Games that play with our minds…

It happened again last night.

I dreamt the dream where I see the boy, but he runs from me. I try to save him but he disappears into the shadows. Then I see him again, he’s running, I attempt to reach him but it’s like I’m moving in slow motion. Finally I get to where he is, kneeling on the grass, but as I hold out my hand he bursts into flames…and is gone.

I wake up in my bed….breath deeply for a moment, then lay back staring out of the shielded display as the galaxy flies past the Normandy and the quiet hum of the ships engines rumbles in the background. One day I’ll make those reapers pay for the horrors they’ve made me see…

For those of you who have played Mass Effect 3 you’ll know the scene above well. It’s part of a recurrent storyline where the hero has flashbacks to a boy he saw killed by alien invaders at the start of the game. It adds a sense of emotional weight to the narrative and, although a little crude, it succeeds in heightening the atmosphere of the game. This isn’t the only area where the heart strings are pulled. Long-term characters risk their lives, or show how the impeding war that threatens the end of the universe has them worrying about how they’ll fare. Century spanning cultural feuds are brought to peace, strange alliances made, and even sweet sweet love awaits the player of this epic tale.

Once you go blue…

But among the blockbuster scenes and moments of staged pathos I’ve noticed an odd and increasingly regular behaviour I’m displaying.

That is…..crying at video games.

Don’t judge me. I’m only human….maybe part Asari now after my romantic entanglements with Liara.

That’s right, I’ve started crying while playing games. Now in the past this was more likely caused by frustration at a badly designed level that rendered completing the game virtually impossible. Sometimes there was genuine pain involved, like when I injured myself playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. But of late it has been more because I’m finding myself emotionally invested in the games I play. Now, full disclosure here, I can be a bit of a blubberer. Sit me down in front of a Pixar film and chances are by the end of the movie my glasses will be steamed up due to the heat coming off my red raw eyes. I can’t watch Scrubs without a few salty pilgrims making their way down my cheek, and if they ever re-run the Wonder Years I might actually die from dehydration. But games?

I never expected this.

The glory days of emotionally neutral gaming

When I started out back in 1982 with my ZX Spectrum games were simple affairs. Jump over this, try to avoid falling into that, collect these random items and store them in magical pockets that never fill or slow you down. You know, normal stuff. Now I’m negotiating for peaceful settlements between age-old enemies, deciding the moral implications of certain practices and whether their proponents should be accepted our destroyed. I’m even trying to work out how to get the gorgeous genetic mutant with a fiery temper to fall for me so we can be saved together forever on my Xbox in naughty bliss. To be honest…games are getting to be hard work.

Whereas I used to switch off and relieve stress by playing NHL or FIFA, now I’m trying to conserve energy so I’ll be able to make the right choice or work out where this path may lead me emotionally. The weight of consequences weigh heavy on the shoulders, and I live in the knowledge that to see the other ways the story could have run I’d need to start the game again from the beginning. But I can’t do that as it would feel like it I’d be letting down the character I’d bonded with if I played him differently. It’s exhausting. No wonder I’m crying.

In truth I love the way that games have evolved. To have the chance to star in an epic adventure that thrills the sense, moves the heart, and stirs the soul is a glorious thing. The fact that this can be done on a sofa with a cool beer and large tin of Pringles within easy reach makes it all the better. I just wonder how deeper the experience will get in the next ten years, and if I’m mentally strong enough to stay in the game…


Do video games affect you emotionally? What moments stick with you the most? Leave me your answers in the comments below…

3 thoughts on “Games that play with our minds…”

  1. There’s a long-running issue where Roger Ebert (my favourite film critic by a mile) claimed that video games could never be art, and stuck to that claim in the face of several changes. I’ve not followed his blog closely in the last year or so, so maybe he backed down now; but whether we has or not, his initial position is looking sillier with each passing year.

    I’m probably safe from blubbing if only because I don’t have the time to play the kinds of games that engage that deeply — the most I can find is the odd half hour here and there for a bit of Forza 3, Just Cause 2 or Portal, none of which is particularly deep on an emotional level. But I see glimpses in some of the games that my sons play.

    IIRC Radio 4 did a Front Row recently dedicated entirely to video games. If that’s not a sign of mainstream acceptance of video games as an art-form, I don’t know what is!


  2. I think a few years ago Ebert might have had a point. Games were far more rudimentary and basically just enjoyable entertainment. As technology has increased so has the ability for a substantial narrative to emerge. Games like Half Life 2 and Bioshock created worlds that acted as characters in the game. Then others, such as Mass Effect have pushed it further with a more emotional approach.

    The thing I wonder now is how an essentially voyeuristic art like cinema can hold out against the spectacle and direct envolvement that a quality game offers? Why watch the hero when you can be him?


  3. I agree that we are currently at or around a tipping-point where something recognisable as art becomes possible. What Ebert said probably did make sense when he first said it (apart from the foolish prediction that video games never will be art). Although I’d make a case for some of the Infocom text adventures of the 80s approaching art in places.

    I don’t think movies or TV need to worry too much, though. Yes, I can be the hero; but I’m not as good at it as Matt Smith is. And sometimes I want to just watch.


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