Anatomy of a Review

Anatomy of a Review #006: “All the Feels – A Theory on Emotional Resonance and Divisiveness in Games”

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WARNING: potential spoilers for Final Fantasy XV.

 

The Well-Red Mage: Hey, Blue, thanks for deciding to publish this conversation with me as a part of TWRM’s Anatomy of a Review series. This series is concerned with meta-talk about the state of games writing and criticism. This post is an extension of what I thought was a pretty interesting conversation we had recently following an epic Twitter discussion of sorts on Final Fantasy XV. (If you follow that link, reader, you can read a comprehensive review of XV and my opinions and observations on it.)

And, readers please bear in mind, that this is not a post about criticizing Final Fantasy XV. That’s been done elsewhere and that discussion is engaging for another time. This is not about who is right and who is wrong, if you even believe in such things. Rather, we’re trying to come up with an interpretive framework to explain why FFXV is both criticized and adored in the specific ways that it is.

But anyhow, I think you and I, Blue, are virtually in the same boat when it comes to that game.

 

The Blue Moon Mage: Yeah, thanks for suggesting this! I’ll try not to let the pressure to sound witty and intelligent get to me. But yes, I believe we more or less are in agreement on FFXV –the gameplay is fun, but it definitely lacks in a lot of areas.

 

Red: Pish posh! I’m sure you’ll out-wit and out-intelligent me, easily. I think if we dove deep into FFXV, we could find a few minor things we disagree on. Maybe. But as we both know, our purpose with this discussion isn’t necessarily to dissect FFXV (though the odd subtle jab is an indulgence we might not be able to avoid)… rather, I think we’ve come upon the realization that FFXV is a fairly divisive entry. This runs counter to the opening statement of the game, which suggested FFXV was intended for old fans and newcomers alike.

 

Blue: That was purely a dream. Square had to know it. You cannot please everyone. Though I’m curious now to know the FF history among those who liked and those who didn’t like it. I might be inspired to run a Twitter poll, which, as you know, is the height of scientific inquiry.

 

Red: I was thinking the same thing! I was wondering if there was any connection between which Final Fantasy games someone has enjoyed previously and their affection or anti-affection for FFXV. I say that this scientific inquiry needs to happen. Why don’t we just link it right here?

Red: Amazing 800 votes received! Observation: the replies to the poll almost alternate between positive and negative takes, although the poll numbers themselves don’t express a perfect division right down the middle.

 

Blue: I’m going to be honest: that was not the result I was expecting!

 

Red: I think I suspected it to turn out more popular than not based on votes, but the exact numbers I couldn’t guess.

So, I’ve a theory that’s been rattling around in my brain. I wonder if it can help explain at least one reason why a single game can be so divisive by revealing the lines upon which people disagree. So a few days ago, as we mentioned, you and I became involved in an epic clash of opinions on FFXV. There are people who really liked it and people who didn’t like it much at all, with a few folks in the middle who are just like “it’s aight”. Taking into consideration the internet, we can expect some hyperbole at the opposite ends of the hot take spectrum.

It seems to me that one theory, let’s call it the Theory of Architecture and Affections, which can explain this division has to do with whatever a player sets as their primary foundation for appreciating FFXV: technical aspects or emotional resonance.

Now to break that down, which we very much need to do and define what these opposing statements mean, let’s cite some examples we’ve encountered, some value statements and opinions put forth from fans and anti-fans of the game. It seems that the normative explanation from the ones that love FFXV has to do with an emotional response to the game, whereas the normative explanation from the ones that didn’t love it has more to do with the way in which the game is presented or structured, or the way in which its story is told. I know we can’t really quote people verbatim without their permission, dangit, so what are some analogous statements we can suggest here?

 

Blue: I’m paraphrasing some of the responses we got from fans of the game:

“People just aren’t used to the method used for the storytelling.”

“The brotherhood angle got me teary-eyed at the end.”

“Left me bawling, my favorite of the franchise!”

“If you’ve shared a bond with some guys you think of as brothers, you get it.”

“Nobody gonna tell me there’s a game with a sadder ending than XV.”

“Gut-wrenching sobs.”

“An incredible journey that hit me like a truck. Cried a lot, no shame.”

