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A Game Has Never Made You Cry

Tear For a long time, the games industry debated the question of whether a videogame could make you cry. But as I hope to demonstrate, this question is either irrelevant, or a game never has nor never could make you cry.

Over on Raph Koster's perpetually interesting blog, a discussion recently broke out pursuing once again the question of the boundary work: what actually constitutes a game? Are titles like Wii Music – which lack explicit goals – really games? The term “imposter” games was bandied about, although I prefer 'non-games' myself. Discussions like this highlight that at the heart of such debates are the issue of how one defines “game”, and in this there are many choices.

The principle camps that this breaks down into are the systems-focused perspective that considers games to be formal systems with mechanics, goals, challenges, measures of success or some other metric or progressive element. There is vast variety in these positions but for the purpose of this discussion I intend to collect them all under the “games as systems” label. Conversely, there are those who endorse a wider definition of game, such as myself, who principally reach their position by following a line of thought heavily influenced by the French intellectual Roger Caillois. In his observed patterns of play, he casts the net for games very wide indeed – including, for instance, recreational skiing and theatre in the remit – partly as a consequence of the word for 'game' in French (jeu) being also the word for 'play'. These positions I will collect under the heading “games as play”.

It is readily apparent that under the “games as play” approach, the question as to whether a game can make you cry is ridiculous – since theatre comes under this definition, games under these kinds of definitions had always already made people cry, even before the first videogame. You could tighten up the definition to exclude purely narrative forms, but then (as we shall see) we fall into the other trap.

From the “games as systems” approach, the problem is that the formal system aspects of games evokes a number of emotions – Nicole Lazzaro has grouped these into sets in her 4 Fun Keys model – but none of these emotions will make you cry, except perhaps frustration (a form of anger), as happens when a game drives you to such rage that you throw your controller across the room. But these kind of tears are not what the question we are pursuing is talking about: it is referring to tears of sadness or tears of joy – the kind of emotional response that one can have from a story. And tellingly, Nicole's initial paper on her model is subtitled “four keys to emotion without story”. Story has to be excluded, because by the process of empathising with fictional characters it is possible to evoke any emotion in a story.

This is the nub of the issue here: a story can make you cry by empathising with the protagonist (or another character), but a game (when viewed as a formal system) cannot do this. It follows that the only way that a videogame can make you cry is by using narrative tools that have nothing to do with games as formal systems whatsoever. So even though, for instance, many people report that they cried when they played Final Fantasy VII at the fateful scene (and indeed, several other cRPGs also show up in player studies as having provoked tears) the moment that actually brought the player to tears was a non-interactive cut scene. It wasn't the game (in the systems view) that made them cry – it was the story – and there never was a question as to whether stories could make you cry.

Hence this question collapses in upon itself. Under the “games as play” view, the question is entirely irrelevant, and under the “games as systems” view, it is the story-aspect of a game that has made people cry, not the game itself. I therefore conclude that a videogame has never made you cry.

The most plausible objection to this claim that I can see is that by letting you play with characters in the system-aspect, the cRPGs deepen your relationship to these characters, and thus allow the catharsis triggered by the story element. I'm open to this objection, but since a purely narrative form would have allowed you to deepen your relationship with the characters without interaction, it's far from clear that allowing interaction is enough to make the claim of a game making you cry (under the systems view) unless it can make you cry within the systems-play. But when a character dies during gameplay, the option to reload is essentially always present (removing the catharsis from death) – even if you have to turn the game off and on again to achieve it – and if it were not you would be more likely to feel frustrated at being manipulated than to experience the cathartic effect.

One might also object on the grounds that role-playing (improvisational theatre, as in a tabletop role-playing game) might move you to tears, say, in a massively-multiplayer game. But is this kind of storyplay something we can honestly claim is delivered by the videogame itself, or does the game simply facilitate what could equally have happened without the game? Either way, it does not happen often in videogames and when it does it is usually as a consequence of the talents of the players, and not a result of the systems of the game. I am inclined to treat this solely as a a form of narrative and thus not included in the "games as systems" view, but of course this is not the only choice.

Games (under the systems view) cannot make you cry. Videogame titles can include narrative material that makes you cry, but no-one can claim to be surprised that a story can make you cry. Barring some serious change in what constitutes a videogame, the only way they are ever going to make you cry is via their narrative elements, and never by their game elements.

Feel differently? Your viewpoint is welcomed in the comments!

Comments

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That is al fair and all but you have to look at a game as whole just as you look a movie as whole. You are basically removing one way a game presents it's narative to prove a point. And another thing, the whole point is that many outsiders who don't play videogames view them as toys and don't take them seriously. They use movies like Max Payne and Resident Evil to prove the shallowness of videogames. The point is that videogames are valid sources of entertainment that should be taken just as seriously as films, novels, and music. And for the record, I have never cried from watching a videogame nor a movie for that matter. But here is a good kicker. Can you get a great since of accomplishment from watching a movie???

