What makes players cry?
On November 25, 2017 I sent the following tweet:
“Hello twitter, did a game ever made you cry? produce an emotional response (that is not fear/anxiety)? please tweet your answer”
The reason I sent the tweet was quite simple, I just finished playing Journey (again) and was looking for some recommendations for games that produce that same kind of emotional experience. I was also interested in the emotional engagement we have with games and the creation of positive/negative responses. Since I am not exactly a famous internet personality, I didn’t expect much from the tweet (mostly a few answers from friends), but after a few retweets from more prominent game industry folks the tweet blew up for a couple of days.
Eventually the tweet was retweeted 68 times, liked by 268 users, had 607 replies and a couple of private messages. Some replies only listed names of games, but a large percentage also shared the reasons why they cried or got emotional playing a specific game, some even sharing personal stories.
The replies highlighted some very interesting points about players emotional responses to games, and what kind of games make people experience the emotions mentioned in the tweet. My assumption was that while all games elicit both negative and positive emotional response, they tend to be on the vain of anxiety(negative), anger(negative), frustration (negative), confidence (positive), comradery (positive) pride (positive) and enjoyment (positive). While emotions like grief, sadness, awe and joy (feeling associate with crying) are almost exclusively tied to the game narrative and not the gameplay (mechanics).
While my theory that most of the games which will be mentioned will a strong narrative component, and that those emotion will be connect to the narrative (vs. connected to the mechanics), I was rather surprised at some of the answers I received. Specifically, I was mildly surprised by the reasons players cry in games, and felt that this might be a good opportunity to analyze the answers and see if we can use those in developing a theory about those sorts of emotional responses in games and possibly use them too develop games the illicit those sorts of responses.
Some notes before I start my analysis:
- This is by no mean an academic study- I was just interested in quantifying the data gathered from the tweet and seeing if we can deduct any helpful information from it.
- All data presented here will remain anonymous, since I did not receive permission to share personal data I will not name specific tweets or users. The information is public, and easily accessible if interested.
- Not everyone cries when they feel sad/happy, if this was intendent as a study I would have probably phrased the question differently.
- I tried my best to record all the tweets, but unfortunately some of them are just lost as twitter puts limitation on how far you can see notifications. I have no idea how many tweets are lost, or if they would have affected the results. (I do suspect it would have pushed Journey to No.1 as well as push games like Mortician Tale up)
- In some cases, I received the information privately (as some of them were too personal to be shared publicly).
- I did not record any tweet that didn’t specifically address the game- some folks cited the Overwatch shorts (The Last Bastion specifically) as an emotional experience, but since they are not part of the game I did not add them to the data
- Some tweet cited a specific piece of game music in the game, I decided that unless other elements will be address I will not add it to the current data (I will address the importance of music in my analysis)
Which games made players cry?
Overall, from the tweets I collected, 224 games were mentioned, but out of that list only 15 games received 10 or more votes and over 100 games only received 1 vote.
The full list can be found here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1LLHC4pJpxdX1SdELh1ugPVxKXmxQIrMeS-kAU5QDC7Y/edit?usp=sharing
The top ten games are: 1. Life is strange; 2. Journey; 3. Mass effect 3; 4. To the moon; 5. The last of us; 6. Undertale; 7. Walking dead season 1; 8. Persona 3/4/5; 9. The beginner guide; 10. Brothers: a tale of two sons.
The next step, once I collected all the data, was to narrow down the list to a number that I would be more useful in getting a clear analysis of players reactions. Initially I planned to just narrow down to the top 50, but since there was no clear place I can cut in the top 50, I decided to narrow down the list to games which got 3 votes or above. This left me 61 games that I can use to analyze in term of genre and why they made players cry.
Some observations from the list:
- The top games tended to be bigger or more familiar titles, that’s why games which are considered to be sad but don’t have a large audience did not place as high as anticipated (The Dragon, Cancer is a prime example)
- The game cited almost exclusively have strong narrative elements, in cases when the game is more mechanics based (strategy, tactical shooters etc.) the narrative was the part that was cited as the part that made players emotional
- I put persona 3, 4 and 5 together as most people mentioned them that way, in some cases they were mentioned separately but I decided to place them as one unit. Persona 3 was the most cited of the three, with persona 5 second and very little mention of Persona 4 (unless it was grouped with the other). There was no mention of Persona 1 or 2.
- Dragon Age was similar, as most people mentioned all three of the games together, Dragon Age: Inquisition was the most cited, then Dragon Age: Origin, there was only one mention of Dragon Age 2.
- On the other hand, with games like The Walking Dead, Mass Effect and Final Fantasy people generally reference a specific title and so they were put separately on the list.
