On How Mechanics Can Rob You of Emotional Impact. Also, Emotional Strings?

Posted: June 9, 2009 by Guy Shalev in Uncategorized
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I’m unsure where I’ll repost it later, but it’ll go here first. Maybe SG, though I’m likely to just let people link to it from there. Probably on CSI Games, because it’s relevant; I keep talking about the “Mechanics are everything” approach, and this, and another post brewing are kind of points to consider regarding such.
It also draws from some posts there, as will be linked here.
It might get revised, it might not, so consider it a nearly finished post.

I’ll begin by what got me to think of these issues, the anime Code Geass, which can make you tear up and cry, it’s very much about loss and sacrifice (in some ways it reminds one of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series). It builds up characters, you get emotionally attached to them, and then bad things happen to them, and you can see them tear up in dilemmas.

On the other hand we have Shigofumi, an anime about the last letter someone can send beyond the grave, and the effects the letters have on the people who receive them, the build up to the deaths, etc. In this anime, often truly horrible things happen to the characters. We don’t see most of them for more than one episode, and yet we can be affected.

There’s a major difference, the first series takes it slow, it makes us grow fond of the characters, we become attached to them, and then even if something not truly horrible happens to them we are affected; a family member coming to minor harm can affect as quite hard.
In the case of the second series, it’s more like shock techniques. We haven’t had time to get to know the characters, so rather than delicately strumming on our emotional hearts, the creators of the series yank on them wildly. In this case, it worked, at least for me, but people can balk when they not only know that they are manipulated, but see how it is done and how crassly it is done (they know it’s done by virtue of being subjected to the media, should they think of it).

And now we’ll move on to my RPG-centric argument. I think that mechanics can rob the emotional impact of what happens in the game, or even out of the story, for those aware of them.
Let’s take the case of sacrifice. Sacrifice matters largely because it is not mandatory, and even if we think it is something that should be done, in real life it is rare and thus is worthy of notice. Sacrifice is not sacrifice if it’s not an act of choice, carried out by a willing agent possessing free will. Otherwise it’s coercion.
So let’s look at a (hypothetical) game with mechanics for a character to sacrifice themselves, or relationships of theirs, or whatever.

To me, in such a game the sacrifice must not be mandated. If the character can take actions that result in their character making a sacrifice, such as taking a shot for another character, cool. If sacrifice yields higher rewards than other options, because the designer
wants to reward sacrifice in order to make it more commonplace, we might get to the point where we ask at what point sacrifice becomes the only real choice, or inevitable. And I want to look at such an extreme case, where either the only mechanics available deal with sacrifice (or only add things that lead to sacrifice in addition), or that sacrifice is inevitable for your character, perhaps even in a specific manner.
But then, if you can see the coarse strings that move a character inexorably towards something like sacrifice, where free choice is paramount, and you know that there is no free choice involved, even on the character level, how can you treat this as a moving occasion, as something which shakes your world, not in-fiction, but as a player?

This is where the “It’s awesome!” moments come to be, in the retelling, when the story is constructed after the fact (even if it happens seconds later?). It may not be emotionally satisfying to those who can view the shackles of the mechanics, and that it wasn’t really a choice, nor was it truly a sacrifice, but when you tell the story of what happened in the game – that is to say, inside the game’s fiction – to those who are not immediately confronted with the way mechanics had moved things, then it’s a story, and it has the ability to impart an emotional impact on those who hear it. But the players do not hear it at the time of the game-play, they do not even experience it, they experience mechanics making choices which had they occurred in the real world, or to those they care about, had an emotional impact. In the game, you know it didn’t come from “The Right Place”, which we also require for “Moral Actions”.

And of course, sacrifice is but an example. This is about how mechanics can sometimes rob the emotional impact of what happens “in the story”.

Regarding “Inevitable”, two contrasting points: One can know where the road ends and still tell an interesting and often surprising story on the road there, I think Weapons of the Gods’ destiny-tying mechanics are all about this in a good way. And of course, this is part of the tools (or perhaps a crutch?) when designers want to ensure that they tell “Stories of X”. But neither cancels the fact that it can rob the emotional depth, because while you may know it’s a Story of Sacrifice, you’re also somewhat inured against it when the sacrifice occurs.

