I read an article in one of our local free papers this week which listed the results of a survey about films which made men cry. This was in the wake of Toy Story being released over here and proving a weepie.
Up made #3 on the list. #1 was Return of the King — maybe manly tears when the Rohirrim make their last charge, or tears of frustration because the endings dragged for so long. The Italian Job was another puzzling entry; one respondent claimed he was gutted when the cars were trashed, so I guess that was an emotional moment.
And it’s a funny thing but when we talk about films (or books, or games) which have an emotional impact, we usually mean films that make us cry rather than that make us laugh, or make us angry. It’s funny because it’s no harder to make a weepy film than a comedy – in fact it’s probably easier. But crying isn’t a reaction you can control so maybe that’s why it feels more powerful.
This was on my mind because I have recently played a game which made me cry, and it was Dragon Quest IX.
Games that make you cry
JRPGs have always been good at portraying the melodramatic, romantic storylines about relationships between simple, sympathetic characters who the player cares about.
The part in DQ9 which got to me was quite near the start:
Your character goes to a village which is threatened by a plague. You help a reclusive scientist who lives there to find a cure and return triumphantly to heal the village, all except for one person who died quietly while you were adventuring – the scientist’s wife. He was working so hard that he never even noticed that she was sick. He’s heartbroken and depressed and locks himself away in his lab. Later, you meet the ghost of the wife who begs you to help her husband come to terms with the death by persuading him to come out and meet the people he saved so that they can thank him.
It’s very poignantly written for such a simple quest. All the villagers react differently at different stages in the quest. They have different voices and (simple) personalities. And I had tears in my eyes when one villager thanked the scientist for saving his wife and daughter and then stuttered and apologised, remembering the other man’s loss too.
But why is it that western RPGs rarely seem to get that level of emotional reaction from gamers? Why don’t they even try? I loved Dragon Age: Origins but I didn’t really care that much about any of the NPCs, I couldn’t get away from the quest based view of seeing them as means to get more story, more loot, or more xp.
I think it’s partly because the western core audience has so long been assumed to be 18-30 year old males, and received wisdom is that they don’t like emotional, weepy storylines. Only now that this ‘core’ audience is getting older do they get games like Heavy Rain.
Advertising for DQ9 on TV, on the other hand, is aimed at teenage girls. They show the cute outfits you can collect and the funny monsters. (They don’t show the classic RPG core of the game, the variety of smart and interesting collecting games, the achievements, or the multiplayer.)
Another reason is that western games tend to focus very closely on the player as hero. It’s all about YOU. NPCs are there because of their relationship to you. If the game makes you cry, it’s because something has happened to YOU or something has been taken away from YOU. Getting people to care about the NPCs has proved either a harder task, or something in which writers have no interest. (They should hire some romance writers, really.)
But as long as games are so focussed at their target niches, maybe we’ll never get the sort of depth found in a really good family film that can make the adults cry with the pathos even as the kids are bouncing in their seats and sympathising with a different character. A family game these days is more defined by the accessible gameplay and bright, attractive animation than by characters and story that can appeal to adults and kids on several different levels.
Maybe gaming is yet to really get its Toy Story 3 or Up, but I think the signs are all there that it could happen. Have you ever played a game that made you cry (not just out of frustration.)