Fable 2 made me cry. It is an incredible game. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess brought me damned close. And I'm a 16 year old male.

Have any of you ever played MassEffect? try it, it's very emotional.

Bateman's conjecture is reminiscent of the "media debate" in instructional technology (google Clark and Kozma). The debate asks "will media influence learning?" Clark argues that media is a mere vehicle of learning and does not influence student learning. Kozma, on the other hand, says cognitively relevant capabilities of media affect the way students process information, therefore profoundly influencing student learning.

I think the key factor to both debates is the degree of integration. In the media debate it is how integrated the technology is with learning (aka virtual simulations) - at what point do they become inseparable?

With Bateman's argument, the key factor may be the degree of integration between the media aspect and gameplay aspect in video games. As we have seed in-game media (graphic expression, dynamic audio) capabilities increase, so has this level of integration increased. Some games do it well, some games do not.

I think both debates will come down to a matter of opinion until technology advances to the point that the level of integration between technological functionality and real world experience approaches inseparability.

Not sure if games can "make" you do anything, let alone cry. However, in the "I felt something I never expected to feel playing a game" dept.: I was playing Fable 2, going through quests, buying property, etc. I hadn't wanted to marry, thinking it would just be another task (and annoyingly like real life), rather than a way to deepen the experience. After finishing the story quests, I thought, "Hell, why not? I'll get married, just to have something else to do." Then went back to questing. One quest took me to Bowerstone Market, where my wife and our marital home were. I was supposed to fight some bandits under the bridge, but didn't get there in time, and they came up the stairs to the main square. I took all of them out but two, who were a ways off harrassing some villagers. As I made my way to them, my wife, who hadn't seen me yet, came running up to greet me. As she did, she passed a bandit. I was busy killing his buddy, so I paid no attention to him, and only noticed my wife was in the area due to the gigantic gold ring above her head. In one random slash, he killed her. It was not scripted. It wouldn't have happened had I not done the quest, or had I managed to get to the place I was meant to fight them. In other words, it was like real life. Nothing in the "story" affected me the way this did. I immediately popped his head off with my pistol, and ran to her body. It was just sitting there. It didn't disappear. It was kinda devastating, to be a little over-dramatic. If games are going to have an emotional effect, I think this is the way they're going to do it. Maybe that's what this post is saying?

Games do make people cry all the time. However, they do not make them cry because of some sort of empathy with the characters or such as in narrative. They cry because they lose. Think of the child crying because he or she loses a game to a friend or the football player whose team has lost the Super Bowl.

I feel like what Josh said should be expanded upon.

SPOILER ALERT

"Passage" and "Gravitation" are two games by Jason Rohrer that are presented very simply. In "Passage," you and your wife move to the left and after five minutes, you die. There are other goals in the game, but no matter what you find, you die after five minutes of play. This is not "death" in the regular sense of a videogame where it's, "Oh, I died. I'll press restart." Instead, you and your wife age over time, getting older with every minute, until your wife dies and her sprite is replaced with a gravestone. The game demonstrates a feeling of devotion, in that your wife will follow you wherever you go, and once she is gone you only have a few seconds until you turn into a gravestone too.

The other game, "Gravitation," had more of a profound impact on me. The game changes between seasons. During the summer, you are playing ball with your friend to keep the world lit. During the winter, you need to venture out and drop ice cubes down to the fireplace to keep the world lit, which your friend helps you do. Eventually, though, your friend leaves, and it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the light going. Oddly, this game hit me more than Passage because I was actually doing something. There were clear goals, mechanics, and systems in place, and it was a shift in those systems that created the emotional impact. More than that, it was the "Where did my friend go?" question that got to me. All of a sudden my ball was just sitting there and there was nobody to help me push the ice cubes into the fireplace. The world fell black, and the game was over.

Everybody references Final Fantasy VII when talking about crying in video games, but there have been so many more moments, ones that have even been system based. In Metal Gear Solid 4, for example, you have to constantly press a button to get Solid Snake through a tunnel filled with microwaves, and as he starts dying, you have to press it faster to make sure he gets through. He eventually comes out charred to a crisp, and any decent human being can't help but cry during this scene. As another example, at the end of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2, you take vengeance on your past, noble self for killing the elder vampire Janos Audron. During this scene you are completely invincible so there is nothing stopping you from going on a killing spree, but in doing so, you force your destiny to come full circle to later become resurrected as a vampire to go back in time and kill yourself... and the realization that what you are doing is keeping you on this infinite loop is very powerful emotionally.

It seems to me that under a game's normal systems, it cannot make you cry. But those systems can be changed or broken, to create emotional impact in non-narrative, strictly mechanical ways.

