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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!


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"since theatre comes under this definition, games under these kinds of definitions had always already made people cry, even before the first videogame."

This is a fallacy. crying is often part of what an actor does, but the game of playing the part isn't making him cry. Don't confuse the player with the audience, for whom theater is not a game. The person watching the game is rarely considered with videogames.

You're right that a game has never made me cry. And in "game" I include an unfashionably large range of activities. For instance, playing music is a game, though of course listening to it is not. I'm not bad at all at improvising, and I've done some improvisations which had tremendous emotional significance to me at the time, but I never came close to crying. I don't think a dancer would cry either. As with theater, much effort is put into getting an audience to cry, but the game itself isn't going to get any tears.

(I wonder why that is.)

I propose that getting the player to cry is not the be-all and end-all of emotional resonance. You're absolutely right that when gamists boast their games are going to "make you cry" they're going to use all sorts of non-interactive gimmickry to get there.

You know what, I think I've just realized why games (even including the "old" interactive arts) don't make a player cry. Games are small. Crying comes from huge emotional upheavals in life- when we cry for stories, we're recognizing those in other people. But if I'm hitting notes on a piano, no matter what those notes are, why would anything affect me like that? I can imagine someone who gets so involved with his gaming that he cries every time he gets really close to the end and loses, having to start over. But most of us aren't like that. A game isn't our whole world, it's just a tiny little piece of it. So whatever happens in a game, it's not going to affect us that profoundly.

But I think that points us to a way in. Games aren't just pure systems, they build worlds and context and atmosphere and with online games even urgency. All these things can make the game seem bigger. Could a game present an interactive relationship so invitingly that it seems, as you're playing, almost real? I think it could, though of course that'll never happen as cutscenes are still used as crutches. Also, it requires that the game be designed from the ground up for storytelling. Once that's done, the potential for making you cry with interactive dialogue and situations is there.

One game has made me cry - Creatures.

In it, you raised a creature (I think it was called a "Norn"), and then you could eventually breed it with other creatures and the like.

I became very attached to one of these creatures, and when it's lifespan ran out, and it found a nice place to curl up and die, I found tears in my eyes.

It is probably the only game that has done that, and in that sense it was masterful.

This is a nice distillation of the distinction between the story elements of games, and the systems element. However, there is another element, which does not clearly and unambiguously belong to either of the above, which is character*.

When systems can be developed that embody character to a degree that can make the system user attribute theory of mind to the system, then interaction with them may well evoke enough emotion to cause crying. In other words, when you really believe that you're playing a game against an intelligence on a par with your own, that 'game' may well be able to make you cry, without story.

Of course, that's not the current situation, by a long shot.

*I'd tentatively argue that character is what makes narratives emotionally affecting - a purely uninhabited narrative has never caused a tear in me.

ps. a quick way for games to make one cry - haptic feedback, as painful as necessary >:)

Well, I've seen a little girl cry over the death of her Tamagochi. How would you explain that? It seems the only narrative here stems for the formal system...

I would say that the form of a game, its representation, (and not just its narrative) can be enough when coupled to the right mechanic to get a player to feel empathy.

But I'm still not convinced that the higher calling of games is to make people cry!

There is a moment in Jagged Alliance 2 that was very emotionally powerful (I didn't cry, though), and while it was set up with narrative back story, it played out almost entirely through game mechanics and dynamics. (Not refuting what you wrote here, just pointing out that there can be a nice blend of narrative and gameplay to create this effect.)

I notice that though you say that 'games as play' is a wider definition, you never approach the subject of what that definition might be!

"Agreed upon rules, defining a manner of playing with a toy, possible inherent limitations and a goal or measure of success."

That this definition can govern such things as saying hi (measure of success: the amount of response) to playing music from note (measure of success: accuracy in playing those notes) to improvisational performances (measure of success: number of people it resonates with emotionally ((must be estimated)) ) seems pretty wide to me.

Some games have resonated emotionally with me as a goal, thus making me cry. (Some piano improv falls into this category).

