Games have come a long way in the past decade. Characters’ ability to emote thanks to the power of the current systems, and developers’ willingness to control the pace of stories, displays a new maturity for the industry. Gone are the days when we were told to care, replaced by genuine manipulation of our emotions. It looks like a trend set to continue with trailers such as that of Beyond: Two Souls’ showing an unusual confidence, and not simply blowing things up to please the crowd. True, this isn’t unique, but in a big budget title it’s rare to see such restraint.
With this in mind I decided to dive back into recent console games that offered me more than just adrenaline-fueled fun, to see just why they affected me.
It was Journey that planted the seed for this article, a beautiful and moving story told without words. That Game Company’s downloadable title felt like a pilgrimage, past dangers unknown. But it wasn’t the quiet impact of the world that tugged at my heartstrings, it was the chance encounters.
Journey’s multiplayer is completely random. Matched with other players plucked from the ether, there is no formalised way to communicate as you play. Yet even without knowing whom I was playing with, a sense of attachment was formed. While it can be lonely at times, when a like-minded traveler is met it can completely transform the experience.
My first play through of Journey saw me find another player who stayed with me from start to finish. He led me to collectibles, and showed me the right path when I became lost. Such was my connection with them that on the few occasions we were separated I felt truly lost and alone, and as I made my way towards the finale I felt desperate to succeeded, not just for myself but also for my partner.
Sad, uplifting and moving, Journey is a wonderful experiment in online interaction that manages to offer both companionship and loneliness not only in a single game, but a single moment.
Metal Gear Solid 4
Kojima may be as mad as a beehive in a bag of nails, but when he gets things right there is undeniable genius in the man, I give you MGS4’s infamous microwave section. Love or hate the game’s unfathomable story and lengthy cut scenes, this single scene managed to draw me into the struggle and pain Snake was going through.
It is a simple enough mechanical device, hammer on a button as hard as you can to live. By making what was essentially a QTE a single button mash, it freed the game to do more interesting things with the rest of the characters and how their story was told.
A clever aside, it made a wonderful punctuation to the closing scene of one of gaming’s greatest franchises (until MGS5). True, pain and frustration are not the emotions I tend to want from a game, but appreciated here nonetheless.
It would be impossible to write about emotions without something from Team Ico. With a less traditional background, the Japanese developer’s games have always been different. Many would say Shadow of the Colossus stands as the teams best work, but as their first title it is Ico that has stayed with me.
Unlike many of the other games here there is no single moment in Ico that resonates, but a constantly growing attachment. The physical feedback between the young protagonist and Yorda as he pulls her through the world is so tactile that you can feel the bond forming. From the rumble of the pad to the jerky confused way she reacts to your motions; her sense of confusion and awe is palpable.
It is her innocence, combined with your own wonder at the world, that makes the dangers feel real as you flee through the castle together.
Half Life 2 Ep2
With so many of its innovations now common place, it can be hard to fully appreciate what Half Life 2 meant to video game’s when revisiting it now. One thing that does stand the test of time however is the series’ complete emersion of the player in the character of Gordon Freeman, and it is this that Valve utilise in Half Life 2 Episode 2 to provide a sense of total helplessness.
One of the most impressive elements of the Half Life series is that you take the role of Gordon Freeman. You are Gordon, both through the most action packed and (importantly) mundane moments; control of the character is never surrendered. Which makes the end of Episode 2 so painful as (still in control of Gordon) you are pinned against a wall, only able to watch while your old friend Eli is killed.
It’s horrible, sickening and haunting moment, made all the worse by your/Gordon’s relationship with Eli’s daughter Alex. In that instance, despite some minor victories, all of your efforts feel meaningless. And perhaps this is the real reason people crave Episode 3 so much, if only to find closure.
God Of War: Chains of Olympus
Most games in this list are probably quite predictable. Titles with strong narratives or experiences designed as social/emotional experiments, not so for God Of War: Chains of Olympus. This is a game that revolves around ‘hero’ Kratos ripping whatever body part he can off whoever is stupid enough to get in his way. But there is one scene among the blood letting that is notably different, and which is all the more impactful due its contrast with the rest of the action.
When Kratos descends into the Underworld, his dead daughter rushes to greet him. The previous two games had seen the soldier’s anger and sorrow at the death of his family, and in this single moment he has the chance to see them again. But moment is fleeting, because to save the Underworld (and her soul) he must force her away and continue his quest. Upsetting enough in itself, but much like MGS’s microwave scene, Chains of Olympus demands you hammer on the buttons to make Kratos force the young girl away.
It is strangely powerful, in part out of empathy for the girl as she is hurt by her dad’s seeming rejection, but also because you know what the otherwise two-dimensional Kratos is giving up. Far more than I expected from a series predicated eviscerating all in sight, and perhaps all the more powerful because of it.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
I don’t care for Call of Duty, but the game that began the franchise’s rise to prominence certainly deserves its accolades. Somehow in its four-hour bravado and ‘OohRah!’ filled campaign, its manages to squeeze in two moments of emotional impact that show more than a nod to Half Life’s sense of verisimilitude.
First, and perhaps most striking, is being placed in the shoes of a deposed political leader on route to his own assassination. The scene is almost mundane as you, through the eyes of the leader, are driven through the streets before finally being dragged in front of a firing squad and… well its self explanatory, but the sense of helplessness is powerful.
Next is a nuclear blast (as a different character of course). Regaining consciousness in the burning wreckage of a helicopter makes you ponder just what this man will go through having survived such hell, only to die seconds later of radiation poisoning.
It may not be perfect, and its level of success as a series baffles me, but Modern Warfare is an amazing experience that treads the line between story and bombast that games often struggle with.
For the most part ham-fisted would be the best way to describe Infamous 2’s characterisations, plus frequently annoying and constantly contradictory. Then there is Zeke, the Judas friend from the first InFamous, who is trying desperately to make it up to Cole. Zeke seems to always be placing himself in danger to help, and stands beside Cole through every twist of the story, unless you choose the ‘bad’ ending.
In a (basically) linear game with two possible conclusions, it’s odd that the most impactful moment is hidden in one of the branches. Stood atop a church Zeke draws a line in the sand and says “enough is enough” to his friend, knowing there is no way he can win. Gun drawn he is committed to trying to stop Cole from making the wrong choice and, as Cole, the player’s only option is to kill him.
It is powerful partly because Zeke is the only character in the game that is likeable, but also because it throws into relief the true consequences of the choice made in the evil ending. He shows just how the momentum of your actions cannot be redirected, even if you start doubting the direction you are going.