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People sometimes ask me if I think games can be art[1], to which I usually respond—with persuasive eloquence—by saying, "Well, yeah. Duh." I can make fancypants arguments in favor of that position, but what it comes down to for me is that no one argues much about whether painting, film, photography, music, plays, short stories, or novels can be art, and there are plenty of games that have more in common with at least one of those disciplines than not. And the similarity goes beyond the use of common media: games can make you react the same way undisputed art does. They entertain. They can be beautiful, or evocatively grotesque. They can capture or challenge reality, communicate and inspire big ideas, and even provoke strong emotions.

Games can also be total crap, of course. But they have that in common with a not-insignificant quantity of what is widely accepted as art, too.

But it's games provoking strong emotions that I want to talk about today. Specifically, I want to talk about being moved to tears.

The first game that ever made me cry was Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness. Or at least, that was the first time I was provoked into crying by the plot of a game—I'm sure I must have cried tears of frustrated toddler ambition while losing Candy Land or something, years before that. But Shadows of Darkness made me cry in the "good" way, out of deliberately evoked sympathy. This was in 1993, when I was a preteen and computer games were a newer, less sophisticated genre. Watching the bit that set me off now, as a reasonably mature adult who has been exposed to almost twenty years' worth of technical and cultural advancements in gaming in the interim, I have to admit that it seems a bit silly.

The setup is that you, the Hero, whilst exploring the weird land of Mordavia, encounter a little girl who has been turned into a vampire—Tanya—and her monstrous companion, Toby. Later in the game, you take her to a magical shrine in an attempt to restore her humanity. Tanya is scared, but trusts Toby to protect her, and allows you to perform the "Ritual of Release," which calls for, as it turns out, a "sacrifice of life for love." Soft music plays while the graphics cut from a long view of the three of you clustered around the shrine to a portrait of Toby that is static except for a moving mouth and blinking eyes. Text on the screen provides dialogue and some description:

The voice [sic] in your head is now faint.

"Your love for the child is great."

You see Toby silently nod his head.

The Voice speaks again: "Will you trade your Life to give Life to the child?"

"Uh huh."

The Voice says softly, "Will you die willingly for the one you love?"

"Uh huh."

The view switches to a portrait of Tanya, also static but for moving lips and eyes. She has fangs, and instead of blinking, her eyes burn with creepy orange light. The text reads:

"No, Toby! No!"

The Voice is shrill in your head: "So shall the sacrifice be done!"

The scene cuts back to the view of the three of you. The staff from the shrine electrocutes Toby, accompanied by a peal of thunder, and he falls down. When we next see Tanya in close-up, she no longer has fangs, and her human-looking eyes blink as normally as any other animated kid's. Toby's sacrifice has restored her humanity. Cue sobbing pre-adolescent me!

The story is pretty clichéd, and the writing isn't anything extraordinary ("Uh huh" is an uninspired and uninspiring dialogue choice even if the character is a monster whose other speeches in the game consist of growling noises) but they're helped along considerably by Aubrey Hodges's score, and graphics that were at the cutting edge of evocative at the time. Still, I'd wonder how much of my emotional response could be put down entirely to my personal love of heroic self-sacrifice narratives—it's a trope that has always been a favorite of mine, even as a little kid—except that I've talked about Shadows of Darkness with lots of gamers in the years since, and I'm rarely the one who first mentions the emotional impact of Toby's death. It seems to have stuck with a lot of people.

I've shed tears over narrative moments in lots of games since 1993. If there was a tragic moment with soulful musical accompaniment in an RPG sometime in the last twenty years, chances are good I will have at least sniffled at it. But some emotional gaming moments have more lasting power than others. All of the freaking out I did over Trilobyte's The 11th Hour in 1995 is pretty memorable. The 11th Hour is a puzzle game with interactive movie elements and a distinctly horror-flavored plot. When I say "horror-flavored" and "movie elements," what I mean is that there are bits like a video cut-scene where a character's hand is severed. And for some reason, my brother and I used to play it in the dark. I didn't just cry during emotional bits for that game—I had nightmares.