Meanwhile, non-fans had these criticisms of the game:

“The combat is okay and the ideas are solid, but the story execution drug the game down.”

“Magic system is abysmal, and the DLC model is terrible.”

“Square’s DLC practices soured me on the game.”

“It’s a little fun but very under-realized when you think of what should have been.”

“Gameplay is its saving grace, but I expected more from an FF story.”

“It’s hard to care about the characters when you know so little about them.”

“The combat basically devolves into mashing a single button, & the four main characters look like their mom just dropped them off at the mall.”

 

Red: I think those are fairly accurate paraphrases of either side. Nobody should need to go very far to find real claims resembling this, so that got me thinking: The people who like it seem to like it for emotional reasons and resonance with the ending and brotherhood themes, citing daily life activities like driving or camping as high points, whereas those who don’t like it do so for more technical reasons such as storytelling methodologies, game structure such as open-world gameplay and linearity, and character development (or lack of). We are not saying that the first group is “emotional” and the second is “intellectual”. That’s not at all the meaning here. I’m trying to ensure there’s no assigning of value statements to these observations on what people want out of entertainment.

Clearly, this theory at least describes a foundation for potential division, looking at the overall game emotionally or technically, whichever a particular player decides to put first and foremost, either intentionally or subconsciously as their “need” from entertainment. This also creates a problem. We judge games on totally different scales.

How many times have you been recommended a game on the basis of emotional resonance? Have you been told “this game made me cry, therefore it’s a masterpiece, you should play it”?

 

Blue: I haven’t until just recently when someone recommended I play GRIS for reasons similar to that. But I think that’s largely because people who know me well know that I’m not really an emotional person, so they don’t bother. And in fact, I’ll usually avoid games that “look sad.” Firstly because that’s not an emotion I’m aiming to experience in video games, which I play as escapism, but also because I have a distrust of any media that leans too heavily on emotional elements. Have they skipped their homework, so to speak, when it comes to the story because they are too focused on their drama or their message? Obviously it’s not the case with every “sad” game or movie or book, but everyone can name probably half a dozen that are like that without even thinking too hard.

 

Red: It’s kind of hard to compensate for differences in emotional dispositions between players and predict how people, in general, will react emotionally. We all know that emotions can be somewhat unpredictable, if not unreliable. Sure, there are broad emotional demographics you could describe and point to specific subjects in entertainment that have incredible or even extraordinary emotional power over their audience, but emotions in individuals (not groups) can be triggered by individual memories, smells, colors, themes, and so on. For instance, I have gotten pretty emotional over themes in movies regarding childhood and then I turn over to my wife who’s got eyes so dry Ben Stein is about to put up a commercial around ‘em!

 

Blue: *Interrupts Red to laugh hysterically*

 

Red: I personally appreciate an emotional game, but I don’t go out of my way to play a game on the recommendation that it’s very sad or made someone cry. Wanting to feel something is fine, but of course there are a multitude of reasons to play video games beyond emotional resonance, such as escapism as you’ve suggested. Appreciation of the craft is another. However, if you’re playing for emotion, that might explain some love for FFXV.

Conversely, if you’re playing for execution over emotion, then the presentation and other technical aspects of structure and storytelling in FFXV might come off as another thing entirely. When we were talking previously, you mentioned studying film. Is there something in your education that sort of informs you of this distinction between technical aspects and emotional resonance?

 

Blue: I have a MFA degree in Script & Screenwriting, so if you ask me about the technical aspects of the gameplay in FFXV, the most authoritative answer I’ll be able to give you is whether I liked it or not. But from a technical storytelling perspective, I see the story of FFXV as basically a giant dumpster fire. Traditional story structure, as laid out by Aristotle, dictates that there should be a beginning, middle, and end. There should be cause and effect. There should be character arcs. And yes, these tenants are simply the basics. Lots of excellent stories shun these rules to some degree (think of Memento or Pulp Fiction), but it takes a great deal of talent to break the rules and come out successfully on the other side.

 

Red: And FFXV’s “breaking the rules” may not necessarily be the result of talent or genius in its production so much as its difficult and lengthy development time.

