Can Video Games Capture Emotion?

I love exploring virtual space. Real space, at least on Earth, has too many boundaries: fences, locks, private roads, no trespassing signs. Videogames have those, too, but in games there are usually clever ways to get past locked doors or other barriers. Surmounting them is part of the gameplay. In a video game like Skyrim you can go anywhere, walk through castles without having to wait in line as you would as a tourist. In video games, freedom is almost absolute.

Other than unlimited freedom to wander, it is becoming harder to tell the difference between reality and virtual reality.

Since I first played Super Mario on the NES, gaming evolved rapidly from a flat side-scrolling world to three-dimensional landscapes.

Exploring the province of Skyrim with its august snow-swept mountains, windy forests, and castles brought a previously undreamed-of level of immersion.

Now I have an Oculus Rift, which gives me a panoramic 360-degree view. After experiencing the Oculus, I wondered, where can gaming go from here in terms of realism? Will the developers find some other clever way to engage the other senses, say, the sense of smell or touch? Will the games of the future involve electrodes attached to a helmet in order to induce a controlled hallucination, ushering us into a bizarre science fiction universe?

Maybe. But I recently realized, none of that is necessary. I have discovered a game franchise that does something much more important than photorealistic graphics or panoramic views. I am talking about the Life is Strange series.

It is a sophisticated version of the “choose your own ending” stories that used to be purely text-based. The game Life is Strange has the true fourth dimension, the one I had been waiting for without knowing it: emotion.

Life is Strange has done something no other game has ever accomplished: created characters I really cared about.

The first “Life is Strange” game I played featured a female “camera nerd” named Max Caulfield, a college student who discovers she can rewind time. After witnessing a girl being murdered in the bathroom, Max uses her new power to go back in time to save the girl, who turns out to be her best friend from childhood whom she has not seen in many years. But her intervention jolts the cosmos off-balance and weird things begin to happen. Animals begin to mysteriously die. It snows on a hot day, and Max keeps having visions of a massive tornado poised to decimate the town. The more Max uses her ability to correct her mistakes, the more the universe spirals into chaos.

However, the plot description does not do justice to the depth of the story. The supernatural elements are overshadowed by the memorable characters. Even most of the villains, however cruel they might be, surprise with moments of warmth or vulnerability, creating a refreshing change from the purely black villains like Gannon in “The Legend of Zelda” games.

The stories are not just about good versus evil. They are about friendships and making hard choices.

In the first two games, I became so attached to the characters, I felt like they were my friends. I genuinely worried about them to the point where, once a game was over, I experienced separation anxiety and considered playing the stories through a second time.

The latest incarnation of the Life is Strange series features two Mexican-American brothers, one a teenager and the other his kid brother who is attacked by a bigoted bully. Self-defense turns deadly as the older brother, attempting to defend his kid brother, ends up accidentally killing the bully. When police arrive, an altercation breaks out. In all the chaos, their father, running out of the house to see what is happening, gets shot. The brothers pass out for some mysterious reason, and when they wake up, they are surrounded by dead bodies, including the police officer. Terrified, the boys flee the scene and become fugitives.

Granted, the story lines may not win Pulitzers. But the games have made me realize how much developers have been under-using video games as a story-telling device. Video games can do so much more than offer escape into a virtual world. They can inform, move, and even invite empathy.

I also like that the games are not difficult, leaving you free to focus on the story. You never die and have to start over. A big part of the game is exploring. Anywhere the character goes teems with details that offer clues to who the character is, whether it is inside houses, dormitories, parks, or stores. The characters react to details by sharing their thoughts when you click on objects, such as an ancient wine stain on a carpet or a letter from a friend.

Every mundane detail offers insights: stacks of unpaid bills, report cards, awards, letters, emails, refrigerator magnets, and threatening letters. As a writer, I took note of how medical bills, favorite snacks, and photographs can evoke emotions. Everything you see contributes to the sense that the characters are so real they will follow you out of the game after you turn off your system.

Although the gameplay is easy, many of the decisions the game asks you to make are difficult such as: Do you save a town by sacrificing your friend or sacrifice a town to keep a friend alive? It is this level of immersion that makes holographic realism look like shallow excess. You can put away the Oculus Rift, forget about a Star-Trek-style holo-deck. The best games are about people, and I hope to see a lot more of them.