Can Video Games Make You Cry? [Video]
While listening to a podcast the question was posed whether a video game has ever made you cry. I couldn’t think of any in particular at the time. I noted that BioShock Infinite, a game doing mostly everything right to evoke emotion out of its player never did. Strangely enough, while playing Far Cry 3 several days after, during the scene where the main character, Jason, is attempting to explain to the first friend he’s been reunited with after their kidnapping that his older brother, Grant, didn’t make it. As you hear the tears in his voice, I could feel the tears in my eyes.
Music, TV, and especially movies can bring out those tears but games seem to have a significantly harder time achieving this in me. I can only guess that the one thing that makes games different from other media is probably to blame for the all too often lack of impact, “user interaction”, and “control.” It’s all too easy to lose yourself in a TV show or movie and empathize with a depressing situation, or the unexpected death of a character. We become invested in the lives of the characters we watch to the point that their pain can become our pain. But what’s different about video games? Anyone can argue that the interactive nature of video games actually do a better job of engrossing you in a fictional world or situation. Because you hold some agency in the events that take place they are that much more devastating when bad things happen. Well then why don’t I normally cry for video game stories? I have two theories.
Game stories are usually poorly written. As much as it pains me to say, the actual story behind most of the biggest game franchises we love just aren’t that good. Did I love playing through Halo 1, 2, ODST, 3, Reach, and 4? Absolutely, but could I coherently tell you what happens in those games? Absolutely not. Assassin’s Creed killed of a major character at the end of Brotherhood, admittedly my jaw was left open but I felt no real emotional response to those events. And the fact that the whole event is never properly explained over the course of the two games that followed doesn’t exactly help. You might say that neither of those examples or several other big name titles are “trying” to make the audience cry with the stories that they tell, and that may be true. But for all the hours I spend in those worlds and with those characters why shouldn’t I cry for my fallen companions? Rather, why don’t I? Is it that the characters in these stories don’t feel like real people? I could care less that Kat from Halo Reach was on my squad at the start of the game and was shot in the back suddenly somewhere in the middle, why?, Because she was pretty much always a jerk to my character. She was a member of my team, but I didn’t really know her so perhaps that made her death just a “meh” moment for me.
Well what about characters that are well written and multi-dimensional? I’ll use Clementine from The Walking Dead game as an example. You find Clementine abandoned and alone during the zombie apocalypse and over the course of the game you learn her strengths, her hopes, her fears, and her weaknesses while doing everything you can to protect her in this new hostile world. During the closing scenes of the game you’re no longer able to stay with her and have to give her parting words of advice and wisdom then send her off on her own. For everything that game did to endear me to Clementine, I didn’t want to send her off alone, but I didn’t cry about it.
This leads me to my second theory on why these previous titles may have been ineffective for me. Gaming is unique in that instead of watching the actions of a main character, you usually control them. This level of control of course varies from title to title, but because you are giving control over someone in this story, whether or not that character has their own history and personality the player will still paint that character’s actions with their own. While Desmond in Assassin’s Creed might have mourned over the death of his friend Lucy, I sitting in my chair at home can’t remember the last person I met who shared that name. While Lee is fearful and angry that he can no longer protect Clementine, I can disassociate myself from this and remind myself that they are not real, and everything is fine. So what slipped through with Far Cry 3? Did I suddenly find myself escaping island bandits by the skin of my teeth when I tried to tell my brain that this story isn’t real? I think that Far Cry 3 inadvertently hit something smaller for me that gave that very weighty moment in the game world, a similar but not equal amount of weight for me in the real world.
At the start of the game Jason and his older brother are tied up in a cage, and are being antagonized by bandits. His brother manages to get loose and gets you both out of the cage. As Jason I follow my older brother who cautions me to stay quiet when guards are near, when to stop moving and when to quickly move through danger to escape. Before we’re home free he’s shot through the neck in front of me and I’m told to keep running as a playful gesture from his killer. Jason manages to get away and after a few other events that may or may not take place he meets up with his first lost friend, Daisy. It’s here as he starts to explain to her, I as well as Jason are being reminded of that traumatic experience and I as the player am unable to disassociate myself because like Jason I have an older brother. Granted my brother is alive and well, living in California, but I can truly sympathize with Jason in this moment and tears begin to gather in my eyes. The moment is short, Daisy sees and hears the pain in his voice and tells him not to continue, and Jason takes a deep breath to regain his focus on saving the others including his younger brother. In that tiny instant I was able to connect with that section of the story to the point of tears, due to the coincidence of sharing real life similarities with the protagonist I’m controlling. Could I then say that, if I’d been a guardian of a young girl, a father even, that the scene with Clementine would have brought me to tears also? Or had I served in the military and lost squad mates suddenly and recklessly would I have felt more for the loss of Kat? I can’t say for certain, and I can’t proclaim that those situations didn’t bring others to tears who maybe do or don’t have those things in common with those characters.
I don’t for a second believe that games lack the capacity to draw out emotions so strong they bring players to tears. I only believe that because games can be such personal experiences for various kinds of people that they more often than not are likely hit or miss. But when they do hit, they will hit hard.
Are there any moments you have where a game’s story, or just events in a video game brought you to tears?