Emotional Realism In Computer Games

Been meaning to publish this for some time.  It is an essay I wrote recently about the emotional realism in computer games…

“While photorealistic animation and gaming visuals offer a graphic realism, in what ways have contemporary titles such as Half Life 2 (Valve, 2004) succeeded or failed in expressing an emotional realism?”

Introduction

Computer games have achieved many realistic effects and are constantly improving each and every day as they continue to define and push new technology to its limits.  Game developers have already acquired the skills enabling them to create photorealistic environments, characters and experiences in game worlds but how do they successfully create emotion?  There are a number of ways emotion can be expressed in a game; the most obvious is through storyline.  However, other effective techniques are more subtle and can be created within the character design, the environments, animations, audio and how the player portrays the game world as a whole.  To explore this question I will be looking at the series of games created by Lorne Lanning at Oddworld Inhabitants, Abe’s Oddysee (GT Interactive Software, 1997), Abe’s Exoddus (GT Interactive Software, 1998), Munch’s Oddysee (Microsoft Games, 2001) and Strangers Wrath (Electronic Arts, 2005), with particular focus on Abe’s Oddysee.  While looking at these games, as well as a number of other references, I will explore the different aspects of the game design and look at how they trigger different emotions within us as a player.

Emotion is an important factor in good game design as it makes the player believe in what is happening and feel involved with the events that occur during game play.  It helps give the feeling of urgency and reinforces the actions in which the game is instructing us to take.  The Oddworld games are an incredibly popular series.  I believe a huge contributing factor to their success is the way they invite the player into the unique game world.

Emotional Triggers in Game Characters

Characters are often an important part of a game and being able to relate to the characters, especially the main playable characters, is essential.  A number of conscious design decisions have been made for all of the Oddworld characters with close consideration to their roles in each of the games.  The most widely known character is Abe the Mudokon, the main character for the first two games; Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus.  I will use Abe as my example as I discuss the character design aspects and how they enforce emotion upon us.

The initial pose and body shape used is a huge contributing factor to immediate emotion when you first set eyes on Abe.  His physical posture is poor and starved with little muscle on him, thus making his skeletal structure highly visible.  This immediately provokes a sympathetic feeling towards him and makes you subconsciously put a back story to Abe involving neglect and sadness.  Although Abe is not part of the human species, he does display human characteristics which we as a player can relate to helping us place ourselves in his shoes.  This is important as we accept creatures with human characteristics more easily and quickly than those without.  This enables the player to swiftly place themselves in the game with the character avatar acting as a mirror in which the player sees themselves reflected.

“But the crucial relationship in many games-both contemporary standards like Quake series (1996-1999) and its ancestors from the 1960’s and 1970’s such as Spacewar!, Spaceinvaders, and Battlezone- is not between avatar and environment or even between protagonist and antagonist, but between the human player and the image of him- or herself encountered on screen.”  (Rehak, B, The Video Game Theory Reader, Page 104).

“… the mirror stage occurs in infants between the ages of six and eighteen months, when they first encounter and respond to their own reflection as an aspect of themselves.” (Rehak, B, The Video Game Theory Reader, Page 105).

Another aspect that twinges our emotions towards characters is the physical appearance of their features, for example the eyes.  When we communicate to another human, we look directly in the eyes to enhance the mood of delivery and understanding of the subject.  Abe boasts a large round head with big round eyes, stitched up lips and large hands and feet, the torso being fairly weak and small in comparison.  Abe is not the ‘cutest’ character around but he does appeal to the player.  All these features contribute to the cute factor as S. Poole describes in his book…

“Both Crash and Sonic have big heads, saucer eyes, cheeky grins and small bodies.  In this sense they are deformed, Japanese style; yet such a cute stylization is also used in Western cartoons.  Perhaps they are attractive because their large heads and limitless curiosity reminds us of children.” (Poole, S (2000), Trigger Happy, Fourth Estate Limited, Page 163).

