Games are becoming much more interactive and cinematic in the experiences they offer. They're no longer linear in terms of story or gameplay, and narratives are weaved that cover a broad scope in terms of genres. We have games stocked with humor and comedy in Portal and Ace Attorney, disturbing horror from Silent Hill and FEAR, emotional epic rollercoasters like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, paranormal intrigue paired with the classic murder mystery in titles like Fahrenheit, and then quaint ambiguous walks amongst a silent yet living world in Dear Esther.
Excluding some genres of course.
Many games need more than good gameplay and descriptive scenery writing to execute actual realism and good storytelling. Emotion is a powerful driving force in reality and a vital part of storytelling. How scenes and dialogue are written and then executed orally can make or break an entire adventure in some cases. Likewise, Limbo is a good example of a game where the art style alone can really hammer home the feeling of dread and loneliness. Simplicity can often be a more obvious method of emotional expression.
Humor is subjective, but there are ways of pleasing a majority or at least not coming across as lazy and just desperate. Games like Phoenix Wright may have very little voice acting, but what they do have is quite passionate and funny in that regard. The shout of "OBJECTION" is one that’s repeated outside of the game by fans and is a staple of the series. And the dry, sarcastic tone of voice used by Ellen McLain in the Portal series is now famous and loved. If you’re going to play a psychotic, sarcastic robot, then you gotta talk the talk, and McLain’s deadpan execution speckled with apt moments of actual human emotion is one of the reasons people love GLaDOS so much.
Horror won't work if simple attributions like fear aren't coming through via the voice actors. A character can meander around a spooky, foggy graveyard, and every time something eerie pops up just scream a generic "rarrgh" and keep on moving. But that’s not going to leave a lasting impression of genuine fear, and worse, won’t have had any buildup to help drive home the atmosphere.
Buildup and the causing of anticipation in the viewer or gamer is a key element in effectively provoking a fright or tingle of goose bumps. Change in breathing, talking to one's self, erratic noises, hesitance -- these traits can introduce so much more alongside the aesthetic atmosphere of horror games.
Fahrenheit was a game that wasn't horror-centered and yet had paranormal and bizarre elements embedded throughout. It also produced the standard, well-known and loved feel of a moody detective story. Confusion, anger, fear, and even the sound of unwavering reassurance that things were black and white, came across excellently due to the voice acting and writing of that game. The art direction also really gave life to a game that really deserved the work it got and the underrated praise it received.
Good, emotive phone sex needn't be bland and done standing up. In this area, Fahrenheit is teaching a bad lesson.
Like or loathe it, Dear Esther is a game where very little happens. All you really do is walk around, and it's easy to dismiss as not being a worthy, story-driven game (or a game at all). Yet due to the tone used by the narrator, the sound effects that contribute highly to the atmosphere, and the exceptional writing, Dear Esther may have been a boring game in terms of play, but it is certainly not one lacking in emotion.
As consumers get fussier -- rightly or wrongly -- more effort in general is needed to produce stellar, story-driven games. Emotions aren't a sissy thing; they’re not a gender-exclusive trait and they aren't limited in description or occasion. There are hundreds of ways to express sorrow and joy, fear and indifference. Games that have the means in terms of technology for character model expressions, writers who really care about their worlds, and voice actors who treat games with the same respect they would a job where their faces were seen can produce amazing works that reach and reverberate with gamers and the whirlwind of emotions we feel on a daily basis.
Unless those emotions are ones of sexual yearnings for dramatic emo pigeon boyfriends. Then you’re on your own.
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