INVOKING EMOTIONS IN GAMING
After a quarter of a century of telling stories, I realized that rarely do players evoke anything close to realistic expected human emotions. But this could be a consequence of that same period of electronic gaming, where if you can’t solve a problem by eviscerating a target with a chainsaw sword, you give up. I should have known better since the iconic symbol of heroism paraded by so many people is a seven-foot-tall space marine with no name and a personality duller than Snake Plissken. Thankfully, certain electronic games force guilt and remorse but then go about it so poorly that we don’t question why the character we play suddenly leaps back into sawing Nazis in half with an improvised lawnmower.
Nowadays, you can’t include morality or accountability without also including some reward system outside of doing something because it’s the right thing to do. Mass Effect was the only one that never included a mechanical reward system to its morality outside of merely offering you more opportunities to select that same morality later in the game. That worked brilliantly until the end, where the game decided to not only ignore your morality but also render the choices your morality made during the game irrelevant.
I’ll share my own experience in jarring uneven accountability. I played numerous characters in Star Wars: The Old Republic (man, that was a long time ago). One was a sith warrior I was leaning healthily on the light side, offering leniency and mercy among those that ask for it. The game did an admirable job trying to explain why I’d kill jedis with spiteful vigor in my spare time, then get praised by my non-player companions for my compassion. It actually doesn’t make sense why I’d be a champion of the light while decapitating passing jawas whose only crime was asking for a hand in gathering droid parts. And this is not just in the disparage between conversations and grinding battles. Even in cutscenes, my character is often not given the choice of being a complete bastard (three options—all variations of bastard), despite having spared enemy soldiers not five minutes earlier.
What does it say about the psychological state of a man that chums through fifty republic soldiers only to offer the hand of peace to the ultimate target of his mission? But then again, if you’re looking for ethics in a sandbox filled with George Lucas’s beard droppings, you’d best absolve yourself from any other responsibility.
Which brings me to board games…yes, finally. I love narrative campaign games, the few that there are. Pandemic Legacy, 7th Continent, Gen7, Tainted Grail, and of course, Gloomhaven. The majority of these don’t even try to incite emotions from players other than the joy of victory or the frustration and anger from defeat. Even a morose and gloomy game like This War of Mine tried its best to induce responses of guilt and sadness, only for the game’s muddled and irritating mechanics to sap any possible emotional investment out of a moment. It even has a massive storybook filled with horrific moments that would invoke strong reactions like in a movie. But in a game where someone can commit suicide if they lack cigarettes, that attempt falls flat.
Comanauts attempted a similar level of emotional investment. Although its story is far superior, it’s lackluster gameplay (saddled with a protracted game length) spoils any payoff. Tainted Grail falls down the same trapping as This War of Mine by injecting so much unrelenting gloom and despair into its story that players become accustomed to it. About the only games that really attempt to push outside this box is Gen7 and Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr. With the latter, it encourages players to interact with a patient in the last days of his life. With the former, the game asks players to become attached to fellow non-player characters with narrative choices limited to influence rather than critical decisions that control the lives of others. I find that refreshing, though I have been led to believe that Gen7’s story (I’ve only made it through episode one) does fall off a cliff in later sessions.
Alas, I think the intrinsic format of board games prevents the profoundly emotional reactions found in novels and movies. Although a few video games have succeeded while many others have failed, I have yet to find a single tabletop title that can rise above the others merely asking that you to enjoy the process of rolling dice and killing monsters.