The Potential for Emotional Depth in Games

April 7, 2013

As an English major, I am naturally attracted to powerful stories and chose this major because of my love for literature. I have a deep craving for engaging stories and at times find myself so thoroughly immersed in the lives of fictional characters that I lose myself, somehow, in the process. It’s amazing to me how many stories I can have going at one time and yet keep track of where I am in them all–and yet still thirst for more. This love for stories stretches across all media: not only books but also movies, TV, and comics/graphic novels.

When I started teaching Writing for Interactive Media at Emerson College, I began to play story-games–video games that employ narrative, or gamified stories (which dominates is one of the great debates of the 21st century between narratologists and ludologists). What I can say is that any games I’ve played to date (most of them RPGs like Fable and Assassin’s Creed) do not satisfy me in the way that good literature does. This is indie game-designer Jonathan Blow’s primary critique of the video game industry: he wants to make games that really touch people the way that fine art and great literature can, and he doesn’t see this happening yet.


One work that I’ve come across that does just that is an interactive fiction called Sand-dancer by Aaron A. Reed. It is actually the model game that he creates in the process of writing his book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7. (You can play Sand-dancer now within the browser)


This story has great emotional power yet includes interactive game elements with significant choice that truly effect the story’s outcome.

I also heard recently about a newly released game called Cart Life that looks like it might have the same powerful effect.

It’s interesting to see the discussion around this game. One person writes: “WHY, would you want to create a game about real life experiences like working, talking, eating, brushing your teeth, etc? … It could be me, but I play games to escape real life for a moment and go on an adventure and do stuff that I can’t do in real life.”

Comparing this to literature: there are books that are written as escapist fare, but there’s also serious literature that talks about “real life experiences.”

As for me, I’m happy to see games like this that begin to approach the emotional depth that some of the best books I’ve read have achieved.