I’ve already compiled a list of games that make me deliriously happy and agape with wonder. But not all art aims to create positive emotions such as these. Much to the continued consternation of aesthetic philosophers, human beings have been proven, time and time again, to also like art that makes them sad, that makes them scared, and even art that makes them angry.
The games listed under this category excel at provoking feelings. Not all of these feelings are what I’d call “emotions.” Some of them are too inchoate and undirected to attain that designation. This is raw, bodily stuff we’re talking about here. And unlike my delight category, not all of the feelings provoked in these games are positive ones. Happiness might be undercut by a sense of melancholy. Wonder might be mixed in with dread.
But whatever the feelings are that these games actually offer up, they all display an airtight control of tone. Some might find the end results to be manipulative. And, for some of these games, I wouldn’t deny that charge. But even if we grant it, there is still no denying that these games display top-notch craft in mood-modulation. If nothing else, they are a wild ride.
The following is the assignment description for a three-page comparative gameplay experience reflection that I assigned students at about the halfway point of my course “Comparative Media Poetics: Cinema and Videogames.” The theme of this particular week was “Emotion and Identification,” with an emphasis on the differences in both of these things across cinema and games. Students read a selection from Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws on horror and cross-gender identification, portions of Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror where he expresses skepticism toward the term “identification” and plots out his own theory of our emotional reactions to film based in then-recent analytical philosophy, and a chapter from Grant Tavinor’s The Art of Videogames in which he adapts this same analytical tradition of theorizing about art and the emotions to videogames.
I also assigned students to read Vivian Sobchack’s essay “Breadcrumbs in the Forest: Three Meditations on Being Lost in Space,” because for this assignment I wanted students to focus on a very specific feeling, and how it is translated across different media: the feeling of being lost. Cinema can present us with stories in which we identify with characters that are lost. But videogames can actually make us lost, and cause us to adopt all of the usual behaviors one turns to when lost. I wanted students to plumb this difference in their gameplay experience reflection.
The two case studies I settled on here were Gus Van Sant’s film Gerry (2002) and The Path (2009), a game by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, who together make up the Belgian art group/game studio Tale of Tales. I later resurrected this specific comparison in my SAIC first-year seminar course “The Moving and Interactive Image,” where I adapted the assignment description that follows into a lesson plan, using the following questions to animate in-class discussion, rather than form the basis for a paper.