Confessions of a Crybaby
(And His Interview With Charles Cecil)

By John Walker on August 31st, 2007 at 8:54 am.

This is a piece that was previously published in The Escapist. It’s a favourite of mine. Not only because I got to further seal my fate as gaming’s crying fool, but also because it offered me an opportunity to interview the fantastic (Uncle) Charles Cecil about one of my favourite gaming moments.

Confessions of a Crybaby

I am a crybaby. And I don’t care what you think. Well, that’s simply not true, is it? If I didn’t care what you think, I wouldn’t be setting out to write a piece, on a widely read website, explaining why the crybaby gets the best deal. I deeply care what you think. In fact, if you don’t like me, I may… sniffle… come on, let’s get on with it.

Awwwwwwwwwww

I think anyone who might take the stance that games cannot make you cry is either a sociopath, has never played Angel of Darkness and tried to walk in a straight line, or simply a big, lying coward. Begone, cowards! Today is the day of the ludicrously emotional – we shall triumph and probably get all weepy as we accept our victory.

Let me put things in context. I can’t watch a Muppet movie without crying (please, no jokes about Muppet’s Treasure Island – I’ve deliberately never watched it). Not just in the amazingly sad bits where only evil monsters made of angry stone wouldn’t shed 14 buckets of salt water, but pretty much all the way through. There’s just something about them, something about the love behind them, the passion that fuelled (past tense, thanks to their vile murder via the Disney purchase – more crying here) their very existence. The purpose of this aside? To hyper-stress what a sap I am. The sappiest of the sappy. It’s established. We can progress.

After the hurdle: Interview with Charles Cecil.

I believe that being able to burst into tears while playing a game is a great boon to a person. And I’m taking this as far as it will go. Were you to break down and sob every time you lost a race in Project Gotham, I’d have nothing but the deepest of respect for you. I’d think you a weirdo, but I’d respect you. Why? Here’s the rub: You would be connecting with the game, and be being transformed by it.

My fellow crybaby

I want to present an example: 2003’s adventure, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. It was a splendid game, frustrated slightly by its wobbly steps into three dimensions, and certainly underplaying its historical/mythological base in an attempt to win over a console generation, but all the same a thoroughly engrossing post-point-and-click adventure game. Having played the previous two in the series, during the ’90s, I’d always enjoyed them, but never felt an overwhelming relationship with the central characters: George, the daft but big-hearted, American, world-traveling lawyer; and Nico, French photo-journalist, and the deeply sarcastic will-she-won’t-she target of George’s affections. Something changed about the third game – perhaps it was the accursed 3-D betraying a positive consequence via the portrayal of emotions on the character’s faces – but this time they began to matter.

There’s a scene toward the end (spoiler fans) where George, Nico and long-term friend Bruno are in a pyramid. It’s all coming down, and death is imminent. The dilemma: The only way to keep the door open to leave is for someone to stay inside. It’s sacrifice time. Now, this is not a new idea on any level, and killing someone to create an emotional response can be a sledgehammer technique. But Broken Sword did something clever.

“It’s all about empathy,” says Broken Sword’s creator, Charles Cecil. “In a third-person game, like in a film, it’s all about empathy. You never think you are that guy, but the aim is to have you experiencing the same emotions as the him.”

Uncle Charles Cecil

Bruno, a man probably in his 70s, tells George and Nico very firmly that he will stay inside, and they must save themselves. There isn’t time for deliberation, and Bruno’s severity is convincing enough in that moment. They run for the exit.

“You’ve got to believe that you share emotions with him. With George, we’re trying to tread a very careful line between association and empathy. Clearly you’re not George, but we you want to have more association than you would in a movie.”

The giant stone door slams down, Bruno is trapped, the situation is over, and now just the horror remains.

“We’ve got to accept that in games we’re not good at profound emotions. We’re much better at visceral emotions. Guns are wonderful in gameplay, because they work. Classical gameplay is about trying something, failing, knowing why you failed, trying again, and eventually feeling, ‘fantastic, I’ve done it!’ There’s no ambiguity about firing a gun and having it hit, or not hit. That’s the visceral. It’s much more obvious.”