Not to mention that those who regard 'games as a system' do not discount all aesthetic aspects. I consider the rules, the 'signals' sent to convey the rules and the 'wrapper' that gives the rules a sense of context all part of the game - to me Darius's example is clearly within the game.

Sometimes by playing through something, we can appreciate something in a way impossible before we interacted with those rules. Play through Chris Deleon's 'Do as Told' if you have 5-10 minutes spare for a shining example of how mechanics can suggest, imply and provoke in a way that anything non-interactive never could.

Emotions birthed by mechanics may be different to those borne of the story but videogames are constantly widening the spectrum of reactions they provoke and tears from a videogame's mechanics - if the flowed as freely - should be considered just as meaningful as tears from a story, regardless of what particular emotion caused it. Unless it was just from being in physical pain or something similar, of course.

Here's one title for you: Photopia. OK, so, it's interactive fiction, therefore not *quite* a game, but the distinction is blurry.

That's 4 counter-examples until now, if I counted correctly. Are they simply the exceptions that strengthen the rule?

Dear all,

Thanks for your very interesting perspectives here!

I do have a confession: by pushing the "games as play" and "games as systems" definitions to their polar extremes, I purposefully created very wide goalposts on the assumption that you would then be able to punt your objections between the two. I thought this would make for more lively debate by allowing me to be more strident. :)

Mory: "Don't confuse the player with the audience, for whom theater is not a game. The person watching the game is rarely considered with videogames."

I accept your criticism here, but I suppose I am contending that both the actor and the audience are involved in the game of theatre. I don't think you have one without the other - a rehearsal is not a performance... something different happens when the curtain comes up on a show night, with or without audience participation.

"I propose that getting the player to cry is not the be-all and end-all of emotional resonance."

I agree - it's a convenient poster child, nothing more.

"Could a game present an interactive relationship so invitingly that it seems, as you're playing, almost real? I think it could, though of course that'll never happen as cutscenes are still used as crutches."

I really love the idea you have encapsulated here - both in terms of what could be done, and in terms of why we don't get there now. We are still dependent upon the emotional devices from traditional narrative forms - and, as you say, we use them as crutches. But one day, we will go further.

RodeoClown: the company that made Creatures was a client of ours. Alas, they no longer exist.

Yes, Tamagotchi-style play is a real exception to what I'm saying here - even under the systems view, you have to allow for this. I think you could subsume this as a function of narrative, but to do so would be unfair - it is coming from the game mechanics more or less directly in this case, since a Tamagotchi does not have formal narrative elements at all.

That one goes straight through the goalposts! :)

Lejade: same basic objection, of course.

"I would say that the form of a game, its representation can be enough when coupled to the right mechanic to get a player to feel empathy. "

I agree - I think this objection holds strongly.

zenBen: how is character not part of formal narrative, I wonder? But I take your objection here, which is similar in form to Mory's: when we can create sufficiently compelling characters, the narrative props are no longer needed.

But then, consider RodeoClown and Lejade's objections: when what is being simulated is not a person, we already have sufficient complexity for the simulation to hold enough depth to provoke an emotional reaction. So perhaps we are further along with this than at first it seems....

Darius: I don't know the game to comment, but I'd be interested to see how it used the mechanics to make this happen. Would an account of the way it plays out be too much of a spoiler?

Bez: for "games as play" I would use the definition(s) in 21st Century Game Design. A Toy is a tool for play, and a Game is a Toy with some degree of performance. This is similar to what you construct here.

"Emotions birthed by mechanics may be different to those borne of the story but videogames are constantly widening the spectrum of reactions they provoke"

I heartily agree. It's not expanding very rapidly, but there is a definite sense of progress.

Felix: "Are they simply the exceptions that strengthen the rule?"

No rule to be excepted to, really, the argument was constructed with a fatal flaw so that people could enjoy poking at the hole. :) I find people comment more freely in this scenario for some reason - like to show me up, I suppose. ;)

I don't know Photopia to comment as to whether it uses narrative devices or game-mechanical ones to provoke emotion: care to provide a description of the relevant experience?


