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An Example of Emotioneering™ *
By David Freeman
(310) 394-0361

Art by Jason Manley

* "Emotioneering"™ is my trademarked term for a vast body of techniques for evoking a breadth and depth of emotion in games, as well as for immersing a player in a role or in a game's world.


I came from a background of Hollywood screenwriting, as well as teaching "Beyond Structure," the most popular screenwriting class in Los Angeles (offered as well in New York, London, and Sydney).

With backup from my game design/writing consultancy The Freeman Group, I've been actively working on games for Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Sony, Activision, Atari, Microsoft Games Studios, Vivendi Universal Games,
3D Realms, Midway Games, and others.

The incentive behind those who engage the Freeman Group's services is that they wish to put a greater depth and breath of emotion into their games. As every game player knows, currently very few games offer much emotional scope or complexity.

I'd like to examine a few issues surrounding emotion in games.

Why Put Emotion into games?

For games that contain either characters and/or stories, those which engage players emotionally have a towering advantage. They'll get better player "buzz," higher praise in the press, and the members of development team which makes the game will pour more passion into their work. While the artistic merits of adding emotion into games might be sufficient justification for some, let's not forget that all this translates into increased sales for the game and its sequels.

Also, there are many people who will never start playing games until games become as emotionally engaging as films and television.


As mentioned earlier, Emotioneering refers to the expanisive body of techniques for evoking a breadth and depth of emotion in games, as well as for immersing a player in a role or in a game's world. These techniques fall into 32 categories.

This article will refer to the picture by artist Jason Manley on the cover of my new book, "Creating Emotion in Games" (with a forward by Will Wright, creator of "The Sims"). The book details 300 Emotioneering techniques, representing all the different Emotioneering categories.

This cover painting depicts a hypothetical game. It demonstrates 10 Emotioneering techniques, drawn from 7 of the 32 categories.

Take a look at the hero with the gun. He's the character you play.

When the character you play fights not just for his or her own survival, but for the survival of another (in this case, the young woman), it heightens the hero's likeability and thus increases our willingness to step into that role. It's a "Role Induction Technique."

Being willing to take responsibility for -- or even sacrifice oneself for -- another character gives the player depth, just as taking responsibility for someone else gives a person depth in real life. It's is a "First-Person Deepening Technique."

Taking responsibility for an NPC (a "non-player character") has another function as well -- it makes us bond with the character we help. Your helping this woman increases your closeness, or "chemistry" with her. So does the fact that the two of you are going through this harrowing ordeal together. Both of these are "Player Toward NPC Chemistry Techniques."

Turn your attention to the young woman whom you're rescuing. Is she actually human?

For the first time in the game, you see that her spirit can separate from her body. Thus we have a mystery. Intriguing mysteries motivate the player to continue moving forward. They're a "Motivation Technique."

Earlier in the game, the young woman will have given away the location of your stronghold to the creatures, thinking (at that time) that you were evil and the creatures were good. As a result, a friend of yours (an NPC) was injured -- and then changed into one of the hideous creatures you're now fighting.

Even though the young woman was simply misled earlier, it's still not emotionally easy to rescue her, considering what happened to your friend. You'll have some mixed feelings about saving her. This is an "Emotionally Complex Situation."

Let's take a closer look at her -- and at her spirit, in blue, which is separating from her body, having already "reconciled" to the idea that she is about to die.

The young woman is terrified -- but her "spirit" is serene, and not at all afraid of her impending death. In short, she's ambivalent about dying. Ambivalence is one many ways to give emotional depth to an NPC; it's an "NPC Deepening Technique."

You, the player, are in a terrible situation. You're highest chance for survival, slim at best, is to let the woman drop to her death and use your second hand to fire an additional weapon.

Putting the player in positions where he or she must make tough choices -- and these choices have real consequences (like the hero's or the woman's possible deaths) -- creates emotional depth in the player. It's similar to how, in real life, we grow emotionally by confronting difficult choices. It's a "First-Person Deepening Technique."

(Game designers know that branching story-lines cause plot nightmares and can be expensive to build. However, there's a way to give the player the decision as to whether to save the young woman or not that doesn't require two entirely separate story-lines to be built into the game: (1) If you let her fall, you think she's dead, but it turns out she that doesn't die. (2) If you save her, she leaves this level for some reason or another shortly afterwards. Thus most of the level is played without her in either case, and few new assets need to be built. And in both cases, she'll be back in the next level, though she'll be angry and distrustful of you if you didn't protect her here. Since, at this point in the game (depicted in the picture) you don't know that she will survive the fall, you still get to experience the emotional power of the terrible choice as to whether you should save her -- or save yourself.)

Back to our hypothetical game…

Your best friend has been changed into one of the creatures -- the one at whom you're pointing your gun. You'll need to kill him if you are to survive. This is another "Emotionally Complex Situation."

I'd like to talk about the bridge for a moment. It will end up being a source of emotion as well.

You rescue the young woman on the bridge. Later in the game, she'll rescue you on this very same bridge. In the final level, when all hope seems lost, she'll try to jump off this bridge to her death. She can't live with the fact that she endangered earth by letting these aliens get a foothold in our world, even if she did so unknowingly. This time, you can't save her with your hand -- you can only save her by showing her that there's still hope.

You'll daringly leap off the bridge, grabbing onto an alien craft hurling by, which is piloted by the creatures' leader. The craft will crash, but both you and the alien commander will survive. The final fight will begin. It's an insanely brave move, but your act of courage will inspire the young woman. Her hope will be reignited and she'll rejoin the fight. This time, you will have rescued her again -- not physically, but emotionally.

The bridge will be the setting of all these quite stirring rescues, and thus will gradually become a location saturated with emotion.

The bridge will become a symbol of rescuing and being rescued. It won't be the kind of symbol the player intellectually "figures out," but rather one which affects the player emotionally whether he or she is consciously aware of it or not. This is just one of many ways to create symbols in games which both have emotional impact, and which play a role in gameplay. I call such symbols "Usable Symbols."

Final Thoughts

There are many other aspects of Emotioneering other than the categories of techniques represented here. For instance, there are techniques for giving an NPC emotional depth, even if that NPC speaks just one line of dialogue in the entire game. There are techniques for tying the game's story to its gameplay. There are techniques for making cinematics emotionally powerful. And there are many other categories of techniques as well.

The advancement in game visuals and programming have not been met by advances in creating emotional immersion. With the highly competitive nature of the game market, engaging the player emotionally becomes a powerful hook to both players and game press alike. And if games are going to continue their evolution from mere entertainment to becoming, like the best films, a combination of entertainment and art, then they must start offering meaningful and emotionally rich experiences. When they do, there's a large group of film and television watchers who will finally find their way to games.

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