George and Nico stare at one another. There’s silence. And they stare. And George’s eyes widen, his face crumples, and he is punched by grief. Nico’s face softens, her fixed scowl suddenly gone, and you know in that moment that she loves George unconditionally. It is the consummation players have longed for the series’ whole existence, and it is more beautiful than anyone could have imagined. It is tragedy, remorse, grief, companionship, relationship, passion and love. And I cried. I just sat there, looked at this unspoken scene, and wept.

“We’re right on the peripheral in trying to create profound emotions, or, in inverted commas, ‘games that make you cry.’”

She finally shows him an emotion.

So, how does Cecil achieve this? How do his characters manage to matter? It comes down to a lot of thought and preparation. “There’s a set of three areas that have to be established,” Cecil explains. “First of all, you’ve got to believe in your characters. Second, you’ve got to empathize with them. And third, you’ve got to share their motivations. And once you’ve got all that, then hopefully you’ll start to love your characters. And only at that point can you be effective.”

Certainly suggesting nothing disparaging about the game itself, Cecil mentions Metal Gear Solid’s characters as a comparison. “They’re stereotypes. And because they created stereotypes, they’ve written them stereotypical dialogue. So you cannot care about them.” He’s right. I don’t believe in them, I don’t empathize with them, and I don’t share their motivations, and hence I don’t love them. I would be impressed by the player who wept when Snake died. And that’s despite the desperate hollered wail of “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” by any one of his compatriots. It’s a false “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” impossible to believe in, and in my experienced opinion, a source of great amusement with which to shout along. It doesn’t matter when Snake dies – he exists to die, over and over. He offers the visceral emotion, and attempts nothing more. Should this be enough to make you cry, by the way, you win.

So why does Bruno matter so much? Cecil observes, “If we tried to kill characters off too early, before you’d started to care about them, then that would come across as very cheap.” It comes back to his list of three checks: belief, empathy, and shared motivations equal love.

“We made you like his character, and then we put in a believable choice. It’s about loving them, and then believing in their situation. And then surprising the player. You were surprised that Bruno offered to do it, as were George and Nico, but you absolutely believed him.”

Noooooooooooooo!

Cecil and his team deliberately set out to embellish upon profundity. “Broken Sword 3 was primarily written by Neil Richards, who hadn’t worked on the previous games. Neil brought a classical slant, coming from film and television, and his approach was quite different. We tried to bring forward the central characters, to make the main story more profound.” And it worked. I love those guys.

This story has a pleasing punch line. Charles Cecil was speaking at the Edinburgh Games Festival in 2004, and shortly before I’d forwarded him an email from a reader of the U.K. PC Gamer, stating that the very scene had made him cry. Cecil was speaking immediately after the bigwigs of EA, who puffed out their chests and boasted that their mission, since the ’80s, has been to create games that would make the player cry, and that with this, that and the other, they believed that they were taking games to this place. Charles was then able to get up, take the mic, and begin, “Well, I recently received an email …”

***

So, there, an example of my becoming a complete blubbering wreck over a game. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times, games can make you cry. So, why is that a good thing?

I’d like to present the completely unscientific suggestion, with utter conviction, that such profound responses are the emotional equivalent of looking through 3D glasses. Allowing oneself to buy into a story and fall in love with its characters, despite its appearing on the computer screen, is to place the ridiculous looking red and green specs on your amygdala and have the game come alive in a transforming way.

It’s a giving over of oneself, a humbling step to allow a greater experience. Which means I wish I did cry whenever Snake died, or whenever my polygonal car collided with a tight corner’s barrier. It would, admittedly, make games like Tomb Raider too harrowing to play, constantly grieving the death of poor Lara, but each and every gaming session would be all the more powerful, important and life-changing.

Don't dieeeeeeeee!

