The Lazy Designer

Creating Emotion in Games – Guilt as Gameplay Mechanic

The Day My Horse Died

There’s a drive from several studios in the videogames industry to start building emotional experiences, hoping to hook player’s into storylines and franchises by using more sophisticated storytelling methods. Many of these, like the detailed movie-eque conversation systems that the Mass Effect franchise use have achieved significant strides in this area.

But even in a longer developed industry like movie making, ‘creating emotion’ is still very difficult. Drama can become melodrama — a scene that should make a person cry, might evoke laughter instead if mistimed. And at the end of the day some people just like different things than others — when I went to see the movie Titanic the audience was split, with equal measures of hecklers and weepers. In my experience in the game’s industry the ‘heckler’ is an even more pervasive presence. So, there’s always a danger that the resources being spent to invoke emotion might be wasted (player didn’t connect emotionally).

Books, movies, games, all rely on emotion connections — to characters, worlds, plots, and so on. Games are an interesting medium in that they have all the potential of books or movies (text, sounds, visual effects) but they also introduce gameplay, which doesn’t really exist in the other mediums. And with gameplay, one particular emotional response can be played around with that is absent in most other mediums.


See, a player has control of their actions in the gameplay world. They are responsible for what they do. This is, in my opinion, one of the factors that contributes to the success of open-world games like Oblivion and Fallout (these are games where the player can virtually explore an entire world, choosing their quests based on preference). As the player interacts with the world, they become in some ways, an assistant architect in the creation of that world. And for some players, the attachment that such a relationship forms, can be used, for emotional impact — and with less cost than elaborate, staged performances.

You mentioned a horse?

One of the strongest emotional events that occurred to me happened in the game Oblivion. And it wasn’t the storyline that did it for me. Early on in the game i obtained a horse. That in and of itself was awesome, being able to race across fields. But I started being reckless and one fateful day I was rushing down a steep hill when something terrible happened. The horse flipped over. By the time we finished tumbling, its was bent, all twisted apart and very much dead.

I just stared at it for several minutes. Now different people would have different reactions — I’m sure many would probably laugh their heads off — but some, like me, would be a little distressed. If I hadn’t been racing the horse so quickly, it would never have died!

But regardless, whether the player was upset or amused by the occurrence, such a dramatic event emerging spontaneously from gameplay is a great opportunity for a game designer. Any role-playing game worth its price already has the player making choices and impacting the world, though depending on studio budget the ‘impact’ may be minimal or moderate. I’d argue that if the impact can be expanded, well past moderate, gamer’s emotional connection to the game will increase. That is, if more action-responses are added to the game, this relatively inexpensive mechanism can be used to enhance a player’s connection to the world.

So not only should characters encountered comment on actions the player takes, the world should be constructed so that the player can take ownership, in one form or another, of elements of that world. That might be open-ended gameplay, with horses/vehicles, it might be a stronghold with servants depending on the player, or being the leader of a squad of soldiers. That element of responsibility should be present, but the player shouldn’t be forced into a assuming a role. Don’t tell them they must take care of their horse, or be a benevolent ruler, or firm taskmaster. Just let them do what they do, and they’ll have their own actions and reactions.

And then, as a designer, you track what they’ve done and comment on it. Cheaply.

For example, in the Oblivion game, a simple reaction to my ‘horsekilling’ might have been that other horses, when approached, started backing away, or making whatever noise an angry horse makes. Maybe the reaction is minimal with one horse, but say if I’ve managed to hill-kill several horses, the reactions could become more severe. Minimal scripting… this could be taken further with vocal one-liners, or even some dialog, but don’t underestimate the impact of low-level reactions.

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Adam

    I love Oblivion, and I’ve done some pretty stupid things in the game, but I’ve never managed to kill a horse. That could be partially due to the insufferably boring task of keeping track of it in the first place, or maybe I’m just lucky.
    Either way, as far as this sort of thing goes, it’s JUST A GAME. Rarely ever, even in the best of games do any deep emotions get involved for me.

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