Yes, Video Games Can Make Players Cry

Yes, Video Games Can Make Players Cry

When a movie sets out to evoke a specific emotion in its audience, it succeeds about half the time. A portion of the audience will laugh or cry on command, while the rest will walk out at the end, snorting about how the movie wasn’t that funny/sad. There are exceptions, of course; nobody watches Schindler’s List for light dinner and make-out fare (unless you’re Jerry Seinfeld).

Video games are an even trickier means of extracting emotions from players and observers. Interestingly, games generally have no problem making people laugh: Almost everyone can agree that titles like Secret of Monkey Island, Phoenix Wright and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story are all great for a chuckle. But when the time comes to blubber, we’re a bit more divided, and so’s the industry.

“As an industry we get very, very obsessed with making people cry,” Rhianna Pratchett, the writer behind Mirror’s Edge and the Overlord series, said in a 2009 interview with the Guardian. “What’s so great about crying?! The world is dark enough, especially at the moment. Overlord, I think, was successful because it made people smile, it made people laugh. That seems to have resonated so much that I say ‘Make people smile, don’t make people cry.'”

Pratchett has a point, but that’s not going to stop developers from trying to squeeze some tears from the audience. Recently, 1UP posted a story about the life and death of “LMNO”, a Spielberg-backed video game by EA that was supposed to make people cry, according to EA’s Neil Young. Various cost and development issues killed the project in 2009, but could Spielberg’s masterful touch have succeeded in wringing tears from our jaded eyes?

On the other hand, it’s strange that some individuals working in the games industry act as if nobody has ever cried over a game before. If you Google “Games that make you cry,” you’ll find no shortage of community threads that discuss sad games at length. Men, women, girls, and boys have all wept over a game at some point or another, and are not ashamed to admit it.

The ending of Metal Gear Solid 3 is a soft spot for fans. The frantic scream of Wander’s horse, Agro, as she plunges into a barren canyon, is still deeply embedded in the memory of anyone who’s ever played Shadow of the Colossus. Suikoden II opens with the slaughter of a youth soldier brigade done purely for political reasons, and young teens die crying for their mothers. Finally, across the Internet, there are still plenty of people who are willing to admit that they still shed a tear when they watch Aeris get skewered by Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII’s first story climax.

Ultimately, the level of emotional impact a game wields over its player depends on certain factors in the player’s life. As with movies, the stuff that Player One finds traumatic is just going to cause Player Two to roll his or her eyes and gag.

That doesn’t mean developers should stop finding ways to make us laugh, cry, and think. But neither should they try too hard to stuff a game full of emotional cutscenes. A good story invites us along for the ride, instead of simply manipulating us–and lets us experience a wide range of emotions instead of limiting us to one big, powerful scene that only exists to make us bawl.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

6 Comments

  1. I only slew the first two or three Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus before losing interest, largely because of the horse controls. I didn’t know it died. Maybe I’ll go back and play it through just to see that one scene.

    I hate that frigging horse.

  2. The problem with games that make you cry is that it’s not actually the gameplay that makes you cry but rather the story and cinemas embedded into it. I don’t think there’s anything interactive you could do that would make you sad enough to cry.

    So yes, a game can make you cry, but only when it’s doing its best to imitate another medium. I don’t think that’s anything to be excited about.

  3. Slot machines can make you cry.
    Ninja Guidan made me cry when I could’t get past the last level after drinking 10 liters of soda over 18 hours of game play. I fell sleeping crying.

  4. Hey Nadia!
    May I ask how you’re distinguishing between inviting the player along for the ride, and manipulating the player?

  5. Nadia Oxford

    Hi solv! Here’s what I have for you:

    You’ve probably heard the ol’ saying about how writers need to “show, not tell.” Likely you already understand what this implies, but for the sake of fun, let’s recap: If you’re writing about an angry character, a passage about how “Mike overturned his coffee table, screaming,” is a bit more powerful than narration that simply states, “Mike was mad.”

    By “telling,” the writer is being manipulative; he/she is saying, “Mike is mad. Feel for him!” In the same vein, I feel like I’m being manipulated when overbearing orchestral music crashes over me during a sad scene–though this is my personal preference, and, if handled well, can actually add so, so much to a dramatic moment.

    One good example of a scene that “invites players along for the ride” and also “manipulates them” is Aeris’ death scene in Final Fantasy VII. When Aeris is first stabbed by Sephiroth (oh dear, spoilers), Cloud delivers a speech that carefully outlines how mad he is (“my blood is boiling…my body is tingling…” something along those lines). It’s kind of a silly point in what’s supposed to be a dramatic moment, and it’s still mocked on occasion by the game’s critics. However, there follows a moment wherein Cloud and his friends mourn Aeris through their body language alone, including the famous moment when Cloud “buries” her in the water. Nobody says a word, but there’s no doubt that they’re all grief-stricken and sympathize with Cloud. This is all conveyed very well, despite the game’s primitive character models. We’re not being told to feel sad alongside the characters, but we still feel for them.

    I hope that helps a bit!

  6. Super example :o)
    Gotcha.
    Your observation resonated with me. Many years ago I hung out on a writers’ forum and inadvertantly succeeded in provoking ire by suggesting that a good writer has the power to manipulate the reader (or player). The word ‘manipulate’ seems to suggest an amount of insincerity perhaps? I guess we’re in the world of semantics: what I mean by ‘manipulation’ is what you mean by ‘inviting for a ride’. That’s to say that I see the employment of NVC and other subliminal ‘shows’ as manipulation.
    Rhi’s point seems a bit odd (doubtless down to lack of context): I still don’t get why a game writer would eschew the basic structure of emotional topography. Why would a game need to adhere to a single emotional response? Aeris’ death was made all the more poignant by its positioning in the topography: we get (from memory) the beautiful environment and are breathless with wonder, then the boss fight and are exhilarated, then Sephiroth descends and, erm, manipulates Cloud into swinging his sword at Aeris. (A brilliant example of how we can remove the player from play whilst giving meaning to that moment of passiveness!) Or, to put it another way, Aeris’ death would have been less meaningful and intense if it had occurred immediately after the deaths of loads of other characters. Humour in games can be great, but any number of award-winning comedy shows will demonstrate how humour becomes more potent when it is when positioned alongside pathos or anger, and so forth. (Notably, I was watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm the other day and found myself simultaneously crying and laughing. A very strange, and very memorable experience! Would it be inappropriate to refer to Larry David as a genius?)
    My last point would be about marrying your topography to your audience. I write predominantly for the middle-aged female market, and my topography is defined by them! A few scares, a few laughs, and a big weep at the end seems to fit the bill.
    Thanks Nadia!

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