Monday, March 16, 2009

Introducing The Sensationalist

We gaming enthusiasts seem to be in a constant state of defense against those who question the legitimacy of videogames as a meaningful form of entertainment. Like literary fiction and cinema before it, the responsibility of proving the value of the medium to others falls on the shoulders of creators and practitioners. Such desire to feel recognized often comes down to a very human desire to share those things that give us great joy. One measurement of worth often thrown about in the discussion of legitimacy is the ability to stir-up emotion. Not until a videogame can make you cry, some have said, will videogames earn complete legitimacy. A game's true worth lies not in its sales numbers, but in how often it can make a grown man weep.

Many emotional gamers have come out of the shadows to defend their medium against those who would classify games as mere baubles, unable to hold deep meaning or evoke any sensations other than childish glee. Yet tears are but one measure of psychological impact. The most successful games are often praised for their power to immerse the player in another experience, to make them feel enveloped in captivating environments. From wastelands to ancient keeps, myself and my gaming compatriots have seen otherworldly vistas, filling us with a sense of wonder. Who, then, is to decide which emotions give videogames meaning? What arbiter will tell us awe is less true a sensation than sadness?

With this in mind, Scott and I introduce to you The Sensationalist, a new EXP series in which we seek to examine how videogames evoke a myriad of sensations. Not as guardians in defense of games, but as explorers of meaning, we seek to build a catalogue of the emotions games engender. Despair, panic, friendship, the loss of a parent, curiosity, aging, and pride are just a few examples on our enormous platter. At least once a month, Scott or I will discuss one particular sensation or emotion in one of two particular ways.

- The first will use a somewhat historical lens, discussing how videogames have addressed a particular emotion in the past and how contemporary games are approaching the same theme.
- The second approach will look at the success, and failures, of one videogame's evocation of an emotion.

Some of the sensations we will discuss span genres, recreated in many forms across a wide range of games. These games may succeed because players can easily empathize with the protagonists, or because the story touches on powerful themes, or because the game is a canvas on which players impose their perspective and derive their own meaning. Understanding how our unique medium wields emotional power may shape how players and creators approach sensations in future games.

With The Sensationalist, we are trying to elucidate highly individual experiences. Videogames are deeply personal, but also shared. Some of these sensations we remember fondly and our memories of them are quite similar (frustration at learning the princess is in another castle, for example). Yet others are fleeting and intimate, empowered by the player's particular circumstances, imprinted with their personal history. As a result, these posts are subjective by nature, but we will strive to articulate our opinions, and how we arrived at them, as best we can. Our words are by no means final. We hope that differing interpretations will lead to a larger discussion and a deeper understanding of how games affect us all.

If there is a certain game or emotion you would like to see addressed, we encourage you to send us an email to ExperiencePoints[at]gmail[dot]com. We eagerly await your participation. To browse at your leisure, you will find an up-to-date list of all Sensationalist posts right here.


  1. I'm looking forward to this series and hope to contribute in the comment sections!

    I've always found it strange that some people don't consider videogames to be a viable artistic medium. Videogames have musical content, movie content, literary content, visual content... it seems like videogames contain almost all of the other established forms of art, so what in the world would prevent games from becoming art, other than a lack of vision?

    Yet, when you mention the "tear factor" I can't think of many games that have really pulled at my heartstrings enough to start up the old waterworks. A few things come to mind like when Aeris died in Final Fantasy VII, the shootout between Solid Snake and Sniper Wolf, or the sunset kiss at the end of the first NES Ninja Gaiden... but reviewing those again now (thanks YouTube!), a lot of those were really cheesy and I was either too young or too in love with the game to realize it. What videogames do well though is they create atmosphere- the loneliness of Shadow of the Colossus, the brutality of God of War, or the tension of Resident Evil.

    So, videogaming has what it takes to be an artform, but as an artform, it is in its infancy. I'm happy about that though because it means there is only room for growth and I can't wait to see this artform develop more fully.

  2. I think when I was about 13, I was playing Final Fantasy 3 and it came to the Opera scene, and the sad, midi-voiced singing actually brought tears to my eyes. I don't think that since then I've involved myself in a game enough to evoke that kind of emotion. Involvement one of the most important aspect of whether or not we respond to something with strong emotions. I might read on the BBC website about hundreds of people dying in an earthquake and feel very sad about it, but I wouldn't cry. But the last time I saw Les Miserables I cried when Éponine died. The very difference between the two was that I was viscerally involved in the drama, while I was very disconnected from the actual tragedy.

