Game Development Reference
Feeling the Future
Most emotional triggers are described as working by something happen-
ing in the present. You see a scary monster, so you feel fear. You win a vic-
tory, so you feel triumphant. In each case, an event occurs, and the player's
mind perceives that event and produces an emotional response a moment
later. The cause and effect are obvious, and they make intuitive sense.
But decisions don't create emotion this way, because decisions aren't
about the present. Decisions are about choosing among multiple possible
futures. The emotions provoked by decisions aren't about something that
has happened, but something that might happen.
Something doesn't have to happen to generate emotions. The player
need only sense the possibility of it happening.
Imagine standing on the edge of the Empire State Building. Your toes
hang over the void, and a gust of wind buffets your back. You look down
and see cars crawling along like beetles 86 stories below. You're petrified.
Your emotions, honed by millennia of natural selection, scream into your
mind: get the hell back!
Now imagine standing on the edge of a friend's front porch in summer.
Your toes hang over the flower bed, and a gust of wind blows through the
front door and buffets your back. You look down and see a ladybug crawl-
ing along the edge of a flower petal. You feel at peace.
There is no difference in the events that took place in these two situa-
tions. In both cases, you stood on an edge and wind almost pushed you off.
In neither case did you die. The only difference is in the possible futures
presented by each. On the porch, your unconscious detected nothing dan-
gerous in any nearby possible future, so there was no need for a powerful
emotion to compel any decision. But on the skyscraper, your unconscious
detected an immediate possibility of death. So it attempted to influence
your decision-making process using the feeling of terror. You felt afraid
even though nothing happened .
This is important. We're accustomed to thinking of the process of
creating entertainment as a process of deciding what happens. Traditional
storytellers think and talk about the sequence of events in a plot. Game
designers talk about the situations that will rise emergently from the me-
chanics. The unspoken assumption is that anything which doesn't happen
is irrelevant. But the human ability to feel emotions about possible futures
means this is wrong.
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