Rolling Through Emotions

I am a video gamer. Have been since I first learned how to play Super Mario Brothers. Then came Half Life, Half Life: Opposing Force, Age of Empires 1 &2, and Mechwarrior 3. All games with a story that hooked the player into it. 

I remember the night I beat Mechwarrior 3. It was a school night, I was a sophomore in high school then. I believe it was a Thursday.  Everybody else in the house was asleep, except for me. I had stayed up late to finish homework, and figured I’d reward myself with a quick attempt at beating the current level I had paused on last. Mechwarrior is one of those games with a deep, engrossing storyline, from tabletop to computers to the fairly well-written books, with a strong continuity. And yours truly was a junkie for mech-on-mech combat.

It should come as no surprise that Mong the Magnificent arrived at this point, proclaiming “it’ll only take a couple more levels to beat the game, why not give it a go?” So I did. Mind you, Mong visited sometime around 2100.  Near 0300, I finally killed Galaxy Commander Brendon Corbett, after playing the last half of the game!

I didn’t notice the passage of time because I was busily having fun and enjoying a beautifully crafted story. I got approximately 2 hours of shut eye, made it through class, and slept like a dead man when I came home. But I felt accomplished. I felt I had done something that mattered, even if only to me. 

If story matters, then the elements within that story are what sell it. Video games are unique in that they are not simply something we view with our eyes, but hear with our ears, and physically participate in. Video game stories are more than just “move Character A from position X to position .” I own the original Halo soundtrack on CD. The music helped make that game. And it could really play on your nerves. 

I remember hating the Covenant, but I feared the Flood. Listen to the music and notice from one level to another how much worse trying to move through a night time jungle shrouded in mist while fighting off the parasitic hell creatures of the Flood, compared with simply fending off Covenant boarding parties. It makes a difference both in the atmosphere of the game and how players respond.

Do we as writers take the time to really play on our readers’ emotions? Do we set the atmosphere such that they are drawn in? Halo’s game designers deliberately added certain factors, which lend to the emotional state of the player- it’s jungle, everything is dark, you’ve got ersatz music playing on frayed nerves, and now you’re running around in the dark, chased by zombies, your NPC teammates are dropping every time you take contact, and you’re lost. 

I’ll say that again: YOU ARE LOST. There is no magic beacon telling you how far you have to go to reach safety. You’re simply running as fast as you can and trying not to become a lunchable for zombies. Oh, and you’re low on ammo. It’s rough on the psyche. As it should be. 

When we can draw out strong emotional responses, even negative feelings, from our readers, from our viewers, we’re doing something right. When we can help direct them a certain way, through sound, through character experience and interaction, we’re doing something right. We’re creating a story that people will recommend to others. If we’ve set it up for a sequel, we’re absolutely going to get readers coming back and buying our wares again. They’re mentally, emotionally, and physically invested in what we’re doing. 

Fear shouldn’t be the only thing we can create, but it ought to be in our repertoire. Constant joy is only good if your name is Joel Osteen. Fiction readers want the whole emotional roller coaster, from fight to flight and everything in between. Examine the matter for yourself, look at what readers are demanding, and figure out how you’re going to fill that need they possess. Because readers represent buyers, with cash. And brother, exposure doesn’t pay the rent, or put shoes on your feet, but money? Money talks.  Just like a well-crafted story talks to the emotional state and soul of the reader.



  1. Someone once remarked what made DOOM truly different, back when it was still a pioneer among first-person shooters, was the *fear*. Other games came after you, but the DOOM experience was more visceral and more real. You’d already had enough fatal experiences that you really believed those first barons and that first cyberdemon were beyond hope. And when you learned you could kill them… oh, the triumph. Other games had battles and terrors, but DOOM was different, because it was focused on what you could believe, and what you could do with that belief. Other games tried to be immersive. DOOM depended on willing suspension of disbelief; you immersed *yourself*, and that made it feel far more real. You were gonna DIE. But you WON.

    Consider that a metaphor for, say, the roller coaster of the Hero’s Journey, and for SF/F in general.

    And there were as many new levels to explore as there are books in the library. And some can be played multiple ways, much as one can read some works for story, or style, or message, and become immersed anew in each experience.

    [Indeed, as some of us have griped about — as the quantity of quality reading material declined, for me DOOM picked up much of the slack, and still remains my preferred brain relaxer. And now there are good level autogenerators, which might be a metaphor for cozies, so I’ll never run out.]

    I do find it funny that I’ll remember some very old map as terrifying and difficult, but when I replay it, discover that the terror consists of three imps and a pinkie. How many times have we reread some childhood favorite, only to wonder what we saw in it?

    1. Oh yeah. The variable lighting, the sound of distant growling, and the ever-present fear that you might trip some secret door that releases a monster that could rip you to shreds.

  2. I’ve found fear, despair, and anguish far easier to draw out than true joy or happiness. Negative emotions just… flow. They haven’t been hard to grasp. They were easy when I started writing horror short stories decades ago, and they’re still that way today.

    Every person has a dark part of their psyche where the monsters lives. Those monsters both *are* us and aren’t, I suppose. It is the light elements frustrate me. Courage can pair well with violence and gore. But other kinds of light, tenderness, gentle mischief, comraderie, filial love and so on require just the right touch.

    It’s too easy to make them shallow. Facile, like a cheesy tv PSA. A balance between the heart pounding fear and adrenaline and the delicious, righteous victory makes for a better story. A had fought battle with a whimper at the end doesn’t quite have the impact of the long arc from humble beginning to confident ending.

    All of the emotions are tools to use. Or pigments in the pallette, I suppose. Without shadows, the picture loses depth. So the story without the dark emotions loses something as well. I just have more problems in the other direction.

    1. David L. Burkhead has a piece about his problems with grimdark, and what happens when authors forget that you need light to make chiroscuro (the high-contrast of light and shadow that deepens the shadow).

      Stories involve solving problems. Often, in sci-fi and fantasy, the problems are darker than most people’s real-world days, and so it’s harder to get the brights in without sounding like Polyanna or one of those people who are positively perky in every way to the point of annoying other people. At least, that’s where I have difficulty.

      1. That sounds very familiar to advice I heard back in the early nineties. I’m still working on it, and stealing candles from the greats (of course, because there’s always someone better and lots and lots of someones when you start waaaay down at the bottom. *grin*).

        My very few cheerful characters have a habit of being ever-so-slightly psychotic in some way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but believable non-Polyanna? Yeah, haven’t got a good handle on that one yet.

        One of the things I keep meaning to get around to is doing a story on each of the virtues. That was one of the practice headings I picked up but never finished some years ago. Perhaps its time to man up and give it another try.

        After all, the worst stories ever are the ones that you never write, right? *chuckle* Once it’s out in the world, it can improve. And make the next one better.

      2. I remember playing the first Myst game, which was PURE problem solving, and my brother and I doing the railway maze at night. With the lights turned off. And the maze was you riding in a little rail car thing with nothing but dark tunnels lit only by the light from the front of that car.

        Even if we knew there were no monsters, we were intensely creeped out and scared, because of the quiet, the occasional noise, the echoing sounds against the cave walls…and what little you could see from the light in front of you.

    2. Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.

      ― J.R.R. Tolkien

  3. I’ve been watching “No Game No Life” on Netflix the last couple of nights. A cartoon, in Japanese with subtitles, it is more fun than anything I’m seeing out of Hollywood the last ten years except Marvel. I looked at the listings of what’s playing this week at the theater, and there’s nothing I feel moved to leave the house to see.

    What’s the thing that makes the silly anime better? Character design and story. The writing.

Comments are closed.