Thinking Points (VIII) – Emotional Responses to Fiction

Any good piece of fiction elicits an emotional response; if it does not, even on the most basic and visceral level (arousal, excitement, fear), it fails in its purpose. Good here is a problematic word. “Good fiction” is generally held to be fiction of a high quality; however, here it is more useful to talk about the general intent of creating fiction – to create a depiction of something that can in some way be identified or empathised with. “Good” fiction is, at its basest level, fiction which can do that. It is fiction which is fit for purpose.

However, there must be a continuum of quality within this simple divider of “does this work of fiction have any emotional power” or “do I respond in any way to this fiction.” What it establishes is a simple dichotomy of “works which succeed at being fiction” and “works which fail at it.” What it does not establish is equivalency between all works in the former category. There is a non-trivial difference, I maintain, between two given examples of fiction intended to create a certain response, and the differentiation is not a simple one. At its heart, it can be seen as a simple quality argument; some things are simply more effective than others. Reducing the debate to this, though, and admitting it is merely a subjective quality question is a little of an oversimplification, reminiscent of the point I made previously about how one can like bad media by simply rejecting any kind of critical eye.

This is not to say there is not an equivalence of intent among fiction – it is all fundamentally intended to have a kind of lasting power – but stopping there is not useful. It is vital to qualify this with the quality judgement since this demonstrates a mature and developed critical eye. Identifying two works with the same intent, but failing to then evaluate their approaches in any way (it does not need to be serious criticism, but an ability to accept that opinions are subjective and differences of opinion are not slights on a work) is useless. It is here that my argument about emotional response begins; the easiest, and most effective comparator is authenticity or sincerity. When writing for a target audience, it is very easy to elicit some level of response simply by contextual knowledge; depictions of universal stimuli such as death, sex or danger will create some response. However, if the fiction is not sincere – is not believable – then I feel the response is inherently lessened. There is a reliance, I think, in popular media – especially emerging forms such as popular comics, games and similar – to rely heavily on broad-strokes characterisation and simplistic storylines. This can have power over the audience, for sure, but it would be foolish to say that it had the same power as something from a higher-quality work.

An example frequently used to claim that computer games can have emotional power is a key sequence from the 1997 game Final Fantasy VII in which, in a move atypical for the medium, a player-character dies and thus becomes unusable for the rest of the game. This scene has been latched onto by fans of games as some kind of proof of the potential for games to have an emotional impact, which is entirely reasonable (for any kind of narrative fiction can) but I feel the response to it is at times close to being an uncritical one predicated on the idea that because the game made players feel sad, it is directly comparable to other media that makes people feel sad. The scene itself, despite low-quality visuals and other technical limitations, ably fulfils all the criteria of a tragic death scene in a bit of pop media. Yet it is not sincere; its power at the time came from how atypical of its genre it was (to have a playable not a background figure die, irreversibly and completely outside the players’ control) and its novelty as part of an entire package of innovations the game brought about. To look at the scene now makes it seem on a par with Little Nell’s death; the music is suitably depressing, the dialogue is suitably grief-filled and the death itself is sudden and – most importantly – used as a motivation for the rest of the story.

Yet despite doing all these things, a critical viewer would be hard-pressed to say that this sequence is a good one. It fulfils its purpose (engineering an emotional response) but engineering as an apt word; it ticks boxes and mechanically goes through the motions of a sad scene with no real lasting impact or feeling of authenticity. It is not even the melodrama that makes it a bad scene; authors like Hugo and Zola can ably write melodrama of the highest order (as much of Les Miserables is) but it is the lack of any kind of subtlety in it outside of its unexpected nature – on a first encounter this is enough to give it power. On subsequent ones, or if the scene is reached in full knowledge of what will happen, it is entirely unremarkable. Much pop media, in its reliance on archetypes and simple characterisation, falls prey to this; the “emotional” climaxes might have a superficial power via some pseudo-Pavlovian response to culturally known stimuli, but to argue that this in some way creates any equivalency except of intent with works which more artfully hide these guiding hands is in my view not useful and does the works a disservice rather than a defence.

Promoting simplistic, insincere fiction which clunkily manipulates emotions as legitimised and approved as being high quality on the grand scale of fiction is ultimately reductive. One argument is that by pointing out examples of games with sad scenes that may elicit tears, or comic books with ethical dilemmas, these media become “better” and more able to be “taken seriously” by their detractors – the presence of this simulacrum of emotional power is latched on to to argue equivalence. However, the counter-argument is not as simple as this. It is rarely now the case that people argue that games, or comics, objectively and unequivocally cannot handle emotional issues or elicit emotional responses. What is instead argued, I find, is that what is offered – and praised – as examples of this are ineffective on any level beyond the superficial. Moving outside of the idea of sad scenes in games a moment we come to superheroes; moral ambiguities are often highlighted, and antiheroes and sociopaths like Deadpool or Batman fetishised as examples of the depth inherent to the medium – yet to critics of the medium, what is being feted is simplistic and unrewarding, and as I opened this article by saying, a work which does not have a strong emotional impact is inherently weaker as a fiction than one that does.