Oh, but I’m mocked. Because of my pride and conviction in having such loose tear ducts and having a big mouth, others quickly know of my weepy gaming and perpetually soggy keyboard. Anyone who foolishly mentions The Longest Journey in my presence will hear great tale of how much I love April Ryan, and how important she is to me, how transforming her story has been, and how I cried and cried at the revelation of her adventures. And they look at me, unnerved, perhaps taking a couple of steps backward. At that point, not seeing any sense, I’ll probably confess that the latest Tomb Raider – Legend – brought dampness to my eyes with Lara’s newfound motivation … Ah, and there it is again.

I never cared about Lara before. Think about how unemotional her deaths are. Oh, Lara’s been chopped up by some blades. Oh, Lara’s drowned. Oh, Lara’s fallen onto spikes for the 50th time in a row. There was no emotional resonance, no sense of loss. This time, she explains why she raids tombs, and we see, in flashback, the horror of her mother’s death, partly her fault, and learn of her father’s subsequent public mocking in the face of his apparently crazy beliefs. Suddenly, thanks to a new development team (hopefully after the AoD developers had been fired into outer space), Lara has motivation. Exactly the ingredient Cecil referenced. She was grounded, made believable, and then given motivations with which I could empathize. And gosh, she brought a tear to my eye.

And then, it’s blank, scared faces, quickly replaced by the mocking. But I don’t care! I am a crybaby, and I’m proud! And I say cry-babies of the world, let us stand together, arms around each other’s shoulders, probably rather overwhelmed by the situation and getting a bit sniffly, and see off these mocking fools. Because it is they, those that look down on the emotionally mature, those that condemn us for forming relationships with our characters, that lose out. It is they who watch their games in flat, monotone misery, unable to let go of their pride, their stubborn grit, and let the tears flow.

They deserve our sympathy, fellow cry-babies. Do not hate them. They are the losers, and we are the winners. Shed a tear for them – it’s what we’re best at.

, , .

16 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. Martin Coxall says:

    There have been alarmingly few games that have been able to extract from me any emotional response at all, beyond the anger/arousal axis.

    To a certain extent, that’s not even games’ fault, it’s more a societal thing. Games are ‘supposed’ to be for young men, and Real Men are not allowed to cry. Anger and arousal are the only two socially acceptable emotions for young men, and anything else is a gross breach of societal norms.

    But, screw that. I want to be moved, I want to be upset, I want to be harrowed, feel love, remorse, guilt.

    So, a big round of applause to that small selection of games that have ever truly achieved it.

    Ico: I will always love you.

  2. Feet says:

    The happy ending to BioShock, while corny, had me welling up slightly. I put it down to being exceptionally tired that night. ¬_¬

  3. Dan Trott says:

    Oh boo hoo! Does ikkle jimmy want a tissue?

    Just kidding, great article. I felt a bit of an emotional twang recently when playing Bioshock when (**BIOSPOILER!!**) I was escorting the little sister as a big daddy, happily swatting down splicers and reprogramming sentry guns as they tried to get at my little charge (get ‘em Mr. B!) when all of a sudden a couple of tricksy spider splicers leapt over me and managed to mob her.
    I was horrified! They’d killed her and it was my fault and I was supposed to just get a new one and try again.
    I ended up reloading and doing the quicksave shuffle through that section so I could guarantee her survival.

  4. Acosta says:

    I love Charles Cecil, my first interview with a member of the industry was with him (in a presentation of The Sleeping Dragon). Is very hard but very rewarding when you do a game that makes the player care of the characters, wish more games had that capacity.

    But I disagree about Metal Gear Solid, of course I didn´t feel anything with the “snakeeeeee”, but there are few moments that are really moving from the first one: (SPOILERS)

    When you fight Sniper Wolf, and Meryl is hit, I felt moved about it, she was there, injured, maybe death, but I couldn´t approach her because would be shot if I tried. Or the moment I kill Sniper Wolf (maybe I felt moved at that moment for the music).

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    I laughed at Snake’s demise pretty much every time, but did well up a bit at the “Good” end of Bioshock. Hell, I welled up a bit in bloody World of Conflict yesterday.

