design. Its huge, entertianing, doesn’t waste your time. The freedom at play is impressive. It takes every little bit of the GTA formula and turns it just so as to accent every inch of their game world. The detail and care with which its world is built is a site to behold.

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How does it make you feel though? Giddy. That’s a pretty good word to sum up my time with the game. It smoothly shifts from mission to mission, always giving the player something interesting to do and hardly making you feel anxious at all. Its lovingly crafted for your entertainment and wherever your own mind can take you. It offers a near limitless world to explore and delivers on this premise around ever turn.

DOOM 2016

DOOM 2016 is my personal pick for best shooter of 2016. I played it at launch and was consumed for the length of the campaign. The pinnacle of game design is for me not a GTA but something much closer to DOOM. It offers puzzles to solve, not in the traditional since, but in the confines of its game mechanics. DOOM gives you a few verbs to work with (run, shoot, jump, chainsaw, glory kill) within arenas that are (a) expertly designed and (b) populated with enemies that are unique in their attack patterns. It slowly builds these on top of each other while keeping your verb set the same from the start (minus the double jump).

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Ease of use isn’t at the forefront of the developers mind simply because dying and retrying are built into the systems. You repeat the exact same scenarios over and over again until you master the mechanics and the arena. No shooter this year offered the same exhiliration and heart pounding moment to moment gameplay as DOOM, and I believe this can be attributed to the 3 aforementioned design decisions: limited verb set, well crafted arenas, and unique enemies.

The feelings DOOM 2016 creates in you is a feeling of bliss and confidence. You master these arenas and the controls have such pinpoint accuracy that any failure is your own. You feel yourself becoming better and more aggressive. You grow confident that you can dismantle any obstacle the game throws at you, and you eagerly anticipate this because the controls offer you a control that other games only wish they could.

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Broken Age

Broken Age is a bit of a surprise even to me. Its nothing like anything that is made today. My childhood was filled with a slew of computer games that fell squarely into one genre: Adventure. King’s Quest, Space Quest, and its ilk. These were colorful, humorous, mentally engaging, but most of all, used very low resources on early computers. Non of our family computers could run DOOM until about 1998, but Sierra adventure games could be enjoyed on even the earliest PCs.

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The gameplay is interesting when played in 2016. You do not control your character in the traditional style. You point a cursor and click where you want to move. You see an object, so you click it to interact. You wander around looking for something that makes sense to use that object for. Its a much simpler gameplay experience. Its very slow, it can get monotonous (particularly when stuck on a puzzle), and it can evoke feelings of frustration.

The quality of play is so connected to the narrative in Adventure games that unless the narrative is filled with wonder and intrigue and truly captures the player, it will easily fail.

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[minor spoilers for the very beginning of Broken Age ahead]

At the outset you can choose between 2 heroes: a girl in a quaint village or a boy on a spaceship. I chose the boy. You immediately learn that this boy is alone and his caretakers are the AI of the ship. They talk to him and teach him. They shower him and feed him. They send him on missions to save people, but all of these missions are crafted by the AI so as not to harm the boy. The boy quickly sees that these “emergency” situations aren’t emergencies at all. They are merely scenarios built to give the boy purpose, but do nothing of the sort. There is no risk or reward, there is no danger or opportunity for growth. Its just the same thing.

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Over.

And over.

And over.

You watch the boy get physically annoyed and frustrated, and then you the player begin to get physically frustrated. I started saying to myself, “Is this game gonna be like this? Just doing the same pointless tasks over and over again?” “Is this game going to continue to give me limited options and replay these scenarios with no clue as to how I might change them?” “What’s the point?!” As I was asking myself this final question, and preparing to turn off the game, it cuts to a different screen, and you realize that you and the boy are experiencing the same emotions simultaneously and have determined to change your fate at that exact moment.

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Its an amazing piece of storytelling. It seemed to me that Tim Schafer (writer/director) wants to write frustration and the hope for change onto his character. But this is also a game, meaning that interaction is what sets it apart. The game just dives in and doesn’t tell you that within 30 minutes you will become frustrated and irritated with it. But it lets you experience it simultaneously with the hero you are controlling/observing and then you both decide to change the course of your life at the exact same moment.

In this way Broken Age does something that many games struggle with, it causes you to identify with the emotions of the playable character by walking you through scenarios that evoke those same emotions in you,the player. Upon reflection, I not only have an idea of what the boy went through being captive to a computer and only able to do prescribed activities, I was placed in that same scenario and experienced it on my own. This was all done simultaneously. I’ve played a lot of games, and few (if any) have caused me to empathize with the main character so organically. This is a real achievement is the space of videogame storytelling.

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Thanks for reading my thoughts everyone. Any and all comments are welcome and I look forward to learning more about the writing process through your feedback!

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If you disagree with me, please let me know about it. I’m always down for lively discussion that can expand my viewpoints. Thanks!

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