Honestly, much of the purpose of this post was to poke at the "games as systems" view as being too narrow for my own tastes. >:)

Oh, and one more thing: games make me cry all the time (just this month, I cried several times in Valkyria Chronicles despite it being a paint-by-numbers anime plot). But it doesn't take much to make me cry, as I'm an old softie. :D

Can anyone boot anything other than a tamagotchi-style game cleanly through the hole in my argument?


Honestly, much of the purpose of this post was to poke at the "games as systems" view as being too narrow for my own tastes. >:)

Then I'm confuses as to what that view entails. I thought my own view fell under the 'games as systems' model. My definition of games considers them a formalised set of rules needing a goal or measure of success just as you say.

I'm not clear what definition you're rallying against. Could you explain?


I accept your criticism here, but I suppose I am contending that both the actor and the audience are involved in the game of theatre. I don't think you have one without the other - a rehearsal is not a performance... something different happens when the curtain comes up on a show night, with or without audience participation.

I think it's fair to consider the audience simultaneously toys and spectatorsy. From the player's point of view, the audience are a toy - whether they are attempting to get an audience to sing along, suspend disbelief or evoke emotion, the audience can be considered a sort of scoring mechanism - the degree of success based on the audience's reaction.

From the audience's perspective though, they are clearly not players of the same game. Even in a singalong, the singer trying to get the audience to sing along is playing a different game to the audience member that later chooses to play the game of trying to sing at the correct times and pitch.

We may all be playing games in the gig venue (or theatre), but we're not all playing the same one.

I've got to say I rarely cry at movies other, but if we bring it to the level of "overwhelmed by emotion" I'll vote for the final level of Braid (not counting all that looking-for-hidden stars nonsense).

The final encounter with the princess in Braid is a piece of narrative entirely born from the gameplay, a perfect summation of the theme of the game, and would not work without the established context of the gameplay mechanics that lead up to it. Absolutely took my breath away - felt like I'd been kicked. If I was more inclined to media-weepiness this might have done the job.

"zenBen: how is character not part of formal narrative, I wonder? "

Does a tamagotchi have character? Does it have, or is it part of, a formal narrative?

I think my sense of the word character was misunderstood, but no matter...

Well put. I totally agree. Also with the irrelevance of the argument. Narrative seems to be one of the elements that is important in any form of art, as it reaches maturity. But games-as-games are just games, you know: for fun. They are not an artistic medium. Even the games-as-systems enthusiasts who hope for games to become an art form, have to admit that the game system only provokes another emotion than the game-related ones at the point where the system generates a narrative. My personal problem with this is that the grammar and vocabulary of games-as-systems is too poor to generate any kind of subtlety. But maybe it can be developed further in the future.

All this is quite irrelevant, however, given that videogames have become a lot richer than pure games already. And this doesn't mean that we are able to slap alien forms of storytelling onto the medium. No: we have already developed entirely new ways of telling stories in the interactive medium. We're only confusing the matter by insisting that these things are games. The medium has outgrown that state now. It's time we take its challenges seriously: let's tell stories with the interactive medium! Let's see those tears!

Chris: specifically, in JA2 you hire mercenaries for use. You are trained as a player to expect that better mercs costs more money. But this guy has amazing stats and is cheap. So you build your whole team around this, knowing that you can now afford things you couldn't before. And then when he hits combat for the first time, he's useless and his stats actually drop right before your eyes (due to the way the morale system works). Even his conversation barks become unenthusiastic. All of a sudden, the clever team management you've been doing goes to waste and you have to scramble to make up for your mistake. I guess it uses the mechanics to make you really feel like what happens when you hire the wrong person, as a manager. And tied in to the narrative fact that he's the wrong person FOR ALL THE RIGHT REASONS (he hates war), it's very poignant.

