In 2008, seek the tearjerker

Embarrassing Confession Number 32B: Sometimes I cry at movies.

Not at the clumsy, shred-the-heartstrings moments, like when Haley Joel Osment got offed in Pay it Forward. But the honest ones, like the first time the two leads in Once sit down at the piano and realize that they can make beautiful music together.

When I’ve got a controller glued to my mitts, however, the only time you’re generally going to see me shedding a tear is when I’m stuck playing and writing about something truly abysmal — think Hour of Victory bad, the kind of soul-sucking dreck that goes well beyond so-bad-it’s-good, to the point where you’re actually thinking about whether the state of your hobby has sunk below reality TV.

And that, in itself, is a different kind of sad.

‘Cause as gamers, we ought to be crying more.

We’re at an amazing convergence of creativity and technology. Games have used that convergence to become awesome, even effortless, at making us feel powerful, whether that power comes in the form of Master Chief’s ever-blasting plasma guns or Mario’s colorful arsenal of sparkling star bits. It’s a nice surge, that “hell, yeah” moment when you pull off an unbelievable combo move and frag the bejesus out if that bastard who’s been sticking it to you the last 15 minutes.

But here’s the thing: That moment sticks with you, yes, but only in a superficial way, the way an ESPN highlight from last week’s wild card playoff sticks with you. You’re thrilled, sure, but are you moved? The emotional resonance is largely missing in action.

In Bioshock, last year’s most frontier-bashing and seminal game, you were more soulless than a television studio executive if you didn’t pause for a moment — or maybe 10 or 15 — when faced with your first opportunity to kill a Little Sister for a quick ADAM fix.

Among a landscape of games that treat violence as little more than a brilliantly disguised pop-up gallery, here was a moment of real moral crisis. Can you do this? Can you really do this? And if you do, as so many of us did, opt to chase those extra power slots, what does that say about you and what you’ve become? The game itself had its own answer, of course — hello, bad ending — but it also left you to come up with your own.

That sort of experience is far rarer than it oughtta be.

Games don’t need to go all P.S. I Love You to attain deeper meaning — and I pray to God of War 3 that they don’t. But by finding interesting ways to get us to invest something more than visceral testosterone in our gaming, they could aspire to something more meaningful.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Hardcore Square Enix fans still reach for the Kleenex over Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII. Even though I knew it was coming, I was actually shocked and saddened when Liane, the heroine’s weepy pal in the PSP game Jeanne D’Arc, ended up as her barbequed stand-in. These aren’t just examples of good programming — although that always helps — but good storytelling.

For a certain (and sizable) segment of game nation, gaming will always be about the first of what I like to call the three “E’s” — escapism and entertainment — and nothing more, and that’s just fine. For those of us who’d like to see the industry evolve and grow, however, the third “E” — emotion — is the logical next step. Here’s hoping this is the year it finally happens.