2012: A Miserable Year for Gamers
2012 was a miserable year for gamers. Not because the Wii U didn’t hit with quite the bang we were hoping for. Not because the PS Vita failed to find a healthy audience. Not even because Mass Effect 3 didn’t quite stick its landing. Instead, 2012 was a miserable year for gamers because developers are perfecting the art of making us feel that way – and it’s a good thing.
While there are always exceptions, the emotions and feelings elicited by games tend to skew towards the more superficial end of the spectrum. Happiness and relief at making it through a tough level. Fear of creepy crawlies in a survival-horror game. The joy of discovery and exploration. Likewise, stories and themes dealt with in games usually tend to be bombastic, in the made-for-TV action movie sense of the word. Gameplay aside, most games offer fairly hollow emotional experiences; ones easily forgotten once the adrenaline rush recedes.
Gameplay aside, most games offer fairly hollow emotional experiences; ones easily forgotten once the adrenaline rush recedes.
As discussed below, a number of games released in 2012 managed to strike a much more personal chord with gamers. Titles such as The Walking Dead, Spec Ops: The Line, Papo & Yo and Journey were able to tell heartfelt stories and confront gamers with complex issues by embracing the interactive nature of games. More impressively, they were able to evoke feelings and emotions not often associated with games: sadness, grief and longing, horror and distress to name just a few. Viewed optimistically, these titles may be emblematic of an industry reaching maturity and a great signifier of things to come.
Before discussing how and why these games were successful, let’s take a tour down misery lane, highlighting gaming’s saddest moments, and how games have evolved to best make us feel bad.
A Loss of Innocence
For many gamers of a certain age, the phrase ‘saddest moments in gaming’ is synonymous with Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy taught two things to this group: Roman numerals, and that games could be cruel. As I refuse to believe that there is anyone reading this article who doesn’t know what I’m alluding to, consider this your spoiler warning.
The death of Aerith/Aeris, the female lead and your team’s primary healer can be viewed as gaming’s loss of innocence. While not the first time death of a hero was portrayed in a game, it was big, bold and unexpected. If a character like Aeris could be killed then what else were games capable of?
Many other games tout emotional moments; from the conclusion of Metal Gear Solid 3, the nuke in Call of Duty 4, and the ‘In Water’ ending of Silent Hill 2. While all of these moments and games are affecting, they are also presented primarily via traditional storytelling methods. Cut scenes and non-interactive dialogue are a great way to present a game’s story but they don’t play to the strengths of the medium. In essence, these moments are no different to watching a movie or reading a book.
Over time, this traditional paradigm of emotional storytelling in games evolved. During the reign of the PlayStation 2, Team ICO was at the forefront of blending emotions with game mechanics. The studio’s first game, ICO, displayed how connections to a non-playable character could deepen the experience. Its second game, Shadow of the Colossus, did something more sinister. Team ICO subverted the ‘save the girl by slaying the beast’ archetype, toying with gamers expectations. With minimal use of traditional storytelling devices, Team ICO instead used gameplay to connect with players. The result is a gradual build-up of guilt and remorse within the player for continuing with the game’s central quest.
Similarly, Red Dead Redemption uses gameplay in combination with traditional storytelling to create a powerful (and bloody depressing) climax. As previously discussed, the closing minutes of Red Dead’s final main mission puts players in a no-win situation. By allowing players to experience this moment, rather than it being told through cut scenes, the developer was able to strengthen the emotional link between the game and the player. It’s quite a punch to the guts. It also serves as an example of gaming’s potential to connect to people in ways traditional media cannot.
Shadow of the Colossus and Red Dead Redemption are just two of many examples of how developers have evolved their techniques to more effectively twist the knife, and bring gamers to their knees.
A Miserable Year
2012 was a perfect storm of big and small releases which aimed to connect deeply with gamers. Learning from what’s come before, these titles continued to evolve how games can best elicit emotions in ways unique to the medium.