How, then, to sum this up? The entire debate cannot be easily boiled down to whether or not the fact that someone cried at the death of a FFVII character is evidence of its strong writing and in-depth narrative. Similarly it cannot be summed up as the opposite, a blazing broadside against the capacity for pop media and new media to have emotional power. If anything, I would argue the following. It is a difficult argument to make without seeming elitist – it is to do with the nature of continued exposure to superficial depth in fiction and whether or not the desire among people within subcultures to use this as a way of legitimising their hobby is damaging. This is almost a kind of anti-intellectualism – a belief almost that because something considered “high art” elicits the same base response as something considered “popular media” the two are comparable and thus there is no need to fete the former so highly/the latter should be feted as highly. Such an opinion, I feel, encourages uncritical media consumption.

I ultimately enjoy melodrama, and simple emotionally manipulative stories. However, I would like to think I can be sufficiently critical of the media I consume to recognise things for what they are and avoid false equivalence; maybe one day I will play a game which does hit me in the same way as the final chapters of Atonement, or Never Let Me Go, rather than Dickens’ thumping monologues. Maybe one day a superhero comic I read will genuinely ask some questions about ethics rather than falling back on simple “save one or save many” or “retribution or rehabilitation” arguments lifted straight frm school textbooks. This is, of course, not to decry those bits of media that do do these things – they can be enjoyable, for sure. But they become more enjoyable when consumed critically as part of a varied diet of media, because they are set in perspective. They become examples of one way of doing something that can be compared with others and discussed – not simply sitting within one big set comprising “things that make me feel sad.”

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One comment

  1. hearthesea

    I agree with some of your sentiments. I value the emotional response above all else when it comes to fiction. Melodrama and sentimentality (unfortunately common in anime) can completely ruin the emotional impact of a scene due to the sense of artificiality, where the audience feels patronised.

    Now, I’m not really any kind of expert when it comes to games, but I remember ‘Final Fantasy VII’ fondly, and I actually think the death scene works very well. This is due to a few reasons — the most important one is probably that the game gives the player the chance to become emotionally invested in the character over a lengthy period of time. Perhaps the atypical nature of a main character dying did contribute to the impact of the scene, but, to be honest, I don’t think that captures even half of why the moment worked. If I didn’t care about the character (as in, feel that they were, at least to a certain extent, believable and worthy of attention) then the death scene wouldn’t have had much of an impact on me at all. If the character had very little dialogue and I never got a sense of their personality and behaviour throughout the hours of gameplay, then the scene would have completely collapsed, because it would have been detached rather than personal. I was recently playing the first ‘Baldur’s Gate’ game, and that was one of my problems with it — I barely got any sense of personality from the characters. They felt like they were simply there to help the main character kill things. This is a problem that FFVII completely avoided, which is why it earned its power during the death scene.

    The build-up to the scene itself also felt quite powerful due to the eerie setting and music. You have to run around searching for a while before you find the character, and when you do things become even more unsettling via the protagonist’s sudden loss of control. It all builds up to that single moment. The music during the scene is one of the keys, for me — the first track suits the sense of dread, and then we get a mournful track that captures the player’s realisation that the character is actually dead, and won’t be coming back. (I didn’t actually care about whether they would be ‘playable’ or not.) I can see why someone would accuse the dialogue in the scene (just after the death) of melodrama in regard to the protagonist, but I thought there was a kind of rawness to it that worked. As I said, though, I can understand criticisms in this area, although I don’t think there was anything that seriously crippled the scene.

    In regard to your criticism about lack of subtlety, I think the aftermath of the death was actually executed with a surprising level of understatement — it was conducted without any further dialogue, and the characters simply communicated through body language, and let the moment speak for itself. The moment of death itself also functioned through visuals and music alone. There was no cliche deathbed speech — the character simply dies. Rather than gloating, the antagonist doesn’t even seem aware of what the protagonist is feeling — or perhaps, chooses not to acknowledge it. (Although they probably should have cut the bit where he laughs. It’s not necessary to communicate his disdain through that.) I never got the sense that any of it was forced or artificial, mainly because I believed that the protagonist was in genuine pain due to the aforementioned emotional investment in the dead character and their relationships. I think even an awkward death scene can be redeemed by the material that surrounds it — experiencing a scene in isolation is very different to experiencing it as part of a whole.

    That being said, I’m not trying to get into the whole ‘games and emotion’ debate. I don’t even know enough about the field to do that. (I just play certain titles that interest me now and then, and I’m not really interested in gameplay itself, only the story and characters.) I mainly wanted to address your thoughts on the FF scene in question. I do think FFVII has areas that could be improved, but I think they handled the death scene well.

    (Also, ‘Atonement’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’ are indeed lovely books.)

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