Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Song in the Void

On unbroken feet I walk, crushed and alone/ The lies they told me have turned the world grey.
But oh, that you still breathe and live, / Is a song in this void, that gives me life again.
-          The Old Republic , Kalas and Fiana as told by Nadia Grell

Love and similar emotions in video games is essentially the same thing that it is in movies, music, art, theatre, books, and any and all forms of entertainment; it is there for the sole purpose of making sure the audience feels something for the characters. It is the death scene in Romeo and Juliet, it is the cry of anguish over the fallen friend in the war movie, it is the rock ballad, and it is ‘and they lived happily ever after’ at the end of the fairy tale; all of the scenes are there to pull the strings of your emotions. 

I recently watched an anime where two orphan boys are separated by fate, they had lived their entire lives together and were separated for the first time. Little more than slaves, one of the boys is handpicked to play the body double to the king and pays the ultimate price, dying in his brothers’ arms. As his brother died there you see the character cry out in such anguish it’s a shock to the system, as he tries to comprehend the magnitude of his pain he repeatedly slams his head into the ground to make it all go away; it was one of the most emotionally charged moments I have ever witnessed in an anime and it moved me exactly as it was supposed to.

They say the difference between extraordinary and ordinary is the failure to believe that it can be done. Until recently romance and even emotions in video games, the idea that you could make characters interesting enough that gamers would want to see them fall in love or feel sadness when they died, was unheard of. It has only been in the last decade and a half or so that gamers have signaled that they enjoy the journey. It’s a risk of course, emotion is not a science it’s an art form what brings emotion to one person might bring an entirely different emotion to another person; you can never be quite sure how your audience will react to you. With respect to Shakespeare we don’t do cue cards to tell the audience it’s ok to laugh or cry.

I remember when I was playing The Old Republic, and the Sith warrior class. The first companion you get is a smart mouthed pirate/thief with a heart of gold. When I first started that character I fully intended to play it like a young Anakin Skywalker, otherwise known as Darth Vader, but Vette was so interesting. She had grown up as a slave taken away from her mother and sister and having thought that her childhood friend had been killed years ago. In a moment my carefully laid plans of galaxy wide domination were brought to their knees. I found myself thinking what would Vette want my character to do; sometimes I would have my character do acts of kindness just to see what she’d say.

There was another moment, in Mass Effect 2 I had been romancing Miranda on my MaleShep, and I had just gotten Tali a few missions before, she said something that completing blew my mind, intimating how she had been carrying a flame for my character. Tali, was one of the few crew member who didn’t think my working-for-Cerberus MaleShep had meant that he had gone to the dark side. I appreciated that in a world that had gotten markedly darker since the death and resurrection of my character, you were made to hold on to the few people who weren’t all too ready to throw you under the bus. Even the conversation you have with Ashley/Kaiden on Horizon, when your Shepherd is angry at how they view you after just two years’ time, evokes emotion. You can hear the anger and hurt emanating from Shepherd as she says ‘I’ve had enough of this planet’.

For me very few things evoke emotion better or quicker than music. Perhaps because I played an instrument for many years or simply because I enjoy it greatly; music moves me like few things do. The song that opened up the last Star Trek movie or the music as the Enterprise rises out of the mist of Titan, the Halo music, the Final Fantasy Crystal music, the Mass Effect music as Shepherd gets spaced; there are so many great pieces of music in games.

It’s ironic really, in some ways the unique ability to evoke emotion is one of video games weak points, often times it’s this feature that allows politicians and scientists to posit that video game violence increases a person’s desire to perpetrate real life violence. The Supreme Court seems to have made it clear that without hard evidence they see any restriction of video games as censorship, a rather big no-no in the American Legal system. Still video games present an easy whipping boy, unlikely to anger the majority of any politicians constitutes. 

Video games are in a unique position to evoke emotion from the player. Because games are themselves activities that put you in control of the hero, they are closer to you than movies or books; especially when you can shape how the character looks, talks, and acts; it’s a heady experience. Often times when people talk about those characters in games like Mass Effect, TOR, or any number of similar series they say “My Shep” or “I did” as if the character and the player are one and the same. Emotions and the passions that derive from them are hard-won, they cannot be so easily produced but take time, sweat, and tears and yet the finished product is what makes a great game memorable. In the end the explosions fade, the music ends, and the game plays out; but our memories and the emotions that they trigger remain long after the last note is sung; they are the song in the void.

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