    KG

  6. Masked Dave says:

    I cry at films all the time, just the other day I cried at Casablanca, (not at the ending, but the fantastic scene in the bar where the French sing some French song and drown out the German’s, its the incredible passion of these people, these lost, amoral, bottom feeders for the most part, this incredible passion to live free).

    But the only time I’ve welled up in games is during Okami. (Spoilers, mmkay?) The scene where Issun leaves Ameratsu is heart breaking, but the bit that really got me is later on, when you see he’s been going around, telling everyone about you, getting everyone to believe, that he’s fulfilled his destiny and saved you, that you win because of him and his friendship and devotion rather than your own skill.

    The good ending of BioShock personally didn’t do much for me, it felt a bit cliche really, although it was nice I guess. But I got a huge warm feeling inside whenever I saved a Little Sister (which I naturally did every time) and she thanked me.

    I want more games to have that Casablanca affect on me though, to really just feel the character’s emotions to the point it overwhelms me.

  7. Gylfi says:

    Ooh I love crying in games, it’s not sadness ofc, it’s overwhelming emotions. I cried at the befuddling beauty and candor of Guybrush lonely wandering through a starry quiet caribbean night at Scabb.

    And I cried when the kushans came back from the hyperdrive test and found their exile planet burnt to a cinder, staring silent as a lamb, and Agnus Dei starts. And then I always weep when i listen to “Yes – Homeworld” when He sings : “it’s what keeps us alive, our home is our world, our life”.

    I believe it’s not just the story, the plot, or the skilled writing that should have us feel unable to contain our emotions, otherwise what’s the advantage of the great tool of interaction? It’s from this, tool, that lets us participate actively of a character’s dilemmas or experiences, that are to originate our empathy.

    And it’s this that will sanctionate videogames’ supremacy as a cultural and human explotation means among films and books, and it will donate videogames the shining future that awaits it and us videogamers the privilege to experience it first before millions of others in the future millennia will go and wonder : “what were those old pioneers’ emotions? Who knows….”

  8. RightSaidFernt says:

    My growing hat collection – an array of assorted hats. For all occasions, gardening, casual wear, and even for those times when my Sweetie is ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ in our ancient 1984 Cadillac the size of a boat with something like 400 horsepower – inherited from my mother – and it still is roadworthy, oh and doesn’t use any more gas mph than our other vehicle. One day Sweetie drove me over the Megler Bridge to Astoria, and I was wearing a hat I’d bought in Hawaii when visiting daughter there for her graduation. I commented that I felt like I was being chaueffered in this big car – and said I feel like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’. That became one of those jokes between us.

  9. Jovan says:

    Ending of Silent Hill 2 almost brought me to tears, it was really sad and tragic(spoilers, obviously). While your playing the game, you don’t get to know much of Marry. Instead you just see some sick, perverse, distorted sexual images from James’s mind, and meat Maria, who is a slutty version of Marry, and in the end, when you find the letter she had on her body, you see just how tragic her life really was. Suffering with this sickness for so much time, only to be suffocated with a pillow by her husband, even thought he kinda had good attentions(well, there is a reason why euthanasia is a taboo topic). But at the end of the letter she says “You mad me happy”. Yeah, such an awesome game. Voice acting was really good too, if the letter had a couple of more lines there would be tears all over my keyboard. :)

  10. darkmage0707077 says:

    I agree with the above sentements, but I’d like to expand “crying” to “being emotional”. As such – and to “come out of my emotional closet” – I’ll give a few examples of times I’ve connected emotionally with a game (I felt similarly to said scene in BS3 above, btw, and would like to add that I started laughing out loud to jokes made after it happened. And to ones made previously when I replayed. So there’s truth to that):

    Name: Chrono Trigger (it was around 1996 when I played)