I see what your saying but you don't understand that the gameplay modifies that experience to make you cry. If you were to watch all of the FFVII cut scenes in order for the first time you would not cry. Games give the stories and edge unlike any other medium. The MGS story is beautiful because you feel the greatness of Solid Snakes tale, the grandeur of what exactly your doing. It has you fighting on the top of outer haven, it has you fighting in the forests, it has you taking down solidus, it has you go against grey fox. The game play imbues the story with such an amazing feeling that they could not achieve without it. Look at advent children, while being an entertaining movie it was not moving because it didn't have the days of work put into reaching the end. They have an impact that most mediums can't achieve the feeling as if you are the person carrying out these actions, and that creates a connection between the player and the player character that allows you to feel for the characters as if you were them or sympathize with them on a brilliant level.

Has anyone here played Shadow of the Colossus? Now, I didn't cry, but when Agro "died", I was hit relatively hard emotionally. Although the act of Agro falling to his doom was presented in the form of a non-interactive cutscene, a cutscene never explicitly establishes a relationship between Wander (or the player) and Agro. The emotional ties with Agro are gained solely through gameplay, where his endearing and faithful qualities are brought to light. We feel little, if anything, for Agro in the opening sequence, but grow a close personal attachment as the game progresses.

Although what made me emotional was a non-interactive storytelling moment, it was as a result of the gameplay itself that I was emotional to begin with. Just thought I'd share.

Unless you count gameplay that frustrates you to tears, then yeah I definitely agree that the storytelling component is what makes us shed.

You fail:

An earlier poster commented that games cannot (or should not) be so easily separated into system and narrative, and I agree entirely with this viewpoint, also ceding that separating them so cleanly is a sharp and direct way to kick off a very interesting discussion, especially in light of some "games as art" discussions sparked by notable non-gamers and gamers alike.

I think it is proper in this case to turn the eyepiece on other activities/media to compare/contrast, starting first with sports. It is not at all uncommon to see an olympic athlete cry after performing at any sort of level in the olympics (well/poorly/happy to be there), but while the extreme physical feedback of olympic sports can produce tearful reactions, what is most prominent in these situations is also a sense of narrative, personal or otherwise. Stories of personal success and sacrifice and of international honor and of sports as a symbol are prevalent in the minds of many competitors, and are likely values instilled in them in their daily lives and training, and these sweeping emotional arcs have helped drive our athletes to physical limits previously unimagined (Usain Bolt? wtf?). This argument, now applied to sports, can be extended with only a little handwaving to most activities of our daily lives, so attempting to divorce narrative from games to inspect their mechanics feels inherently perverse and unnatural; why should we not apply the same knife to all other things we do?

A more substantive argument, than the above regarding sports can be formed by turning the lens to other art forms, painting, writing, music and film. Their mechanics could be argued to be their visuals, language, sounds and and the mixture of them, and one could further argue that none of these alone generally make the audience cry in a good way, and that what makes them significant is their suggestion of themes and experiences.

So a final inspection should be applied to the role of mechanics within art. While enthusiasts will often become excited or mystified with incredible displays or a mastery of them (the last paragraph of The Dead by James Joyce is some sort of fantastic), their main role is to facilitate emotion derived from the whole of their particular medium, rather than from the mechanics themselves. If the mechanics have done their job right, they should not make you cry, they should prefer to leave you obsessed. The power of mechanics is to leave the audience (the reader, the listener, the gamer) so enthralled that resonance can be achieved without full awareness of it, transforming the experience that they're a part of from toys or entertainment (not bashing fun) into something more enveloping, encompassing and sublime.

Firstly, I think you supposition that the narrative elements of a game are some how separate from the game itself is fundamentally flawed. The "narrative elements" of a game are part of the overall experience, just like the music, script, and visual elements of a film are all combined to create an overall experience. Secondly, Ask any serious or professional street fighter player if a loss under the right circumstances has made them cry or want to cry..I think you'll find that a whole wealth of emotions can come from games.

Huh... I guess this article is interesting. I never thought about the gameplay itself provoking an emotion. I'm with Travis M on the frustration thing.

People bring up FFVII all the time, but that moment never tore me up. I think the only time I came close to crying over a plot point in a game was when the nurse (Lisa?) from the first Silent Hill had her epiphany and breakdown.

