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!