Can games really involve us?

So yesterday I’ve watched Brothers.

[MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD]

This movie recently came out and it’s about a US marine captain who got captured in Afghanistan, but thought dead by his family. After going through hell and finally coming back home, he finds himself paranoid that his brother had an affair with his wife and haunted by his experiences while imprisoned by terrorists.

I’m not going to give a movie review here, but I have to say that the acting was some of the strongest I have seen since The Dark Knight or so. Especially Tobey Maguire’s performance, on which I will focus today. Analytic though as I am when enjoying a work of entertainment/art, I couldn’t help trying to think “how could a game achieve to grip its audience like this movie?”.

In some scenes, the thrill was so thick, you could cut it with a knife (or how goes the saying? :P) I’ve tried to remember the last game that really pulled me in story wise (Mafia, which sadly is just a rip off of GoodFellas/ also liked Fahrenheit) and came to the saddening conclusion that games are nowhere near of achieving the level of emotional involvement films have.

Let’s take for example the scene in which Sam Cahill is forced to brutally kill his fellow comrade (with a metal pipe) , in order to have a dim chance of seeing his wife and daughters again. You can see it in his eyes. He first throws the pipe down, due to his principles as a stand-up human being and honorable US marine. But they break him. They take away his humanity, and the animal, the rage inside him come out, an eruption of his frustration and anger and hate and his utter desire to get home to his family again. This all was communicated by the context and the 15 or so seconds of Tobey Maguire acting time. That was a-ma-zing to watch.  As a viewer, you can’t help but identify, thinking about what you’d do in such as situation, finding yourself feeling the pity, the guilt and sharing it with the big-screen Maguire.

When will games make me feel this? When will I play a game, be it an action game, or an RPG or an adventure or something completely new, and wishing to my hearts content that my characters/hero/protagonist overcomes the current problem/situation/dilemma/etc ?

Can games make us feel that way? (not counting in cut scenes)

Surely, we’d probably all play a game and really want to overcome the current obstacle, but it’s pretty much always just because we want to progress. We see a game as a whole and we want to get to the next level, to the next weapon, to the next boss enemy etc, but we often only remotely care about the protagonist, this virtual person that we’re playing.

I’m tempted to say that we’re never really playing for the sake of our character and his/her fate in the story. I understand games are becoming more involving visually. Uncharted 2Modern Warfare etc come to mind. With clever camera techniques and diverse other rings and bells they make us feel that we’re in a movie – no, that we’re participating in one (don’t want to elaborate on the linearity in that though, see my other post for that).

But this doesn’t solve the problem. No game ever made me feel this much about its characters as Brothers did, and this movie isn’t even the best ever made. It’s just very strong in it’s acting.

The reason I’m questioning games in this regard, and not just telling myself “Oh well games are still a young medium and its potential isn’t reached yet”, is because I actually find that the interactivity is in the way of the experience here. Maybe I’m just not visionary enough to see a way to use the interactivity of games to even heighten the involvement of the player. I don’t know. All I know is that I really really doubt that a game could put me in the situation of Captain Cahill, murdering a comrade with a raw metal pipe and make me feel the same emotions as when I watched him do it.

Here’s what I can come up with as reasons:

1. In a game it’s far harder to get attached to the main character because I am controlling him. This sounds paradox, but since I’d be controlling Cahill, he becomes my doll, and not a breathing, thinking being with feelings and personality.  So I wouldn’t even be able to anticipate his feelings half as much as in a movie where I sit for one hour getting to know him, his views and ideas and value for humanity. The scene of the murder in a game version wouldn’t be at all involving and emotional. Plus people have gotten so numb towards acting out violence in games nowadays, it would just feel like ‘friendly fire’.

2. Game graphics are essentially CGI, so the argument that real actors are better than CGI ones a la Avatar are still more convincing is carries over to games as well. Could a game graphic Cahill, even if his tooth consisted of 10 000 polygons, make me feel the connection as much as when I watched Tobey Maguire’s face lightly blurred on a cinema screen? The mere knowledge that this is CGI makes me just think after all that it’s just not the ‘real’ thing. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, maybe this mindset will change in 5 years time when everything will be CGI anyway and I’m a convert.

How would you design a game that doesn’t rely too much on cut scenes (if at all), and still communicates to the player a deep sense of individuality and personality of the main character? How could a game interactively involve a player to feel utter angst, desperation and hatred for himself/herself, basically the same feelings the character is supposed to feel, when doing an act of killing against ones will?

Thrilled to hear suggestions!

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