    (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS)
    Scene: Schala’s dialogoue Chrono’s sacrifice to Lavos in 10000AD, remembering JUST THEN his brother’s warning “One of you will shortly perish…”, and having it hit home that a main character in my game JUST DIED.
    Reaction: Utter shock, amazement and bewilderment to the point that I could do nothing but stare blankly at the screen for several minutes with my mouth hanging open.
    (SPOILERS OVER)

    Name: Chrono Cross (near when it came out)

    (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS)
    Scene: The Party have just gone through the time portal to “the future destroyed” and have found the wrecked Lenee bell. Chrono and co. come out and start blaming the party for it.
    Reaction: Nearly destroyed my controler in horror and rage when I threw it to the ground screaming “Nooooo! F%#* you, you screwed it all up!” (actual quote). I screamed it so loudly that my mother (was at my parents’ house at the time) heard me through our sound-proof basement and came to see what was wrong.
    (SPOILERS OVER)

    Name: Legend of Mana (around when it came out; can you tell I like RPGs yet)

    (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS)
    Scene: (1) Bejeweled City, first entrance, music starts playing…(2) End of Bejeweled City, entire Heroic Sacrifice/Ressurection.
    Reaction: (1) Uncontrolled tears. Had to take a break from the game to collect myself. (2) Utter devistation when I hear that their race is doomed, acceptance when hero turns to stone, utter ELATION when he comes back home to the kids.
    (SPOILERS OVER)

    Name: F.E.A.R. (Year it came out)

    (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS)
    Scene: After a truly mind-bending scene, spotted an enemy in the far distance; it hasn’t seen me yet.
    Reaction: Terror so great that I had what I call a “true fear response”: my whole body went into auto-self preservation mode and shut itself down to prevent me from moving. I could not even twitch my finger for fear the monsters would “spot me”. Took everything I had to press down on the keys, only to discover it was an illusion.
    (SPOILERS OVER)

    Name: Myst (1997)

    (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS)
    Scene: Opening the green book and seeing Atrius for the first time.
    Reaction: Was so surprised that when he said “Who the devil are you??”, said “Who the hell are YOU?!” right back at the screen (had to restore to hear the dialogoue I missed)! Highly embarasing, considering my mother was watching me play at the time, but though she berated me for cursing, she later admitted “If you hadn’t, I would have said it.”.
    (SPOILERS OVER)

    Game: QFG2 Remake (When it came out)

    (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS)
    Scene: (1) Difficulty setting maxed out, just beat a ghoul for the first time ever (no toughened leather boots). (2) Finding option to mount said ghoul’s head at Adventurer’s guild.
    Reaction: (1) Pumped fists in the air, scream of “YES! Wohoo!” to the heavens, and eager looting of said body for hard-won treasure. Confusion – and some guilty pleasure – at finding I can remove its head. (2) EXTREME satisfaction at selecting this option, and feeling quite heroic while I stared at the now-prominently-displayed head on the wall. Actual pride while Uhura complemented me on beating the thing.
    (YOU KNOW THE DRILL BY NOW)

    Game: Live a Life (2006; translated version through emulator)

    (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS)
    Scene: Just after the princess kills herself in Maou’s chapter, and the he decides “if they’re going to treat me like a demon, then I will become the demon they fear!”
    Reaction: Extreme evil satisfaction and joy, actual shouts of “Yes! Yes, D^#% it, this is perfect!” Eagerness at playing his level after he’d gone evil.
    (AND THAT’S IT)

    There are more, but I’ll stop there. And I don’t think it needs to be said that I enjoyed every game there and count each as one of the best games I’ve every played in my life. Just thinking about those games as I write this mad me feel chills of remembered emotions…

    I have spotted these and similiar responses in friends who I introduce these and other games to. EVERY TIME they have one – even for those who don’t usually play games, and one who actively *hated* them – they thereafter ask constantly to play said games, speak highly of them at all times, and usually get more interested in gaming afterwards.

    I have a theory on this that I could post here…but I suspect I’m nearing my limit, so I’ll just say that I now have a near-guaranteed set of criteria for correctly determining if ANY of my friends will like a game that I play and like. And it’s been really satisfying for any number of reasons.