Dana Massey writes an excellent article on The Escapist about the recurring topic of emotion in games. I had some comments about it:
In truth it’s a simple problem and Dana touches on it with great insight: most games rely on being a series of challenges that HAVE to be overcome. The attention of the player is forced into success or failure, where failure interrupts the narrative and emotional experience. In a way, it’s like having to pass a test after each chapter in a book. Would you be so immersed in the issues of the characters and situations if you always had that concern in the back of your head? "I’m sorry, you can’t experience Act II in Hamlet because you haven’t truly grasped all the implications of what happened in Act I." Your enjoyment and emotions would turn into an academic study of the play, which is why so many "forced readings" in teenage literary studies fail to transmit the beauty of the art (sometimes it works, and it’s an important part of general education, but I’m sure you’ll recognize the feeling).
Total Annihilation won’t be remembered as a pinnacle of emotion in games, but it’s interesting that Chris Taylor decided to experiment in that area: if you fail a mission, you can still move on to the next one. You don’t need to feel stuck, you don’t need to be anxious and concerned about your success, you can let go of your worries and just play the game as comfortably as you can. The missions themselves played in the standard manner, but I found it a really interesting and engaging concept.
Another experiment, this time self-imposed, was playing Unreal 2 in god mode. At some I had become so annoyed by the long load times, that I just went ahead and used the cheat. Woah! I still tried to outplay the enemies and puzzles, but the attitude change was astounding… I was experiencing the game rather than fighting against it. The game had no subtle emotions to transmit, but I’m damn sure I would have been much better prepared to experience them in this fashion.
Those two examples come from the leftfield because neither was aimed at improving the emotional or "higher art" elements in those games. As dynamics, they are also quite pure. Taclking the whole problem of what to do when you remove the requirement for success in the challenges is, as you say, a very compelx topic and one that easily brings production nightmares. That’s why I like to isolate aspects like those I described.
The classic emotions elicited by games are: fear, anxiety, frustration, surprise, attention, desire, and the usual range of sensory or thought overload. You are too busy for anything else to take place inside your head.
Games like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus have all of those, but they cue in other ideas like empathy, awe, mistery, concern and devotion. They do so probably more through what they don’t do: they don’t keep you necessarily busy and overloaded with activity; They don’t explain every little bit; they surround you by an environment and a pacing that oftentimes lets (encourages!) your mind roam free to ask "Where did all this come from? What happened here? Who was here before me? Why does this have to happen?" While you play, a part of your is left alone to think, wonder and create a unique internal experience which you can relate to, because you created it.
Another interesting read on emtion in Shadow Of The Colossus can be found here.