- In new top video games, designers are working hard to move players emotionally
- "The Last of Us" follows a duo who bond for survival in a post-apocalyptic world
- "Bioshock: Infinite" and "Lara Croft" similarly invested in character development
- One of designers for "Last": "We want to give people moments"
Forget the macho world of the standard shoot-'em up video game. Rather than relying on blood, gore and mayhem, a number of game developers are tapping into their inner emotions, inviting gamers along for adventures of the psyche.
Recent releases "Tomb Raider" and "BioShock Infinite" evoked an emotional response by creating characters with which gamers could identify and empathize.
Now "The Last of Us" ups the stakes with its story of two people surviving in a post-apocalyptic world -- Joel, a grizzled man who has seen too much, and Ellie, a young girl who could be the future of the world.
"The thing we heard consistently (from focus groups) was 'I've never cared for characters as much as I've cared for Joel and Ellie,' " Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann told CNN.
"There are moments we want to show close-ups, we want to show really subtle performances, and that's where cut scenes are really useful. But we really use interaction to get you to connect, between Ellie and Joel, in a way you couldn't do in film."
It's an increasingly popular approach in a segment of gaming where ammo and attitude have traditionally reigned supreme.
In "Tomb Raider," players journeyed with a young and unsure Lara Croft through an early adventure in her career. They got to experience her anguish and joy as the star of the long-running franchise made her first kill or rescued close friends.
With "BioShock Infinite," an entire team was devoted to bringing the Elizabeth character to life. That level of care and precision resulted in a character who evoked a visceral response from the player -- one so real, designers said, that gamers would feel like they're part of something larger than playing a game.
"The Last of Us" designers at Naughty Dog wanted to bring different elements together to get gamers to feel attached to Joel and Elle. It had to be more than just intense moments, they said; it needed to come together seamlessly and sell their relationship to the player.
The game action is centered on a fungal outbreak that possesses humans and transforms them into ... well, zombies. Joel is older and has seen life on both sides of the outbreak. Ellie, just 14, was born into the post-outbreak world. Their different viewpoints on life and how it should be lived were important to developing the relationship between the two characters.
"How much we dedicate to those characters and building those characters and have those characters shift and change and go through these dynamic arcs and the gameplay supports that," studio director Bruce Straley said. "They feed off each other."
Early reactions suggest the dynamic works.
"We've had people cry when playing the game for us," Druckmann said. "There are about three spots in the game where people cry. Two of those are in cut scenes, and one of those is in game play."
He said he thinks the gameplay scene is the most powerful.
"You are so invested in the characters, and you're using these mechanics and then all of the sudden ... I can't say too much without spoiling it, but we flip a mechanic on its head and it doesn't do what you expect because of where the characters are at," Druckmann said. "You see people just lose it, and it's awesome."
Straley and Druckmann said they used different literary sources as inspiration for the game's emotional journey. One movie, in particular, struck a chord with both.
"We came out of 'No Country for Old Men' mouth agape, wide-eyed, going, 'Oh my God, what just happened?' and 'Could you ever experience that tension and emotion in a video game? Can you achieve that with a joystick in your hand?' " Straley said.
"In this world, anything can happen, and you as the player get to control that outcome and feel that tension."
But are gamers looking to cry over their characters? Is there a danger of turning off gamers because they may get too emotionally involved?
Both "Tomb Raider" and "BioShock Infinite" garnered commercial and critical success, suggesting that hard-core players are open to more than just another shooter.
Each asked the player to take a fresh look at some familiar gaming situations, using the main characters as a canvas on which to create the experience.
"The Last of Us" similarly asks players to tackle a challenging question -- in the horrible circumstances in which many games are set, how do you find, and define, your humanity?
"That's what all good true drama is based on -- that conflict and difficult choices and the human experience," Straley said.
Druckmann said he wants players to come away thinking about deep issues, such as the dynamics of relationships and what it takes to keep them alive.
"You sit down. You play the game and you're going to have moments," he said. "That's what we've set out to do. We want to give people moments."
"The Last of Us" is available worldwide. The game is a PlayStation 3 exclusive title. It is rated M for Mature due to blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes and strong language.