It reinforces Abe’s back story, overall appearance and purpose within the game while appealing to our defensive and protective nature.

“Cuteness works well… some games attempt to bring out player’s protective feelings.  In these games, the hero is almost supernaturally cute, and this causes the player to empathize with the hero much in the same way as he would empathize with a favourite pet or a baby.”  (Rollings, A and Adams, E (2003), Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, New Riders, Page 124).

Jumping ahead to the third Oddworld Inhabitants release called Munch’s Oddysee we get introduced to a new playable character called Munch and a number of cute little furry creatures known as Fuzzles.  The Fuzzles have a stereotypically cute appearance with their bodies resembling a small ball of fluff with a pair of huge shiny eyes balancing on top, to make the cute factor stronger they let out an irresistible squeak sound as you rescue them from their cages.  However, if something should anger them their eyes turn bloodshot and get filled with rage, their mouth opens up to show a terrifying set of teeth.  This delivers a sudden switch of emotions to the player, which adds an interesting twist on your own assumptions of character appearances.

The Oddworld games are dark but offer a very interesting and informative colour palette.  The character colour schemes mainly consist of green and purple with hints of yellow for the eyes.  The colour green is usually associated with nature and freedom while the colour purple has links to royalty.  From reading R. Plutchik’s book called Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology (2002, American Psychological Association), he discovered links with colours and emotions and created a simple chart to show the relationships.  From looking at Plutchik’s chart the colour green that Abe boasts in his skin pigments represents terror, fear and apprehension.  This is interesting as the enemies (Sligs, the soldiers of Oddworld) also contain a lot of green in their colouring suggesting that they too contain a lot of fear in them, perhaps from the Glukkon’s who form the higher ‘boss’ enemies.  The Glukkon’s colouring contains a lot of purple which Plutchik describes as linking with loathing, disgust and boredom.  Paired with the theory of purple being a royal colour, it makes the Glukkon’s hierarchal place obvious- at the top.  This is reinforced in their tall, towering posture, cigars and smart suits and cloaks that they wear.  They feature vibrant orange slit-shaped eyes whose colour links to vigilance, anticipation and interest while the Mudokon’s eyes resemble  big yellow orbs linking to ecstasy, joy and serenity, perhaps suggesting the life they once had before they were enslaved.

Emotional Triggers in Game Environments

We see colour links in the games environments as well as in the characters.  The game starts in a factory based environment riddled with dark shadowy corridors, grime and over-used corroded machinery.  The design is very angular with the frequent encounter of sharp spiky contraptions aimed to stop your escape.  The factory’s atmosphere is created with use of dramatic shadows along with a colour scheme consisting of dark reds, browns, purples and greys all of which link to the emotions of contempt, remorse and disapproval.

The environments shapes and silhouettes suggest different moods and emotions as demonstrated by Wolfgang Kohler in 1929 with his Bouba Kiki effect.  The sharp angular appearance inside the factory delivers a sharp, cold and harsh environment (Kiki).  When we explore the outdoor environments softer structures are present (Bouba).  We immediately feel more at home when travelling through the natural landscapes of Oddworld rather than when in the manmade structures.  The player can also relate more to Abe when outdoors as the environments link more seamlessly in to aspects shown within his character design.  For example, the tribal tattoos Abe has embellished on his torso act as depictions of things in nature.