- Neir Automata Ending D was cited as the saddest, same with Undertale pacifist route ending
The next stage was separating the games into genre, in hindsight this might not have been necessary but ultimately it did help with some of the classification. The classification was mostly based on the genre classification from Wikipedia, and I tried to choose the genre that I felt fit the game the most.
Notes about the classifications:
- Some classification were very obvious, but some of the games were a bit harder to classify and I am still not sure I am satisfied with some of them
- I decided to not use “walking sim” as a genre, mostly because there isn’t (as far as I can tell) specific characteristics for the genre (aside from linear narrative).
- I didn’t separate JRPG and RPG, I felt that the distinction wasn’t big enough to classify them as a different genre.
- Some games, like Journey, were a bit difficult to classify. Eventually they were classified under Art Games, but I don’t think it is the right classification.
As can be seen from the graph above, most (if not all) of the games cited have a strong narrative component, and in most cases the story was the part that player cited as the reason for their emotional response. The most prominent genre in the list is RPG’s, which includes a few sub-genres like Action RPG and MMORPG’s, mostly due to their complex overarching narrative and player investment with the characters (I will expend on this in the next part). The 2nd prominent genre was Adventure (and its sub categories), most of the games with a strong linear narrative and relatively simple mechanics fell into this category. Very few of the games in the list are focused on mechanics and gameplay, and not on narrative.
While I suspect this stage might not have been necessary, as there was nothing particularly surprising about the result. It confirmed that narrative is an essential part of creating an emotional response in players, as well as the fact that pure gameplay/mechanics will have a lot more difficulty to produce those sorts of emotions. By all account, out of the list only Journey, and maybe The Beginner Guide, produce those emotions by not relying strictly on the narrative. It was helpful, in understanding that it is not necessarily just the story that influences those emotions, but in some games (especially longer RPG’s) the impetus is much more about their identification with specific characters and their own avatar.
So why do we cry in games?
Using the data collected before, I decided to separate the games into a few categories based on which aspect of the game the promoted emotional response from the player.
I separated the games into five categories:
Narrative/story: games in which the main story/narrative was cited as the reason for crying/emotional response. Games like, Life is Strange and To the Moon fit into this category
Investment in character/story: games in which the crying/emotional response was not specifically the result of the story, but rather the relationship the player developed with the characters, story and world. This includes their own avatar. Mass Effect 3, and World of Warcraft fit into this category as well as any games that is based on character interactions (like dating sims)
Visual: The use of visuals to produce an emotional response, this includes creating a character design that produce sympathy with the player.
Gameplay: Games in which those specific emotional responses connect to the mechanics themselves. Those are hard to identified, but I felt that a few games in the list fit into this category.
Music: As mentioned in the beginning of the article, some responders cited specific musical scores as the reasons for their response. While I did not include instances in which only the music was cited, I do acknowledge the importance of music and sound when it comes to emotional connection and responses to a game.
The results are as followed:
I sorted each game into two criteria- The main reason and the secondary reason which I identified to be the reason that they cried while playing the game. For example, a game like Mass Effect 3, will have identification with character/story as it’s main criteria, and narrative as secondary while a game like Journey will be more focused on visuals and music/sounds.
A few notes on the results:
- In hindsight I think I would have added identification as its own separate category. Specifically, I believe player identification with the character they are playing, is an important factor in the way players react to the story. It is especially relevant in RPG’s as player will build their own story and mythology around their avatar. (so, crying when Shepherd dies, is different than crying when Mordin does)
- It was very difficult to identify in which games sound and music player a prominent role in the response. While Journey’s soundtrack was obvious (and mentioned in the tweet responses), in most other cases it was unclear how much music and sound had influenced the responses.
- I haven’t played a lot of games in the list, so I had to ask friends for their feedback so the categories I choose for each game might be very subjective.
While the results were as consistent as the genre before (a combination of narrative & investment in characters/story was the most prominent combination), the separation between the categories helped in getting a clearer picture of my initial question. It turns out that the answer to “what makes players cry?” is a bit more complex than just a sad story. It is a combination of several factors (some relate to the narrative but not all) that produce those specific emotional responses.
It does emphasis the importance of story in games, and its ability to produce complex emotional responses from players that gameplay it self might not be able to. This is a factor that we (as developers) should take into account, especially as the medium grows and the audience needs and interest change. I also think that we should look at the challenge of creating games who produce grief or joy by using gameplay mechanics and not just relaying on narrative to do the job for us.
 I complied the list pretty quickly, so it is very likely that there are some spelling mistakes or incorrect attribution
 in some cases, I used Steam, but Wikipedia was the main source