Emotion in Single-Player Games

This post was inspired by several talks Jenova Chen has given over the years, all dealing with evoking deep emotion through games.  Jenova thinks this is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of mainstream acceptance of games as an art form.  I would tend to agree.

Further, I think there is a ranking to the difficulty in evoking certain emotions with a single-player game.  This may hold true for narratives, in general, but I wouldn’t make that claim without a lot of further research and thought.  In interactive experiences, I think these are reasonable assertions about emotion.  This is not meant to be a judgement on the value of these emotions, only on how difficult they are to produce in a single player game.


  • Lust
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Boredom


  • Awe
  • Curiosity
  • Pride & Shame
  • Frustration


  • Grief
  • Serenity
  • Remorse
  • Humor


  • Jealousy
  • Trust
  • Contempt
  • Pity
  • Love


‘Easy’ emotions are basically stimulus response.  They are reactive, not introspective.  For humans, evoking these emotions is a simple matter of providing the right stimulus.  To stimulate Disgust, you give the player something gross — something which human evolution has taught us to avoid, but not to fear.  To stimulate fear, we create an apparent threat.  From an evolutionary perspective, it should be obvious why titillation is the easiest of all.  Boredom requires only redundancy.

We see these primal emotions most often in combination with others.  The slasher film has a long history of combining fear and lust and disgust all in one work.  You might think of suspense as a combination of fear and boredom, so there is some complexity to be found even amongst the simplest feelings.

A disgusting and scary zombie.

Fear and Disgust are often found together, such as in “The Brookhaven Experiment” by Phosphor Games.

The emotions in the ‘Easy’ category seem to be very raw animal emotions.  These are the emotions necessary for survival (and propagation) even outside of any kind of society.  On the other end of the spectrum are emotions which require a sentient being to relate to, or something that is nearly indistinguishable from sentient.  That’s why I think they may be borderline impossible:  In a narrative one can empathize with a main character who is experiencing an emotion.  In an interactive setting, that main character is you.  In a multiplayer game, you can relate to the other players with any of these emotions.  In a single-player experience, who do you have to relate to but the game itself?  The whole array forms a spectrum from the most ‘internal’ emotions, to the most ‘external.’

The medium emotions are still fairly standard for games.  Pride, shame, and frustration are natural consequences of struggling towards a goal and finally accomplishing it.  Creating pride, shame, and frustration is therefore mostly a matter of balancing.  Balancing is a challenging subject, but a largely mechanical one – it is expected that a game will be balanced.

Awe is a product of craftsmanship and of scale.  Craftsmanship, too, has come to be expected among games with large budgets.  Curiosity can be driven either by narrative or by gameplay.  In both cases, it’s a matter of providing an incomplete picture of something.  More specifically, it must be something the player cares about.  Life has taught all of us that most information is incomplete, but it only becomes compelling if we have an interest in knowing the whole story.  Curiosity is a function of engagement.

Bioshock's Rapture

Just as a church’s cramped Narthex often opens into a vaulted Nave, games use a contrast between closed and open spaces to create a feeling of awe.

Games are just beginning to tap into the ‘Hard’ category of emotions. You might argue that there has been humor in digital games almost since the beginning, but until fairly recently the humor in games has been borrowed from other media.  Games were funny because they had jokes, or situational humor, just like theater or motion pictures.  Only recently have games found their own form of humor.  Games like QWOP and Octodad are prime examples.

Grief comes once the player has formed a true attachment to something or someone.  Some people seem to be more susceptible to a feeling of grief than others.  Some players reported a twinge of grief when they were forced to destroy their companion cube in Valve’s Portal (a great example of a bond created by gameplay rather than narrative).  Remorse is a deep regret, and regrets are hard to form when players can always reload or replay a game.  Serenity (which is often confused for boredom, even by those experiencing it) was considered so undesirable that it was actively shunned by game creators — perhaps because our industry was still, on some level, in thrall to the arcade paradigm.

Two stars soar over an ethereal environment.

“Gemini – A Journey of Two Stars” is a game that produces serenity through simple but dynamic gameplay and a relaxed visual style.

As I continue to make games, I plan to bring out the lens of emotion as much as I can, and to combine emotional resonances in novel harmonic ways.  Game design is so often governed by interesting effects, I think it’s time we spent more of our time on interesting affects.


Robert Lockhart is the Creative Director of Important Little Games, which is working on Codemancer, a Game that teaches Programming.

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A Comic about Movies


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Analyzing a Dataset of Game Releases

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Hi, I’m Rob Lockhart, Creative Director of Important Little Games.  I’d be grateful if you followed me on twitter.