 

Blue: To me, FFXV’s greatest sin is that the story lacks in cause and effect, especially the further you get into the game. What is the deal with Luna’s brother? Who is that higher up in the Empire that appears for one sinister cutscene and then disappears, never to be seen again? Where does Gladio go and why? Who the heck is Ardyn? And during the 10 years Noctis spends in the crystal, the Empire just disappears. Really?

 

Red: It seems clear that FFXV is clumsier with its storytelling than it is avant garde or experimental. At what point do holes in a plot to be potentially resolved by a separate product not turn people off, especially in a world that loves to complain about plot holes? But, we’re speaking from our presupposed preferences, here.

 

Blue: Exactly. The switch from the Empire to Ardyn as the primary antagonist is a whiplash of a story turn. It’s like two-thirds of the way through the game, they decided to start over. It reminds me of the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In Dead Man’s Chest, the characters spend the entire time either running from the Kraken or battling the Kraken. Then in At World’s End, we find out, through dialogue, that they killed the Kraken between movies. Talk about an odd turn of events and a stupidly anticlimactic ending to a very cool antagonist!

You can absolutely make a bait-and-switch of this magnitude (Psycho is a good example), but your audience needs to be present when the switch happens. Doing it offscreen and then talking about it later just does not work.

But to answer your question about plot holes being a turn off, before you decide to pull a Disney and withhold crucial backstory and plot points from your main product and instead put them in accompanying books, comics, cartoons, etc. (as they’ve done with their Star Wars films), you should consider the consequences for people who don’t go out of their way to consume that content.

 

Red: Due to time or finances…

 

Blue: How have the missing pieces of the story affected their experience with the main product? Are you still taking care of that segment of your audience and ensuring they have a good experience, too? Or do you only care about the die-hards who will consume your product across various media? Shouldn’t we all get to know why Captain Phasma is supposedly so great??

 

Red: When playing it, I always assumed that this was going to be filled out in the tie-ins, explained in the DLCs, and the what not. However, how do I from my perspective get invested into a world that spreads itself thin with so much exterior content if the nucleus doesn’t excite me? Why should I experience the comic books, pogs, temp tattoos, anime series, cartoon series, silent film series, Kickstarter, vocal soundtrack, FFXV the musical, FFXV on ice, Shakespeare’s FFXV, FFXV smartwatch edition, college course, collectible hologram stickers, trading cards, board game, special edition GameStop exclusive, special edition WalMart exclusive, and MS-DOS demake if the core game itself hasn’t done anything for me thus far? I’m left with all these unresolved threads without motivation to seek their resolutions, resentful that I didn’t get a complete story when paying full price for a ticket.

 

Blue: Exactly, and many fans argue that the missing cause and effect I’ve complained about can be found in all of these things. So it begs the question: which came first (or which SHOULD come first)–the story or the DLC? It’s one thing to present a story as a whole, completed entity and then add DLC on the side for those who want more. It’s an entirely other thing to sell a half-finished story and then try to essentially blackmail consumers into getting the DLC just so they can figure out what the heck is going on.

 

Red: This kind of gets into the technical aspects of the game, then, which it seems like you and I have put prior to emotional resonance as the standard of judgment on the game’s quality. It doesn’t matter to us that there are themes of brotherhood if we’re concerned about how the story functions or how it is told. Who are these characters? Can pacing and suspense really be maintained by open-world fetch questing? These are the sort of things that bother the “technical aspects party”. But one might go further to suggest that these technical aspects need to be present in order to have, at least, more reliable emotional impact upon the player?

I mean, it should be demonstrable to anyone that FFXV is indeed divisive and at least somewhat controversial among fans… The question is why?

The easy route would be to say that the person who disagrees is somehow faulty, a fanboy, a hater, stupid, lazy, a contrarian, or whatever other reason you can come up with outside of the game and its properties. But I don’t think that’s sound, at all. I think a subject in art has internal qualities external to the observer which can be observed, otherwise, art appreciation is merely observing the observer, not the artist! There must be some properties of the game itself which cause it to be divisive, because we’ve experienced the game; we’ve not experienced the character or integrity of the person who disagrees with us. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s helpful or courteous to tear down a person’s character to establish your perspective, whichever way it may go, so centering the discussion on the game and its own properties is what I think is needed.

 

Blue: Absolutely, which is why you started TheWellRedMage.com to begin with, correct?

 

Red: More or less, yes!

