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Choice and Emotion in Gaming and Books

7 June, 2012

Forgive me for the slightly unwieldy title on this one – it’s the only one I could come up with that didn’t seem completely melodramatic. Anyway, today I wanted to talk about something I’ve noticed recently in gaming and reading, and how they differ in affecting our emotions. This particular aspect, at least, all comes down to choice.

Let’s start with an example, and a fairly well known one. The Mass Effect games have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons (namely, everyone hated the end of the latest installment), but it’s important not to forget how brilliant the first game was. And yet, despite that, I never managed to finish it. A single part of the game did it for me: a section which ended with the death of a character, and left me feeling so devastated that I could never find the heart to finish the game.

Plenty of games try to evoke emotion, just as books do. I know many people found the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII to be incredibly moving. For me though, it was a bit of a ‘meh’ moment, and the same goes for many books I’ve read. Thing is though, even when I do come across emotionally powerful books – and I’ve talked about a few recently – I only want to read them more. So what’s the difference?

I’ve realised that it all comes down to choice, and in this case, the personal choice of the reader or gamer. You see, in Mass Effect, which character met a sticky end was down to the player. Admittedly, there were only two characters to choose from, but forcing the player to pick one to live and one to die was incredibly powerful – and made me feel terrible afterwards. I actually changed my mind and replayed that section to save the other character, but it didn’t really help. I was devastated, and I lost all enthusiasm for the game.

The same thing simply can’t happen in a book. No matter what you want to happen, the plot and the ending are always set in stone, by the author rather than the reader (perhaps one reason why fan-fic is so popular – getting to rewrite those endings and ‘fix’ the bits you didn’t like). This lack of choice is actually something I like. There’s a feeling of being in the hands of a professional, of knowing that the story will end exactly as it should, and not be messed up by my own ineptitude as reader. There’s also the fact that choice can be frustrating as well as powerful: in that Mass Effect example, there was no option to attempt to save both characters, or neither – the player was forced to choose between them, a choice I would have preferred not to make.

So which is better? Should games avoid giving you a choice – or should they always give you a choice, to make the emotional impact more powerful? It’s down to the individual game, of course, just as whether that choice is appreciated or not is down to the individual player. It’s an aspect of gaming that, for good or ill, I think is going to become more prevalent as games become more sophisticated, allowing for more plotlines and possibilities. And if that choice becomes wearing, and I just want a good story? Well, I can always reach for a book.

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