It all started when I stumbled across this misleadingly-titled Polygon article written last year and followed the link to the data source out of curiosity.  Basically it’s just a list of videogame titles, some of which have been annotated with a developer, a year, and/or a platform.  Since I’m fond of semi-structured data sources, I downloaded the list, which had grown to nearly 150,000 titles since the Polygon article was published, and started to play around in Mathematica.  As you read on, be advised that this is an extremely noisy dataset and does not necessarily reflect the videogames industry’s history, or even the titles it lists.

The first thing I did was take a look at the top words that occur in videogame titles.  There were 150,000 game titles and a vocabulary of around 45,000 unique words.  About 21,000 of these were used only once in any game title.  For scale, consider that apparently it is not uncommon for a native speaker to have 20,000-35,000 words in their whole vocabulary.

Let’s take a look at the top 50 words I found:

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 11.29.10 PMThere are a lot of words that are completely unsurprising, as they are overwhelmingly frequent throughout English. Numerals, both Arabic and Roman, play a big role, meaning that there are a lot of sequels.  Frustrating for those of us who value originality in interactive entertainment, but by no means surprising.  Let’s filter out these uninteresting results and look again:

I also recombined plurals into the root word.

I also recombined plurals into the root word.

In my humble opinion, it really sucks that ‘war’ shows up second, after ‘game.’  There’s nothing wrong with war as a theme for any particular game, but our industry’s singular focus on war and violence becomes pretty tiresome, as this chart exemplifies.  Which word would I prefer in second place? ‘Magic,’ of course!


I also noticed that there were quite a lot of games which use subtitles. Not the written dialogue at the bottom of the cutscenes, but the second part of a title separated by a colon.  Things like the underlined part of “Call of Warfare: Modern Videogame.”  Let’s take a look at the most common subtitles:

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 12.22.45 AM

‘The Game’ and ‘Gold Edition’ seem to make sense, but for some reason ‘The Movie’ comes in third.  Why are there so many games (56) with ‘: The Movie’ in the title?!

I’m not very fond of this naming pattern in the first place, but some of these should unquestionably be retired.  Let’s not name any more games “Something Something: Vengeance” shall we?


As I mentioned earlier, some of the entries in the data are tagged with a developer, year, and/or platform.  I found the developers more or less impossible to extract systematically, but I had better luck with years and platforms.

About 1/5 of the games were tagged with a year, but they were represented unevenly.  As you can see below, only the years from 2000 to 2015 had any kind of decent coverage.  It’s interesting to note that within that period, the number of games released per year did not increase or decrease significantly (if this dataset can be taken as a representative sample).

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 12.44.30 AM

If we compile a list of the top ten words for each of these usable years, we might notice some trends.

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 12.51.06 AMI think you can kind-of see the zombie craze creeping up in the past few years, as the words ‘dark,’ ‘night,’ and ‘dead’ climb the charts.  You can also see where we became obsessed with 3D for a little while.

If we bring back the trivial words we decided to exclude early on, you’ll see that some games’ titles include the year they were released and many include the following year.

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.00.00 AM~

In terms of platforms, the coverage was very spotty.  Here you can see the number of games tagged by console.  The fact that Linux is any significant presence should be a clue that some platforms are far overrepresented amongst tagged games.

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.22.45 AM

If you’re interested, here is a list of the top ten words by platform.  Many of these platforms only have one or two titles listed, so you’ll see some oddly specific words.


Thanks for reading!  If you’re interested in exploring the dataset yourself, feel free to download my Mathematica notebook.  I’d love to hear your suggestions of further analyses to do and other data sets to explore.

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Important Little Games

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I’m proud to say that I have started my own educational games studio called ‘Important Little Games.’  You can find out more about it here.  Under the ILG banner, I’m doing contract work as a designer and developer of educational games.  I’m also working on an original game called Codemancer, which I’ll hopefully speak more about soon.

Thanks to all of you folks who continue to support me doing what I feel I’m meant to do.

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GDC Bound

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gdc13This week I will be away at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.  This will only be my second year attending. Last year, by sheer luck, I was invited to give a talk about designing games for HTML5.  This year, despite my best efforts, I was not invited back as a speaker, so I’m attending as a pure spectator.  However, the whole experience is sure to be just as cool.  Last year I met a lot of amazing people, some of whom I still keep in touch with.  It also gives me a chance to see what’s bubbling up in the game development community’s collective psyche.  Maybe there are trends worth joining, or worth shying away from.

Chances are, a lot of you are visiting my website because you just met me at GDC.  If so, hello.  I hope I made a good first impression.  My more substantial posts about game design are on my Gamasutra blog.

In any case, wish me luck!

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Hello world!

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Welcome to my new website.  The old website still exists.  I find it a little embarrassing at this point, but if you insist on visiting it, you can go here.

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