But to narrow down exactly why FFXV is so divisive is pretty tricky since, as you suggested earlier, the emotional attachment aspect is so subjective. Anecdotally, from speaking with people who love the game, it seems that IF the core characters and the theme of brotherhood resonated with you, then it was enough to fill all the holes that were otherwise left by the story and gameplay. But if the brotherhood aspect was not enough to touch you on a deep, emotional level, then those story and gameplay issues remained with nothing to distract you from them, and ultimately, you came away feeling that it was a completely different experience.

 

Blue: And I think this is especially the case, though I may be speculating, with longtime fans of the series who are used to deeply impactful stories with universal themes (i.e. self sacrifice, redemption, good vs evil, etc.). Which is not to say that these more universal themes don’t exist in FFXV to some degree, but it is apparent from the very first opening frames that the theme of brotherhood is the forefront of the game, and that is a much narrower theme with a much narrower audience. Really, when you compare it to other FF games, the story of FFXV feels rather small and inconsequential. Not saying that is good or bad in and of itself, but that may have a lot to do with why it’s divisive.

 

Red: Yeah, perhaps it’s indicative of the relative uneventfulness of FFXV that the things people most cite about the game is the brother-friendship, the camaraderie stuff: fishing, camping, cooking, questing, driving, and chit-chat. I rarely hear about the Leviathan scene or the linear chapters from FFXV fans, for instance. All of that, story or side quest, seems secondary to this central theme of friendship. To me, it’s a little too saccharine what with “Stand by Me” (of all things) filling up the musical space, but again, this is explained by the beautiful individualities of people and our different emotional spectrums, experiences, and reactions.

 

Blue: Haha, and I do know how much you looooove saccharine tones in games!

 

Red: Oh my, yes. To wrap this thing up, I think what I want to say is this: there are some people who will approach a game looking for one thing and others who will come at it for something else. Neither way is better or worse, they’re just our preference, and nobody need be antagonized for such a thing, so again I want to emphasize to our readers that that wasn’t our point here. As a friend of mine asked me: “Why should someone have to defend their enjoyment of something?” My answer is: they don’t. They simply don’t have to defend themselves for liking something. Saying a game is your favorite or that you liked it is something nobody can argue with or take away from you. However, saying a game is great (great in reality, great for everyone) is a point for debate!

If you’re looking for the technical aspects, then by golly they’d better be there and we expect some kind of objective, qualitative basis for saying a game is really, actually, factually great, the “functional properties”, since games are fundamentally intended to function. Interactivity doesn’t set games apart as unique art forms, in my view. The supreme need for functionality does. On the other hand, if you’re looking for emotional resonance, then there we can expect a game to be recommended on the basis of how it impacted an individual player’s variable feelings.

 

Blue: The thing is, to be truly great, a game should have both, and I believe that most gamers go into games looking for both. It’s when a game fails to deliver on one of those fronts that I think you find out where your priorities are as a gamer: emotional resonance or technical execution. And if I had to guess (though the results of my super scientific poll seem to indicate otherwise), I’d say most gamers value technical aspects over emotional resonance. I think the reason we are even discussing this is because FFXV is about the only game we can think of where people are valuing emotions over pure gameplay, whereas it’s much easier to list games that are valued for fun gameplay but have less than stellar stories.

 

Red: Hmmm… There’s a lot to consider there. Well, those that know me know that I harp on the duality and the relationships between objectivity and subjectivity a lot (and I spent the weekend thinking about rules within games and the fun that comes through the spaces they describe for us to explore), but I think this is another angle of that debate to consider: how we approach a game at all and what our expectations are, what sort of things we’ll need to see in order to say either separate statement “this game is great” or “I loved this game”. Maybe a hyper-cool fight scene or an emotional romance is enough for you. Maybe you need to see a capable performance from an actor or well-edited cinematography, instead.

 

Blue: And of course, this naturally segways into that ever-present question: what is the role of the game reviewer in all this? Is it possible to judge subjective aspects of a game in a way that is useful for all readers, regardless of their own individual and unique experiences?

 

Red: Shyeah, so that is a complicated question! It’s one that really fascinates me, though. What are the boundaries in games between objectivity and subjectivity? How can a reviewer observe and describe the concrete qualities of a game first and foremost (its genre, its limitations, its plot, its absolutes and unchangeable attributes) and then also allow for the subjective value judgments that come next, not merely from their own mind but from the minds and experiences of others?