Eternal Sonata, very emotional game

I don't think you can strip out the narrative elements of games in order to prove that "games can't make you cry" unless you go and strip the narrative elements out of movies and books as well. And if you think either are all about their narratives, then go read a tech manual or watch a training video and you'll see that both have multiple uses outside of triggering emotion.

I think that a great example is within MGS3. If you are like me, then this series is one of the most touching stories to hear. I agree with the cut scene aspect as simply being a story and separate from the game. With that the story of the Boss is amazing, but what made me truly emotional was that fact that I had to pull the trigger. I would be lying to myself if I didn't admit that I felt as though I had become a part of the MGS universe. And although I did not necessarily feel like I was Snake, I did feel responsible for killing the Boss. I pulled the trigger. And with that mechanism I feel like a game can add an even deeper element to a narrative, more so than a book or movie.

The game didn't make me cry but i have to say the new Prince of Persia does something with the gameplay itself that was certainly emotionally provocative. *SPOILERS* At the end of the game being forced to carry Elika and then have to go through the process of undoing everything you have worked for and what she was willing to give he life for uses the game as a system to really tie you to your avatar. Something i had never seen in a game before and was definitely a stroke of genius on the part of Ubisoft.

Transformers on Wii made me cry, but for all the wrong reasons...

If you've never had a game cause you to cry, you haven't played Superman for the Nintendo 64.

The argument here seems fundamentally flawed, as it can be applied exactly the same way to any medium. By your logic, not only has a game never made me cry, but neither has a film, book, painting, etc.

For instance, following your formal/narrative distinction, film is incapable of making someone cry, because the only films that elicit emotional responses are narrative. A film as a purely formal exercise (like an abstract piece of animation, or just a series of flickering colors or whatever) would fail to do so.

Likewise with books, paintings, spoken word, etc. etc.

So not only is what you're saying nothing new at all (just being presented in the context of new media), but it's also an idea that hasn't really held up very well. Just as the formal elements of a painting or piece of music can elicit an emotional response, even when it is totally abstract, so too can the formal elements in a game. Of course, in games, more emotions (or more relatable emotions) are conveyed in narrative form, but the exact same caveat is true of every single other medium.

The problem I have with this argument is how it can be applied to just about any medium, particularly film. You could argue that films don't make you cry, the story and characters do. The cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scene don't make you cry. Those are the elements that would distinguish a movie from other art forms, such as film or theater, just as interactivity distinguishes videogames from other art forms.

I would argue that a game is the sum of its parts, just as a film is the sum of its parts. Story is a part of film, just as story is a part of games. So as long as your defining art by its unique elements, you have to do it with other mediums as well.

To those citing Gravitation and Passage: Passage doesn't have a game mechanic (the only thing that makes it through this argument, since story and character are out) that makes you cry. Gravitation comes closer, because it's the mechanic of the visual space opening and the procedural music tracks expanding that hit you with the most emotional force. Daniel S - what makes it even more crushing from a story aspect is that it's not a "friend," but his first child, that disappears because he no longer has time to play with it.

For me, there's only been one game mechanic that ever caught me off guard and made me sob for a moment or two. That was Braid's time reversal, and it's failure in the level "Irreversible." Say what you want about the game as a whole, but as a technical demo of the mechanics Blow built himself from the ground up, you have to admire his craftsmanship. The constructed failure of this game mechanic in that level made me cry.

If you're looking for an aesthetics-theoretical basis for a game mechanic making one cry by itself, I think the best place to start would be to look at theories of the sublime. Limiting "reasons to cry" to emotion is a bit restrictive.

I think the real issue is that the only thing that can emotionally affect a person in the way generally intended when one asks whether a medium can "make you cry" is narrative. (Even real life is understood as a narrative, after all)

Once you realize that, the only question left is, "can a sufficiently powerful narrative be created through game systems?" And, as has been shown in the comments, it's not only possible for systems to create such narratives on their own (as in Creatures), but also for them to supplement pre-defined narratives to make them even more powerful (though it's harder to tell in that case whether it's the game that's making you cry or not).

I take back what I said about Passage. Crying at the ending doesn't break through this argument, but there is one part of the game that I think works:

You can choose to pair up with the spouse at the beginning, or you can dodge her and move on alone. Pairing with her increases your score as you move to the right and collect the little score boxes; however, your "hit box" doubles when you pair with her and so many obstructions in the level that you can make it through alone are now impassable. If this mechanic makes you cry, then you've beaten the argument. It didn't quite work for me, however.