Story Cinematics

Oddworld have consistently created interesting storylines and deliver them in convincing 3D animated cinematic sequences.  Looking at the animated introduction to  Abe’s Oddysee, it soon becomes a very powerful sequence.  It starts off with soft subtle music in the background with Abe’s weak voice as the narrator.  Immediately a desired atmosphere and mood is created.  The use of visual cues subtly guides the player in to the desired mood and mind set, already immersing them in the story and meaning of the game.  As the first lines of the narration are being spoken the music gradually introduces a military marching drum roll just as Abe says “I used to work here, well really I’m just a slave… like all the others.”  As this is said, we are given the visual of a group of weak looking Mudokon’s working on a production line in the factory.  This is our introduction to the setting of the starting point of the game.  From this point forward we are introduced to Abe, he is tied up in a cell, and told his back story.  Once you are given the core facts of why you are here you are quickly being introduced to your current objective; to escape.  Due to the convincing introduction video you are compelled to continue and help Abe escape from the factory.  The cinematic is certainly aimed to pull at the heart strings of the player and gives a strong encouragement to play the game.  Cinematics are often a good way to provide core story information quickly and easily to the player.  However, if they do not express successful visual and audio cues you will fail to engage the player.

Conclusion

Convincing characters, carefully thought out environments, believable animations and strong cinematics all help to provoke strong emotion in games, but it is hugely important that all of these aspects work successfully together as well as on their own.  These elements must be able to flow seamlessly together enabling the player an enjoyable experience and immersion into the game world.  If an element does not work well or does not fit in with other elements, the game will not flow.  This will become noticeable to the player and have a drastic effect on their experience.

The Oddworld games are successful for these very reasons, they boast good overall game design and deliver a strong template that game designers can follow to help create new games with the same, if not higher, amount of quality.

Emotion is important as it helps the player relate to the game, making them able to see themselves in the main character.  Without this players would experience great difficulty in completing a game and being able to enjoy the experience to the full.

References

Wolf, M and Perron, B (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader, Routledge.

“… the mirror stage occurs in infants between the ages of six and eighteen months, when they first encounter and respond to their own reflection as an aspect of themselves.” (Rehak, B, Page 105).

Wolf, M and Perron, B (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader, Routledge.

“But the crucial relationship in many games-both contemporary standards like Quake series (1996-1999) and its ancestors from the 1960’s and 1970’s such as Spacewar!, Spaceinvaders, and Battlezone- is not between avatar and environment or even between protagonist and antagonist, but between the human player and the image of him- or herself encountered on screen.”  (Rehak, B, Page 104).

Poole, S (2000), Trigger Happy, Fourth Estate Limited.

“Both Crash and Sonic have big heads, saucer eyes, cheeky grins and small bodies.  In this sense they are deformed, Japanese style; yet such a cute stylization is also used n Western cartoons.  Perhaps they are attractive because their large heads and limitless curiosity reminds us of children.” (Page 163)

Rollings, A and Adams, E (2003), Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, New Riders.

“Cuteness works well… some games attempt to bring out player’s protective feelings.  In these games, the hero is almost supernaturally cute, and this causes the player to empathize with the hero much in the same way as he would empathize with a favourite pet or a baby.” (Page 124)

Bibliography

Wolf, M and Perron, B (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader, Routledge.

Nicole Lazzaro (2004), Why We Play Games:

Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story”, available online at http://www.xeodesign.com/xeodesign_whyweplaygames.pdf

Poole, S (2000), Trigger Happy, Fourth Estate Limited

Johnson, C and Wade, J (2004), The Art of Oddworld Inhabitants: The First Ten Years, Ballistic.

Rollings, A and Adams, E (2003), Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, New Riders.

Plutchik, R (2002), Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology and Evolution, American Psychological Association.  Plutchik’s emotional colour chart can be seen online at http://www.fractal.org/Bewustzijns-Besturings-Model/Nature-of-emotions.htm

Softography

Abe’s Oddysee (Oddworld Inhabitants, GT Interactive 1997)

Abe’s Exoddus (Oddworld Inhabitants, GT Interactive 1998)

Munch’s Oddysee (Oddworld Inhabitants, Electronic Arts 2001)

Strangers Wrath (Oddworld Inhabitants, Electronic Arts 2005)

Spyro The Dragon (Insomniac Games, Sony Computer Entertainment 1998)

World Of Goo (2D Boy, 2D Boy 2008)