Over the weekend, thanks to an essay from the Bookwarm Mage, I began thinking in terms of games as playing within a rule set. Is it a part of the nature of a game to have rules? I think so. What is a game without rules like? I don’t think such a thing can exist. Even Calvinball, which famously invents its rules as you play it and therefore essentially has no rules, has as its one cardinal rule that it has malleable rules!

Rules, or the architecture of the game, or in the context of our conversation here, the technical aspects of a game, define the game itself and the rules put forth to the player are the framework in which a player interacts, explores, faces challenges, and ultimately has fun or not, and I think that the relationship to fun has some correlation with the direct placement and efficiency of those rules.

After all, when we perceive someone has cheated against us in a game of Chess by moving two pieces when we weren’t looking, and thereby breaking the rules, it no longer becomes fun because it’s no longer a game. It’s now unfair. So it seems like adherence to rules within a game and rules within the context of what the game is trying to achieve as far as storytelling, character development, presentation, gameplay and so on are at the very least important to consider.

In core Tetris, the tetrominoes fall from above in a predictable pace and random order. Its rules demand that you organize them as they fall to the bottom of the screen, so those are objective observations about that game which lead to definitions of objectively good or bad maneuvers on the player’s part. Failing to set the blocks in order or obstructing a gap which could lead to lines being cleared are objectively bad maneuvers as described by the rules. This is how Tetris tournaments can even exist, because certain maneuvers are more valuable than others: good or bad for succeeding at the game within its rules set.

 

Blue: Absolutely. Even though we’ve not come to a conclusion, and perhaps we never will, I think it’s important to remember that we do need these rules to fully enjoy our experiences with games, and technical competency is a way of engaging these rules. Like it or hate it, technical competency is also a crucial element in storytelling. If you shortcut your story because you’re too concerned with your theme or message or grand soapbox social commentary, it shows. And it cheapens your theme/message/grand soapbox social commentary as a result. But if you take the time to do your story correctly, from BOTH a technical and emotional perspective, your theme/message/grand soapbox social commentary will flow naturally and will be stronger for it.

 

Red: Words of wisdom for lots of content that wants to be propaganda more than entertainment.

 

Blue: I hate to pick on religious films, but they are prime examples of how NOT to handle a message. Think of the difference between The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (which has a very strong religious message yet is beloved by secular audiences because it has such an engaging story) and movies like Fireproof and God’s Not Dead (which place theme over story and thus have never achieved anything beyond a narrow audience).

 

Red: By all means, pick away! Mishandling potentially life-changing messages is a huge flaw. I was just talking with a family member who recommended a religious film to me and I told him I stopped watching them because I don’t enjoy watching propaganda instead of entertainment. The socio-political atmosphere in storytelling falls into similar pits. And that’s what it is: the pits. I don’t want to play a game to be preached at by actors reading teleprompters!

Whew… Well, I think I for one have said enough. Maybe this theory holds water. Maybe it doesn’t. It at least seems like emotional resonance is a dominant factor (though not the only one) in enjoying Final Fantasy XV as is technical execution consideration in disliking it. Again, neither one is necessarily the better approach so much as they explain our preference for media consumption. I think we’re saying that both the qualitative properties of a game and the individual responses that people have are important for a game, being struck to the heart and being impressed.

Play us out, Blue! And thanks for the talk! I think there’s plenty here that still needs mulling over and discussing, and maybe discovering, but I really enjoyed the meta-chat about enjoying games!

 

Blue: Yeah, thanks again for suggesting this! It was fun! And in the immortal words of Prompto, “My hair does not look like a chocobo butt!” Definitely something to think about.

*plays Final Fantasy victory theme*

 

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4 replies »

  1. So I was enjoying reading this dissection, when I realized I had to stop as I’ve only played about 1/3rd thru FFXV and was in danger of spoilers! For the record, I was one in the ‘Noob to FF, but enjoyed it’ category (at least for the hours I had logged).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I am curious to know your thoughts when and if you’re able to finish the game! It can be a beast to get through, if you give attention to the side content. Thank you for taking the time to read this so far, though!

      Like

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