I don't want to save the world.
Not only am I desensitized to the world-threatening drama found in many games by the plethora of films that tackle the subject, but the world surrounding my in-game character simply isn't my world. I haven't assimilated it yet, and without any collateral to save this world I've never learned about, I can't really be bothered to feel attached. Better games will try to establish an emotional connection between the player and the game world before threatening to take it away; most games fail to create any sense of attachment whatsoever. This detachment is amplified moreso by our tendency to be virtually lazy, of all things.
When I play a game, no matter how immersive the mechanics or excellent the visuals, it's still not my world - the only world I would care about saving. I am extremely detached from the subject matter and for that reason much prefer games which focus their narrative on a more personal level. I'd really be more interested in a hero's journey home from work than saving the world, if that journey meant something to that character and I could get involved in the emotion.
Today I watched LA Confidential. It made me passionately want a character to shoot an unarmed man in the back. I'm really not a violent person, but this man was the villain and absolutely deserved it. Watching him die was satisfying. Really, I'm NOT a violent person! Let me explain…
LA Confidential established the villain late in the film, and betraying a lead character who had placed faith in the villain was a sure-fire way to get us riled up. As the film developed, the extent of the villain's atrocities became apparent and more vile; by the end of the film, one of the heroes is presented with the chance to defy his moral integrity and kill the villain. The audience is given time to ache for the villain's blood, and is rewarded with the "justice" they desire.
Killing villains in films and games is nothing new. But even when I play a game with a clear, established nemesis, my anger is rarely genuinely tantalized nor sated on that villain's demise.
Of the basic emotions listed by psychologist Robert Plutchik (Joy, Trust, Fear, Surprise, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Anticipation) anger is relatively underutilized in gaming (at least beyond incidental frustration with the game – something entirely different!). Game designers spend hours plotting reward and progression charts in order to maximize player joy and build anticipation. Surprise, fear, and disgust are watchwords of the horror genre. Many games kill off loved characters to instill sadness, but rarely manage to couple it with a feeling of real anger.
It should be said that there are moral complications surrounding fostering anger and rewarding its release in games -- developers have a responsibility to avoid turning gamers into hateful human beings. One has to wonder, however, whether the existing 'casualise and desensitise' approach to murdering swathes of enemies in games is any more healthy. Honestly, I just don't know. An interesting watch is Extra Credits' recent video on Propaganda Games – there's a serious danger of abusing the invocation of anger. But movies seem to do it well, so why can't we do it in games?
-Mike "mikemike37" Pickton, read more of his musings on his blog.