By this logic (that of Chris' article), a film has never made anyone cry, neither has any book, play, or what have you. The argument seems to be that only the 'narrative element' can bring us to tears, but the narrative cannot exist without some medium there to convey it. That is, even if it were true that only narrative make us cry, the narrative must exist in some form, whether it be words, paint, actors, or pixels. The question then becomes why has this article denounced formal game mechanics in favor of film and literature as a means of constructing narrative.

I would further argue, however, that narrative is not the only device that can make us cry. Music, without lyrics, can be just as touching, and yes, elicit sadness. The crux here is if a game mechanic can make us cry. I don't see why it can't, if mixed with a narrative element, its just another way to tell a story. Games are not new, but gaming as narrative is, and we're still exploring its various forms...we're not quite there yet, but we will get there.

Obviously the author has not played MOTHER 3 ( http://mother3.fobby.net ), there are several gameplay moments that will make you cry such as the ending battle.

You're (intentionally?) missing the point here. No, a game has never made me cry, but then, neither has a play, novel, or movie either. This is equivalent to saying “how did your wife walking out a door make you cry? Sure she left you for another man but the mechanics of her walking out the door aren’t emotional.”

And yes, the base argument made against 'games as art' is that they can't carry enough narrative weight.

I have to disagree and agree to the author's statement. In general no game system has ever made me cry. But there is an exception. Out all of 9+ hours of MGS4 cutscenes the last boss battle...was the only truly interactive cutscene...and it was brilliant.

I shed a tear out of the epicness and dramaticism of that fight, I shed that tear or two while fighting in this cutscene.

The author makes a valid point, but it I believe it's a little more complicated than that.

Sure a game alone cannot make you cry. Say for instance, you're playing chess with someone. It's very unlikely that, after your queen falls prey to your opponent's calculating movements, you will cry. As a game of tactics without narrative, it's very simple and doesn't tap into emotion.

However, take the instance of the girl with the Tamagochi. It's the same idea, a game that is tactical and simple, and should be safe from emotional attachment. Yet, the girl cries when her pixelated pet dies. So then what if the person who loses his queen suddenly cries?

It's not just frustration because of losing a game, but you have to take into account that there is always narrative in all aspects of life. Personal narrative is what makes things emotional to some more than others.

Who's to say that the girl hadn't dreamed of having a pet someday, and having this virtual playmate threw her into imaginative situations with it, and when it expired, so did a piece of her she had built up?

And if someone cried while there queen was lost in a game of chess? Said person could have aspirations of ruling a kingdom, and to play chess see how their dreams are smashed as they realize they never knew how to keep their lands safe, and to lose their queen, closest person to them, they die broken hearted and alone.

In the same vein that narrative can affect game, gameplay can also affect narrative.
Take for instance Shadow of the Colossus:

*spoiler*
The game has minimal story to it. Yet in the end, all is revealed, and you, being possessed by the evil god and being sucked into a vortex by the people trying to stop the deity, have to play yourself with the last of your humanity, trying to reach out to your dead girlfriend.

If this scene were just a cutscene, do you really think it would have the same power it did having to play it?
Or if you just read what happened, even?

Thus, game affects narrative just as much as narrative affects gaming, and gaming always has some narrative below the surface, varying from gamer to gamer.

I disagree with your assessment of FFVII. Some very real emotion comes from the loss of Aeris as a tool within the game's combat system. As a player you have invested time in this character, at the expense of leveling up other characters. Although a cutscene plays that explains narratively why Aeris was lost, the significant loss of Aeris as a combat resource (and the realization that she isn't coming back again as a playable character) is the reason a player may be provoked to feel loss and/or sadness. Although there is a lot that has to go right to enable the situation, crying is definitely something plausible if the player relied heavily enough on Aeris. The designers did a great job of setting the stage for this type of loss, as Aeris was both extremely valuable as a party member, and her death happens after a significant amount of play time.

Very worthwhile discussion here!

In a certain Phoenix Wright game, you the player are presented with a decision: an innocent person dies, or a serial killer goes unpunished. Two options pop up on-screen, and you are forced to pick one or the other -- there is no way out of it, one way or the other you have to do something perfectly awful. When I finally pressed the button to make my choice, I cried buckets.

You can argue that I cried because of the narrative, because it is always sad when an innocent person dies. But I say I cried because of the system: a dialogue tree is a game mechanic, an interactive element that must be navigated to reach your goals. I cried because the game mechanic forced me to make a terrible decision and play through the consequences. This is only possible through a game system. No other artistic medium is interactive like that. There is a mile-wide chasm between passively watching someone choose to condemn an innocent person to death, and being the person to make that choice.

I don't think my line between narrative and system is thick enough here to meet the challenge set by the article -- the story is so tightly bound up in the mechanic of a dialogue tree it's impossible to separate them -- but I had to bring up my Phoenix Wright example. People always trot out the Aeris death scene in these discussions and I think the Phoenix Wright example is far, far better, because it could only happen in a video game.

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