Action-related emotions in single-player stories
The difference between games and traditional narrative media is that players act in games. In storybased games, this typically means that player actions have an impact on the state of a fictional universe. A typical single-player storybased game casts the player as a protagonist: there is a problem that needs to be solved, and the player is cast in the role of the single person who, for some more or less obscure reasons, can solve it. The job of the fiction is to make the player care about the problem and feel responsible for what happens.
These games tend to play on a very specific set of emotions, related to how players feel about their actions. Firstly, players can feel more or less empowered to act. Secondly, when players feel responsible for what happens in the fictional universe, these emotions can range from guilt to pride. (Although this emotional palette occurs in multiplayer games too, the situation tends to be a bit more complex for them.)
I use this two-axis diagram to depict the action-related emotional palette. If the player feels both empowered and proud, we get the purely positive feeling of being a hero – it’s depicted in the upper right corner of the diagram. To the upper left, we find the feeling of playing a villain – the person who has all the power but uses it for personal gain or pure evil. Many RPGs offer players a choice between playing ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (Knights of the old republic is a good example), and this means that they play on emotions in the upper half of the palette. Frustration, on the other hand, is typically connected to the feeling of knowing what you must accomplish but being unable to make it happen. I place it on the positive side on the accomplishment scale (as you would feel proud if you succeeded), but it ends up in the lower righthand corner as you feel powerless. Feelings of powerless guilt (the lower lefthand corner) are more unusual in games, but can be very effective. A good example is the opening scene of Farenheit, where the player character murders a complete stranger. When you gain control over the character, the crime has already been committed and you can’t do anything about it – and the first thing you need to do is to escape the police!
Most games create some kind of trajectory towards a greater sense of empowerment and achievement. For example, horror games tend to stay on the lower half of the graph. The sense of being powerless is a huge factor in fear, and it is not uncommon for horror games to also make players feel guilty (as in Manhunt, that I discussed in a previous post). Action-adventure games on the other hand typically start somewhere close to the middle of the diagram, and move towards the ‘Hero’ corner of the graph with very few detours into any other quadrant.
We can take legend of Zelda – Skyward sword as an archetypical example. When the game starts, the hero-to-be is a nobody and a dreamer, immediately incapacitated by losing his bird (you fly a lot on birds in this game). This opening scene is designed to make the player feel a bit incapacitated and pretty much without any sense of accomplishment (although not much guilt either). But once you get the bird back, the accomplishments start to pour in. And one of the things you get to know is that although you are not the legendary hero yet, you are destined to be. This way, the game pushes you towards the ‘hero’ corner quite quickly and without much variation.
It seems like many players have come to expect this curve – which might be part of the explanation behind such phenomena as the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. Personally, I prefer games that play in several of the sectors at once – in particular, when a singular act makes you feel at the same time proud and guilty. (Mass effect excels in this – but this is for another post.)