The Problem of Emotions (and Sanity) in Video Games

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land info pageSanity has been something we’ve debated a lot during the design of the game. For the paper RPG, IMHO, Sanity (SAN) has been a key part of not only the Call of Cthulhu playing experience but also what separates it out from other RPGs. There is a built-in shadow of insanity that stalks all players of the game and in the end will get you. As you learn more of the cosmic horror, so your character’s grasp on reality ebbs away. It makes a cool addition to the tabletop experience and is something I’ve enjoyed role-playing over the years. However in a video game, things are a bit different…

In a video game, the design of what actions a character can and can’t do are constrained by the game-engine, the art assets, the processing power of the machine and more. There is also a rule of thumb in games design – don’t remove control from the player if you can help it. Games are interactive mediums and so finding you can’t control your character is often annoying.

Another game I worked on back in the Playstation2, Xbox days was Conflict: Vietnam. In the design we wanted to capture some of the emotional horror of war, so we designed and implemented an ’emotions system’.


Each of the four characters had a different emotional state they could fall into. For example one would freeze, one would run away from the combat and one would run into the combat. The idea was that as they took damage or came under heavy fire, they might buckle under the pressure. On paper it seemed a cool idea, however once we implemented it we found it didn’t work very well. What would happen is that a character you were controlling would suddenly shout out (we had fun recording the test audio for this!) then you’d lose control of them. They might route into a mine field, into the path of a Vietcong HMG nest etc.

In short it often ended with the out-of-control unit wounded and unable to act. Your control would then jump to another unit and as there are now less in the squad the pressure would ramp up, so increasing the chances of another unit losing it. We did tweak the stats for a bit, but it never really worked and so we abandoned it.

Wounded in Conflict:Vietnam

To me that’s a key difference, when the Keeper in a RPG tells a player they’ve lost control, its fun getting to act a bit crazy. When the game-system does the same it just does not work. However – as I said – Sanity is really important to a Call of Cthulhu game and we don’t want to lose it….

Tomorrow I’ll talk about how we’re looking to solve the issue…

About Tomas

Design & Production Director at Auroch Digital. Designer of Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. Writing and blogging things that surprise, entertain and interest me...
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2 Responses to The Problem of Emotions (and Sanity) in Video Games

  1. Pingback: Design Discussion from Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land « A Great Becoming…

  2. Pingback: Sunday Summary: Sanity in the Wasted Land |

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