We are here to talk about investments. Not the financial kind, but of the emotional sort. Which, come to think of it, you can use to write out really good stories that will pay great dividends in monetary form, BUT, I am no expert on that topic but I DO have a lot to talk about with regard to feelings. And I have a lot of those, and so does your audience.
So, let’s begin.
When a person says that they’ve invested in someone or something emotionally, what it actually means is that they’ve established a bond with the subject, often attaching a form of memory and sentimental value. And with regard to your book, more often to your characters, having your readers emotionally invested is very important to keep them reading from the beginning to the end. Things like stakes give some agency to the characters, but it is how they act and react to events that could establish some sort of connection between a reader and your characters. For example, readers can relate to the sisterly bond between Katniss and Prim from the Hunger Games when Katniss volunteered as tribute to take her sister’s place. Or you can compare the power-hungry houses from the Song of Ice and Fire to the political scene that we see in our world.
Or you can empathise with Lovecraft’s characters when they apply tones of racism to rationalise his suspicions towards- Okay, you can ignore that bit. His lore is great but his stories are really uncomfortable to say the least.
Important side note for reference, the date I’m writing this is dated November 26th 2019, which is a week after a certain studio released a certain blockbuster movie with songs that are probably gonna stick in my brain for weeks to come. It was a fun movie, I won’t deny it. It had its funny bits and the scenes where the characters were making ugly crying faces, I ugly-cried with them. But after the credits rolled and I went home, my mind still searched for something.
Something that was missing.
I cried nearing the end of the movie because I was given cues to cry, i.e. the characters crying, emotional music and lyrics, etc. But, were the scenes properly established? Were we given a reason to emotionally invest in those scenes?
Let’s segue into a not-so-new piece of media that I kept praising over and over again in the past. The 2018 video game entitled Gris.
Fair warning to those who haven’t played the game: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t played it yet, bookmark this video and go play it. It’s only 2 hours long. Shorter than that if you have a guide. But if you’ve played it or if you don’t mind spoilers, let’s continue.
Okay, I may be kinda cheating with my choice to compare a film with a video game. After all, a video game is interactive, hence you put yourself into the game instead of just being a spectator. But, let me clear that up for you. Gris is a game that has no dialogue. It tells its story with its simple yet breathtaking visuals and music. Additionally, unlike many other games, you cannot get a game over in Gris. It won’t let you. So if you think about it, Gris is more like a movie than your usual video game.
Since I’ll be talking about how Gris engages with the audience well with its narrative, I’ll start by breaking down the story.
It tells a tale about a girl named Gris who has a magical dress and a magical voice. The game starts as she wakes up in the palm of a large hand, seemingly of a giant statue. Then she started to sing, but when her voice suddenly disappeared, the hand she was in began to crumble and break beneath her feet. Soon, there was nothing to hold onto anymore, and before long, she too fell down along with the broken pieces of a beautiful yet decayed world.
At rock bottom, Gris first tread along the whitewashed terrain slowly. Then after a short scripted animation where she tripped and forced herself up, she began to trot along the path and hop over small obstructions that are in her way.
Over time, the girl will gain more abilities to help her get from one point to the next. She’ll gain the ability to weigh herself down so she won’t get blown away by strong tempests. She will be able to jump higher and hover for a longer time to keep her from falling straight down. Then she’ll get the ability to swim deep into a shadowy chasm. And lastly, she’ll regain her ability to sing her magical song again. And with that, she’s able to put the world back together.
In order to achieve her mission, she needs to bring the colours back to the broken world. And to restore each color, she has to return to the palm that once held her aloft.
We get to see the progress of the game from this hand. In the beginning, we’ve established that the hand is somewhere high up in the sky, because it took such a long time for Gris to reach the ground. The next time we see it, it’s in the middle of an ashen desert in pieces. After that we see the hand once again, higher up this time and accompanied by a second hand. In a way, the statue is seemingly growing or recovering to its original state each time we re-encounter it. And how frequent we get to see this statue (which is also somewhat predictable because we will encounter it at the end of each level, and also in some other parts within the game), hence it is not only a motif, but it showed us how significant it is to the main character. And the payoff?
Well, throughout the game, there are these globes of light called mementoes scattered in different spots. Once you’ve collected them all, you’ll unlock a hidden ending scene, where it revealed the identity of the woman of whom the statue resembles.
It’s Gris’ mom.
The cutscene was really short. A minute and a half worth of animatics that showed the statue mom, appearing more human, spending time with Gris as a child. There was no over-the-top musical spectacle. Just the bond that they share in silence. And we’re immediately convinced that this is a common occurrence between the mother and her daughter, because of how often we see the statue as it watches over her like a protective figure, despite being inanimate for most parts of the game. It shows us how her mother means to Gris and how heartbroken she is when she had to face her passing.
Realistically, we share multiple sets of memories with the ones we love and care for. These memories are usually spread across several events in our lives. But in a film or a video game, with their time constraints, we cannot just squeeze every memory into it and expect the audience to just play along. After all, this is a sentiment held by the character, not the audience. So to allow the audience to feel invested or even empathetic, we must know how to convince them to. Showing a series of memories that are loosely tied to what is taking place in a story would not guarantee a cohesive plot. But showing only one or two at a time might just do the trick. Given it is done correctly.