The very first Emotional Games Awards are in motion now, and the winners will be announced on February 12. Dr. Erik Geslin, an expert who earned his doctorate in emotional and visual rhetoric in gaming at Arts et Métiers ParisTech, founded the Awards.. Dr. Geslin, his thesis states, is primarily interested in “the link between emotion and states of presence in virtual reality … and video games.”
This year’s nominees for Best Emotional Game include Her Story and Life is Strange, both popular narrative games featuring female protagonists. Her Story is also nominated for Best Emotional Mobile & Handheld Game, alongside some powerful contenders. We played through each nominated mobile game and ranked them according to design quality, fun, and emotional resonance.
Discouraged Workers, a manga-inspired virtual novel released by YGGDRASIL Studio, is available in both Japanese and English. The game defines “discouraged workers” as those willfully unemployed: people who attempted for years to find jobs, but eventually gave up on the workforce entirely. This concept feels relevant, considering recent reports that 40 percent of physically capable Americans who are out of work have reported giving up on trying to find a job.
The dour tone of the game comes right at you. In the very first moment, it asks the player, “Are you alright?” Before the player can figure out how to answer, it transitions into story mode. Gameplay involves feeling shameful about receiving favors and loans from family, screwing up job interviews, and reflecting on how far behind you’ve fallen when compared to your peers from college.
Fun Level: Not only is the game depressing, but it’s also weirdly hands-off. There are few chances to make choices during conversations, and the point-and-click interface gets boring quickly.
Emotional resonance: This game, despite its frustrating design, will hit unemployed or underemployed millennial gamers right where it hurts. It’s a satirical take on Korean soap operas, but the plot — powerlessly navigating a sluggish economy with debt and a useless degree — feels distinctly American as well.
5. Cloud Chasers - Journey of Hope
Cloud Chasers - Journey of Hope is immediately fun, as even its training sequences have high stakes. Gamers play as a father and daughter attempting to survive a desert wasteland, maintaining their stores of water with a moisture-farming aircraft that collects rainwater from clouds. Not only is the game effervescent — the colors are bright and scenes transition smoothly — but Amelia and Francisco are also easy to relate to, and fun to pull for.
Fun level: This one is compulsively playable, though the tiny details are better absorbed on a larger phone.
Emotional resonance: The game isn’t exactly heartbreaking, but it works as an illustration of societal inequality and the immigrant experience. Players are aware, as they help Amelia and Francisco struggle to survive off the land, that “privileged” folk live in places the father and daughter can’t access.
4. Lost in Harmony: Kaito’s Adventure
Lost in Harmony is primarily an emotional game, if you’re the type of person who really feels something when listening to music. Its soundtrack, designed by Wyclef Jean, informs the Guitar Hero-style gameplay, giving rhythm clues and an intended tempo to the player, who controls a boy on his skateboard as he zips down city streets.
The game’s plot, which takes a backseat to is primary play interface, involves the skateboarding boy and the girl he loves, who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal disease. The true heartbreaking moment is (spoiler alert) the boy realizing that his adventure gameplay is just a fantasy; in reality, his friend is too sick to go on skateboarding adventures.
Fun level: This is the most fun game on the list, and it’s great for playing through a level while waiting in line somewhere, as any mobile game should be.
Emotional resonance: While Lost in Harmony is arguably the most enjoyable game among the nominees, it’s nowhere near the most heart-wrenching.
3. Spirits of Spring
Ignore the game’s cheesy trailer: Spirits of Spring is effective commentary on bullying, and the gameplay is both engaging and downright pretty. Players experience a winter world through the eyes of Hero, a Native American boy who easily falls prey to feathered monsters who like to gang up on him. There’s no way to beat these monsters once they attack Hero, so Spirits of Spring challenges players to find unique ways to avoid and defeat bullies.
Fun level: It’s easy to melt an hour or two into playing Spirits of Spring, but once the game’s central conceit is revealed — you’re not going to get anywhere with violence — it loses a bit of its sheen.
Emotional resonance: More clever than emotional, Spirits of Spring has touted itself as an “empathy game,” which assumedly means it’s intended to put players in the shoes of kids who feel bullied. That feeling of helplessness will follow you, even after you’ve put your phone away.
2. Her Story
Her Story is the favorite among the nominees, as it has won several critical awards since its release. It’s a sure-fire hit for anyone who enjoys listening to Serial or thought Making a Murderer was interesting, as the game simply follows a woman as she speaks to the police seven separate times. Did she kill her missing husband? It takes a long time to develop an opinion, but watching the game’s main actress explain herself is fascinating.
Fun level: Her Story isn’t classically fun in a beep-boop action game sort of way, but man, does it ever feel important when the app is open. It’s extremely addictive.
Emotional resonance: The story here is dense, and listening to an unreliable narrator keeps the player on edge the entire time. The intense, emotional sensation of unraveling a human mystery in Her Story is very hard to forget.
1. Out There
It should come as a surprise to no one that Inverse would choose a game set in outer space as its favorite emotional, mobile game of the year. Gameplay even involves dismantling tech and building new products in order to glean chemicals. In addition to being a lovely little sci-fi epic, Out There feels fully realized and unique in its design.
Fun level: Out There is complex, and it takes a bit of playing in order to understand all of the game’s moving parts, but once the basics are under your belt, exploring the galaxy never gets old.
Emotional resonance: This one’s impact is built out of little hints. While exploring uninhabited planets and watching your ship’s resources dwindle, the player begins to feel a palpable loneliness. Out There doesn’t hit its players over the head with any drama, but exploring a lifeless and gorgeous universe begins to feel like complete isolation after a while.