Is it a sacrifice when the player does so in order to get “Awesome bennies” or “The most emotional play” later, or is that merely an exchange? and what of when a player makes a sacrifice in a game that is also a sacrifice on the player level, like a DnD character in a DnD campaign? That doesn’t translate into the “Story” level, but sometimes is a sacrifice of much impact on the group’s social level. If we look at the player-level, how much should we be moved when someone makes a sacrifice at a one-shot, at the end of the session? It may be a grand statement both from the in-game perspective and from the Story’s thematic/retelling experience, but how much of a sacrifice is it?

Edit: BTW, edits are not to be surprised at here, as I did intend it as something to be added to after all, and I thought it better here than as a new post.
So, I guess part of it is that I want mechanics to (no more than) lead to the choice, but the choice has to actually be made. Think of it like this, if a scene or storyline leads to a moment where one can accept someone else’s love or reject it, or where a sacrifice can be made, or a sacrifice can be failed to be made, it’s still a scene about X. Whether X happens or not, if it’s what the scene revolves around, then it’s a scene about X.

The Fruitful Void people, it’s about that whether it happens or not, if it’s the answer to the scene, and most scenes are actually questions, or build up to such. Don’t have X be dictated, or given.

Edit 2: This is a bit tangenital, and may not address directly the question of “Mechanics remove some of the emotional impact of the game”, but does address what is my main concern, the interaction of mechanics and emotions. This comes from a discussion with Joshua A.C. Newman on Facebook:

Part of the reasons for things being not emotionally impactful, that I’ve outlined above, is that we don’t care for them; there was no time for us to develop attachments to them, and due to limits, we rarely get to see/hear what a character feels or thinks, so when asked about a character’s motives regarding past actions, we usually don’t get to hear what were the character’s motives then, but when answering the question the player creates the character’s thoughts and feelings retrospectively, on the spot. These thoughts and emotions didn’t exist till he was asked, in most cases.
In movies we get to try and figure out what the causes were, in books we get to hear them for the main character(s), in soap operas we get the ridiculous monologues in empty rooms so we’d know what the character thinks.

I think a good thing would be that when a character takes an (important) action, to add a “Because…” regarding the character’s internal mental situation, or add more InSpectre style confessionals, so when the character does do something like a sacrifice, we see it coming all the way. We know the character cares for it, and there’s a real build-up.

  1. ludanto says:

    There’s certainly some truth to that, but it’s not so binary, I think. Just because you can see the mechanics doesn’t mean that it’s all you can see. It’s like watching an emotional movie. Just because it’s two-dimensional, 30 feet tall and features a well known actor that you know to be a jerk in real life doesn’t mean that you can’t see the story for what it is and be moved to tears by it.
    Also, the other players at the table are a step removed from that as well, as they are essentially an audience watching from the wings. Even the “inevitable sacrifice” is debatable, as that inevitability is (usually) only mechanical. I can watch Romeo and Juliet and still feel weepy even though we all know how that’s going to end.

    • Guy says:

      Of course, I was careful to use “Can”, and you’ll notice how I strove to the extreme case, and even there it’s not all clear-cut.
      Look at the end, “Somewhat inured”, think of it as wearing a glove. It might be an extremely thin medical glove, or it can be a construction glove. There are different levels, and it may not prohibit one at all. But I think it often does, to varying degrees. And even if sometimes it doesn’t, the possibility is worthy of discussion even so.
      Also, regarding inevitable, I addressed the same point. Sometimes you know where the end of a story is, like when watching a movie knowing that the “Good guys” will win. It still often leaves you impacted. Notice also the beginning regarding the anime; if you are made to care about the story and characters over a lengthy period of time, even if you know all the while where the story is going to, that inevitable conclusion will still touch you. Sometimes it touches you because it was inevitable and no matter what the characters did they still ended up there, but what works in a story doesn’t always work in a game, such as powerful NPCs, lack of choice, etc.
      And of course, sometimes we know the story and are still affected by it, but I sometimes wonder if we choose to be affected by it before even engaging with it. For instance, I have some movies and serieses where I know there’s a bit that’ll make me choke up, and every so often I load these bits up, just these bits, and I still get moved. Perhaps I move myself before even watching them, like someone imagining the taste of lemon salivating and tasting it?
      ETA: About watching the jerk actor in an emotional movie: Not everyone can do it, just look at people who can’t separate artists from their creations.

  2. rob_donoghue says:

    This is a great post and I keep not having the time to give it the response it deserves, but let me just say, the topic is near and dear to my heart.

  3. yukineko says:

    On a tangent to a tangent (which would probably be the same line), do you have one of them facebook account thingies?

  4. […] I seem to have said so once before regarding emotional connection, to characters, characters in roleplaying games seem devoid of “minds”. All we get to […]

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