Siobhan Keogh is the NZ Herald's gaming blogger.

Siobhan Keogh: Why video games should make us feel something

Diehard gamer Siobhan Keogh wants games to provide a rollercoaster of emotions. And that seems to be happening more and more often.
'The Last of Us' provides a full spectrum of emotions for the player. Photo / Sony Computer Entertainment
'The Last of Us' provides a full spectrum of emotions for the player. Photo / Sony Computer Entertainment

Thirty years ago, video games were designed to elicit one straightforward emotion: the joy of overcoming a challenge.

They weren't long games, although they were often brutally difficult. Sometimes they were cute, sometimes they were funny, but most of those old games were designed to make you feel either frustrated or elated, and not much in between.

Things have gotten rather more complicated since then.

Over the past decade or so, following the rise of games like Halo, Call of Duty, and to go back a little further, Counter-Strike, game developers have continued to focus on just one feeling: power.

These games are designed to make you feel powerful, and they're very good at it. The rush of adrenaline you get when you're having a good run in a first-person shooter is something that's very difficult to replicate elsewhere.

You feel unbeatable, almost God-like - until you die, of course.

More recently, game developers have been considering the emotional impact of their work more seriously. That's partially done through improved written dialogue, stellar voice acting, and the use of motion-tracking technology that recreates actors' movements and even facial expressions with relative accuracy.

The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls, both of which came out this year, are prime examples of this no-expense-spared approach. Beyond even featured Hollywood actress Ellen Page, while The Last of Us starred voice actor Troy Baker, who has become one of the gaming industry's go-to guys.

What's most intriguing to me about The Last of Us was how carefully it toed the line between a power-tripping shooter and a story that packed emotional punch.

I've told many people since its release that it's one of my favourite games ever, and ultimately I think that's why - I got the full spectrum of emotions. I felt joy during the high moments, peace during the quiet moments, fear during the spooky moments and sadness when things got bad.

I was attached to the characters, but also had fun with them when I pulled off a risky manoeuvre. That balance was exceptional.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that video games are an art form. Many may not agree now - in the same way that most didn't think of film as an art form, and many still don't think of TV that way.

For those people to come around, I think it's important to stop thinking of video games as only being something that's "fun" to do. You might go to watch a movie that you know is going to be sad, but it speaks to you in other ways. You might read a book that comments on a social issue you find interesting or important.

Those things aren't strictly what I'd call "fun". And games shouldn't have to be fun either.

I'm not saying games that are designed simply to be fun should go away - we still have action movies, right? - but I welcome games that are less of a toy and more experiential. I would never describe point-and-click adventure The Walking Dead as fun, but it had a great story and - I'll admit it - made me weep (the word 'bawl' may be more accurate).

Then there's something like Journey, a game with no dialogue that succeeds because it does the exact opposite of most games: it makes you feel powerless and small.

Big, grunty action games are great, but they're not the games that are the most memorable to me. I want to feel like I relate to a character. I want to see something fresh. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me vengeful - I want the emotional rollercoaster.

And I think, increasingly, that other gamers do too.

Is it important for video games to have emotional depth? Are they just a bit of fun? Post your comments below.

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Siobhan Keogh is the NZ Herald's gaming blogger.

Siobhan Keogh has been playing video games for almost as long as she's been able to read. Her passion for games started with Sonic the Hedgehog and Alex Kidd in Miracle World, grew when she discovered the Final Fantasy series as a teenager, and became near-obsessive when she worked as games editor for PC World magazine. She'll play almost every kind of game there is, from shooters to strategies to adventure games to Peggle, on any platform she can get her hands on. Her love of games isn't limited to the screen - she also plays both board and card games on the tabletop. When she's not gaming, she's tweeting lame jokes about games on Twitter. Occasionally she takes a breather from that and talks about running and fitness instead. Siobhan works as community manager for New Zealand's largest locally-owned technology company, but her views on gaming are her own.

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