The Walking Dead and Journey both succeed in arousing emotions by building strong ties between the player and the characters. The Walking Dead plays like a point-and-click adventure game, but the crux of its gameplay is guiding the dialogue and actions of a survivor in a zombie apocalypse. The game presents a number of characters to empathise with and protect. None more so than Clementine, a young girl left to fend for herself who happens to be a doe-eyed personification of innocence. The choice to have the player in charge of keeping such a character safe leads to an instant connection to the game and motivation to keep playing. This naturally results in a lot of heartbreak and more than a few tense moments, which are far better experienced than read about. Clementine will be remembered for years to come. Maybe not for the character she is, but for what she represents: a mass market game that brought people from all walks of life to tears.
Journey places players in an expansive, mostly empty desert world. No objectives are given, other than highlighting a glowing mountain peak on the horizon. Along the (ahem) journey, other anonymous, similarly depicted characters begin to appear and interact. In spite – or maybe because – of the limited means of communication bonds are easily formed. While Journey is ultimately a joyous, uplifting experience, the unexpectedly upsetting part comes when you lose sight of your companion, or if they slump over motionless, leaving you to go on without them. The beauty of Journey is that these other characters are fellow players, linked via seamless online integration. In short, Journey does the near impossible – it makes you care and grieve for random online gamers with obnoxious gamer tags.
The Walking Dead and Journey both manipulate our innate desire to be around and care for others. This is achieved mainly via non-traditional, interactive storytelling and gameplay. While movies and novels can make us care for characters, these games go beyond this, allowing players to directly influence and interact with them. It is one thing to see a character in peril, it is another to be able to save them… or not.
Akin to Shadow of the Colossus, Spec Ops: The Line initially puts players on a straightforward quest before turning the tables and forcing the player to think about their actions. Spec Ops: The Line presents itself as a run-of-the-mill military shooter. As the game progresses the player is asked to perform progressively more morally questionable actions. Through load screens, the game even actively addresses the player, asking if you feel like a hero yet. In an age of carbon-copy shooters where players unquestionably kill dozens or hundreds of people, Spec Ops: The Line trains a mirror towards gamers and gaming culture.
Through gameplay and storytelling, Spec Ops: The Line confronts players with their actions and dares to ask why we all, as gamers, participate. It is heady material, which granted isn’t very subtle in its execution, but can definitely evoke some rather unhappy feelings. The game and its developer is open about its similar tone and scope to Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness, but being the one who is (virtually) pulling the trigger adds a new and compelling dimension to the well-worn narrative.
Papo & Yo is a platformer about a young boy and his friend, a monster who is addicted to frogs. The usually placid and helpful Monster becomes enraged when he consumes a frog, chasing after the boy. The set-up is a thinly veiled metaphor for creator Vander Caballero’s father’s alcoholism but it allows the exploration of themes rarely dealt with in games. When Monster is taken by rage, the picturesque world of Papo & Yo dramatically changes. Instead of players planning their next platforming move, survival and escape become the only concerns. This mechanic highlights the precarious nature of the situation, and lends itself towards placing the player firmly in the boy’s small shoes. Papo & Yo is at once both a heartbreaking and cathartic experience, and a great example of how the strength of the medium can be used to tackle themes of that nature.
Will 2012 may go down as the saddest year in gaming? Now more than ever before, developers have fine-tuned their ability to make us tear-up and melt into sobbing messes. Between delving into complex issues not often discussed in games, and evolution in the way gameplay is used to strengthen bonds between players and characters, the future of misery-inducing games is looking strong. In the meantime brace yourself for future releases and buy up stocks in Kleenex.
Which games or gaming moments have brought you to tears? It’s okay, you can tell us, we won’t tell your friends. Just hit us up in the comments section.
Scott Clarke is a freelance games journalist based in Australia. He’s also a professional rabble-rouser. You can follow him on IGN or Twitter.
By Scott Clarke