  3. only game i ever openly cried (okay, so it was really just watery eyes) was the end scene of Syberia II (which I won't spoil for anyone who hasn't played it, even though it's several years old now).

    It was just such a perfect culminating moment for a story spanning two games.

  4. It's funny you should say that Will, because I was just thinking that one of the reasons that videogames are NOT accepted as high art is because they DO involve you. In a classical western sense, we have learned that when we come into contact with art (like at a symphony, museum, or theatre) we should behave with a certain quiet reverie where we suppress our bodies from moving and we silence our mouths from talking so that we can simply respectfully appreciate the artist before us. The artist is elevated and the audience is passive.

    But videogames are not a passive experience. You guide your character, you smash buttons, you shout at the screen. So I think people have a hard time seeing games as art because it doesn't fit their model of how one behaves with art. Videogames, by their very nature, break down the "fourth wall" and invite you, the audience member, to play a central role in the production- you control the lead character and the story does not progress without your skilled involvement as a player. For games to be accepted as high art, we have to break through people's preconceived notions that it's not art if you can't quietly reflect and appreciate it.

    In fact, if we accept videogames as an artform, the one thing they provide that no other artform does is a high degree of interaction from the audience (with the exception of the pairing of dance and music, but then again, many people don't consider dance music to be high art). The fact that videogames have this added element of play control is part of what keeps them from being accepted as art, but it is also what makes gives them such extremely exciting potential as an artform.

    The experience of really good play-control can intertwine with the music, images, and storyline in a way that allows for expanded expression of the main themes of the artistic work. For example, I love the Zone of the Enders games, despite their flaws, because the play control makes me feel like I am actually controlling the elegant movements of these giant mech-robots (orbital frames) and because the story focuses on the importance of the skills of the runner. The result is that I feel like I'm in Jehuty and I am the hapless boy that becomes a hero because he has learned how to control this high power robot to survive his war torn environment. Or when I play a survival horror game like most of the Resident Evil or Silent Hill games, I feel a sense of helpless fear because the play controls are sluggish and awkward, the camera angling is claustrophic, the ammo is extremely limited, and all of this interacts with the sounds and images of the game to provoke a unique kind of fear that I think is unparalleled in the movie industry. It feels like one of those nightmares where you try to run but you move like you're buried in sand.

    Unfortunately, the emotions that game controls often elicit, however, are simply anger and frustration at how poorly designed they are instead of emotions that match the emotional sweep of the storyline. Also, when you die 50 times to kill one enemy boss, I think you kind of stop caring as much about your protagonist's well being because you know that he can just respawn and try again. It makes it harder to emotionally invest and worry about a character when you know he has infinite lives.

    Anyway, I'm very interested in how the emotional tone of a videogame can be enhanced in its play-control scheme. I think this is the single most unique thing about games as an artform. We wouldn't quite feel the way the world is yours for the taking if it wasn't for Grand Theft Auto's expansive and open city environments that would let you do whatever you want. We wouldn't have a sense for what it is to fly and pollinate the earth if it wasn't for Flower's use of the six-axis control. You wouldn't feel like such a rockstar if Guitar Hero was a movie instead of something that you had some control over. I hope further discussion will bring up more about how the different elements of play control, audio, and visuals can come together in videogames for innovative new forms of artistic expression.

  5. Wow folks: thanks for all the enthusiasm. Your responses definitely show that this conversation is worth having!

    I hope that we will be able to get at some of the things you brought when we start talking about concrete examples. Sneak peek: this Friday will be a Sensationalist post!

    JT, I am really interested in analyzing the relationship between game controls and emotion. I too think it is the biggest thing that sets games apart from other art forms. In many ways, it is counter to old ideas of creator-audience relationship. Have you ever read this article on Shadow of the Colossus?

  6. I had not read that Shadow of the Colossus article before, but thanks for the link. It was an enjoyable read and just the kind of thing I am talking about. I always liked the way that Agro controlled because it felt similar to riding a real horse, but I hadn't actually realized how it helped create a sense of friendship between the Wanderer and Agro until Joseph Leray spelled it out.

    ***Shadow of the Colossus SPOILER alert!***

    It's funny because I was going to mention that one of the most emotional scenes in a game is also the scene when Argo falls from the cliff! I felt as bad as I did as a kid when Artax sunk in the quicksinking mud and Atreyu could do nothing to help him in The Neverending Story!