The most recent game to make me cry was Mass Effect 3, which I played just last month. And, wow. It was like Toby's death, amplified by better writing, phenomenal voice acting, beautiful graphics, and an amazing score, over and over. Basically, I cried all the tears. All of them. It was an extremely dehydrating week for me.[2] I did a lot of giggling, too, as well as victorious fist-pumping. I also spent some time going "awwww" over my character's romance arc. And again, I'm not alone—lots of players have reported happy wallowing in the skillful pathos.

But many ME3 players are also feeling something I doubt the game's creators were shooting for: anger. Not at the inimical forces in the game, or even at frustrating gameplay mechanics or bugs (though there's always some of that going around, too), but at those very creators themselves.

The frustration has spilled out far beyond the confines of posts on forums, personal blogs, or even gaming-industry-specific blogs and sites. I've seen talk about ME3 on the Better Business Bureau blog, as well as in the tech sections of mainstream news sites like BBC News and Forbes.

The issue is that the Mass Effect series isn't a single narrative with a few potential variations, like many of its predecessors in the video game RPG genre. Some choices available to the player are basically cosmetic, but many have a real impact on later plot developments—and the choices arising from those in turn—to the extent that different players can end up experiencing completely different stories.

Except that there are only a few endings, and for many players, none of them seem to fit the personalized narrative they just spent years playing.

And while the cinematic elements of a game like Mass Effect 3 can provoke emotions as handily as a movie or a novel could, I think the player's direct involvement with the storyline can be a bigger factor. I've cried over plenty of computer and video games, but my emotional responses to the tabletop and text-based roleplaying games I've played have been even stronger.

Those games didn't have the benefit of graphics, scores, and actors, and the writing teams behind the plots were usually either a bunch of teenagers or me,[3] but I've gotten swept up in the emotions evoked by the narratives over and over, nonetheless. When I had to abandon one character, her story unfinished, because a particular D&D game dissolved before reaching a concluding arc, it upset me so much that I had to write her a novella. Which might have been a kind of extreme response, but it's not surprising that I care a lot about characters I had a hand in creating.

While I chose the character class for my Hero in the Quest for Glory series, and played him in three games over the course of several years before meeting—and subsequently saying goodbye to—Toby, the amount of actual input I had on the plot developments in any of those games was minimal to nonexistent. With Mass Effect, on the other hand, my playthrough of the games was sculpted by my own choices such that my version of the second game was entirely different from the one my husband played with his own Commander Shepard. It was distinct from his in overall tone, in the basic character and behavior of my avatar, and even in the presence (or absence) of certain secondary characters and plotlines entirely.

No wonder I spent a week bursting into tears. No wonder people are totally worked up over the endings. I doubt that every player could be completely satisfied even if there were thirty potential endings, instead of three.

Which is not to say that I think making a game as responsive to player input as the Mass Effect series is at all is a mistake, or something. I think it's absolutely what game creators should be trying to do. Because games can have a lot in common with novels, movies, and etc.—but they have something more distinctive going for them, too: interactivity. And that can be at least as powerful a tool as good writing or beautiful visuals when it comes to moving an audience.

[1] This mostly happens at grownup parties where I'm being introduced to friends of my parents or something, because when people ask me what I do for a living I usually say that I teach martial arts and write, and then when they ask me what I write, "nonfiction about gaming" makes for more comfortable small talk than "romance. Yes, sometimes with vampires." Vampire fiction seems to be up there with politics and religion in terms of topics people don't want to hazard with near-strangers at a polite gathering.

[2] Yes, week. I was determined not to get spoiled this time around, but what with being a freelance writer and all, I do sort of need to look at the Internet now and then. So my long-suffering husband and I powered through the game as quickly as possible as soon as I got my hands on a copy.

[3] More recent games have had writing teams consisting of a bunch of grownups, sometimes including experienced professional fiction writers, which has had some impact on the quality of the storytelling. It's probably a good thing that I don't have graphics and soundtracks to go along with these things, really, or I'd be a wreck.

Robyn Fleming started playing D&D when she was six, and, many years later, met her husband through a MUD. When not gaming, she teaches martial arts, and writes speculative romance under a pseudonym. Basically, she's a huge geek.
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