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19 Nov 2006

By now it's become fairly apparent that the video game industry is trying to be more like Hollywood. It all started with the introduction of optical storage media back on the original Playstation, enabling the inclusion of pre-rendered cinematics, made famous by the ever-popular "Final Fantasy VII". As technology has evolved to the point where real-time, in-game rendering became feasible, we've seen a decline in pre-rendered cinematics and a dramatic rise in real-time, non-interactive sequences like those peppering best-seller "Halo 2". It seems the industry's next goal is to create that Hollywood feel in a fully-interactive setting, as seen in Bioware's upcoming "Mass Effect".

This is all very interesting, but I think we're gradually losing the thing that sets games apart from films. It's not interactivity, though that's certainly important. It's the way in which the media conveys emotion, and the way in which the viewer/player feels that emotion.

Film is an empathetic medium; that is, emotion is felt through the viewer's empathy with the characters on-screen. The most powerful films are the ones to which we can relate some personal experience, by means of which we can "feel" what a character is feeling. But the viewer's emotional response is not an independent one: it's a mimicked one.

In a horror film, when the viewer feels fear, there is also at least one character currently expressing fear. In a romance, when the viewer feels desire, there is a character expressing desire. In an adventure, when the viewer feels triumphant exultation, there is a character expressing victory. There is no room for independent emotion: the viewer will not generally feel fear while the characters are expressing mirth, for example.

This works in film because the viewer is an observer, watching someone else's story unfold. But in games, the viewer is a participant - generally the principal participant - and thus can (and should) generate independent emotional responses.

However, the current Hollywood-emulation trend in games minimizes or removes opportunities to generate that independent emotional response by providing the player with scenes and characters that tell him how to emote. The principal participant is relegated to the role of observer, and we end up with nothing more than a film that requires you to complete various tasks to continue watching.

This is primarily a problem in games that make heavy use of non-interactive sequences, whether pre-rendered like "Final Fantasy VII" or in-game like "Halo 2". But it's also becoming an issue in interactive gameplay. The "Call of Duty" series is a good example: the player is robbed of the opportunity to generate independent emotional responses because he's constantly bombarded by other characters showing him how to emote, how to respond to the situation. Moreover, even if the player does manage his own emotional response to a situation, said response has no impact on the game because there is no mechanism through which to receive and process it.

Perhaps the best current example of putting the player at the center of the emotional experience comes from the survival horror genre. Games like "Fatal Frame" make the player feel genuine fear, not through the observed responses of other characters, but via his own independent response. The game almost seems to emerge from the TV and envelop the player in his physical world. (Think about playing such a game in a dark room, alone and late at night, and how you're always looking over your shoulder to make sure nothing's sneaking up on you.)

That's where the magic of games lies. We've managed a few emotions: fear, tension, triumph, frustration. But there's a broad palette of emotional responses we have yet to touch: embarrassment, desire, love, despair, confidence, vengefulness... Some of these we've managed to portray through the actions of in-game characters, but then the player is only "feeling" these emotions through empathy with those characters, i.e. second-hand.

When games can instill the full range of emotion in players via independent response, only then will they truly carve out their place in history.

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