In the short run, sure, a bunch of hitpoints and character stats isn't going to make you cry anytime soon and games have been that way for a long long time without any fundamental chance. However there really isn't a reason why the gaming system needs to stay that simple. In the future I fully expect AI to get more clever and more relevant to your doing. Not just character AI that will make characters more clever, but also director-AI that will make things more interesting and sooner or later I fully expect that to make you cry. That of course then really blurs the line, since you are basically confronted with a systematic artificial narrative (see Storytron, Facade or The Sims for games that kind of sort of go in that direction).

Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of emotion comes from music and voice, two things that today are done completly manually, not generated automatically out of the games system. If a game could be enriched with automatic generated content the emotional impact could be much bigger.

Last not least there is of course also the savegame dilemma, your not going to cry when a few seconds of save/load will undo anything dramatic that has happened in the gaming world. There are a few games around that try to limit the load/save that a player can do, but more often then not that leads to a feeling of a fake restriction, not to a more lifelike world. So its tricky to solve that.

Saw this linked at Kotaku.

I think the problem here is that both camps are missing the broader point about the emotional impact of playing a game. To suggest a game is _only_ a system or _only_ play is dangerously reductive; the fact of the matter is is that there is a system _and_ play at work here, and, most importantly, efforts to distinguish the two, though valuable for the sake of inquiry, amy lead to the foolish notion that the two are actually divisible (and/or that a lasting division should be made to anyone's profit). Furthermore, I suggest that a video game is in many respects different from, say, a book. _Anna Karrenina_ the book is not _Anna Karrenina_ the game; but not only specifically because the systems, or vectors at work in delivering the narrative (this is probably another false cosntruction at work here) to the participant (and it is wrong, I think to distinguish between audience and participant in most respects because interactions and game-like participation occur _on both levels_... see Stanley Fish) but also because the elements of play and system must be revised completly to conform to the strictures of the medium in question (which is only to say that video games and books have their own sort of systemic and interactive norms).

I think the problem of a lot of game academia and philosophy is the notion, often forced upon the academic/philosopher, that games are particularly different from books, etc. The two media _do_ indeed have different systems and vectors for delivering the game, but this notion is devoid of any sense of the level in which an active player or viewer interacts with a medium. Reading a book isn't like having Kafka's _Penal Colony_ machine go at me (not an original observation) but like having a conversation with someone quite a deal more erudite than me. The only way in which a game differs from a book, on this broad theoretical level, is that only the particularly active reader engages with a book to the same degree to which someone playing a video game _must_ interact with their medium.

Beyond that, it seems to me _idiotic_ to suggest that we would find emotional resonance with anything that we don't see in the sort of terms as we do the narrative. When I read some particlularly well-written piece of poem or literature, I am not moved by the eloquence of it because it is _formed well_ (though this is an acurate, though literal way of putting this relationship), but moved by the way the form effects more or how it "speaks" to me as either a reflection of the author or of something about myself or my life.

There's one game that made me cry on more than one occasion, and one of those occasions was certainly an interactive moment. Metal Gear Solid 4. I won't give details because I wouldn't want to spoil it for those who haven't played it, but I can say that one moment toward the end of the game is extremely heartbreaking, not just to see, but to play.

I'd never played any Metal Gear games until a couple months before MGS4 came out. So being a good little PS3 owner I geared up to play one of the best games I've ever played by also playing the first MGS games. Having done that, I'd developed quite an attachment to my friend Snake, but I know that several of my friends who played 4 had the same experience, though they'd played the other games years prior.

I don't know that I could think of many more examples... but yeah. That's one.

"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."

And you would be wrong because going by your definition of actually crying during gameplay could be used as the sublime blend of narrative and gaeplay that FFVII Crisis Core used in the fateful last battle where as Zack was fighting for his life all the the memories in the Digital Mind Wave slot reel that always hold Zack's memories started dissapearing one by one all of them almost bidding a farewell that echoed trough Zack's mind, the last one would be Aerith which Zack would try as hard as he could to keep on his mind until his HP run out, all this happened when I was playing the game and not watching a non-interactive cutscene.

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