Humans have an amazing ability to ascribe intention and emotion when logic tells us there could not possibly be any, a fact demonstrated most succinctly by this clip from Community
but proven somewhat more rigorously by An experimental study of apparent behaviour (PDF), in which experimental subjects were asked to watch and describ a short film showing some shapes moving around. If you would like to play along at home, I’ve embedded the video below.
The first subject group (n=34 undergraduate women) was given no instruction beyond “describe what happened in the movie.” Exactly one subject described it in purely geometric terms. Two others described the shapes as birds, and the rest described them as humans. 19 gave a full story. The stories people told (in this treatment and another where subjects were primed to view the shapes as people) had a shocking amount in common, suggesting there was something innate in the interpretation.*
My point is, humans will bond with anything. In many ways it’s easier to bond with/project onto simple objects than actual humans or almost humans. This can be used to great effect in art, to evoke desired emotions without all the messiness of using real people. A simple example is an extremely short, simple game whose name I’m not going to tell you, because it would bias your experience of it.
Did you play it? The game’s name is Loneliness. Can you guess why?
I like to think the shunned little square from Loneliness grew up in to be Chris in Thomas Was Alone, a game about rectangles making friends. Thomas Was Alone‘s premise sounds kinds of dumb: it’s a puzzle platformer with some narration ascribing emotions to the rectangles you solve puzzles with. But it pulls this off so masterfully I actually bought branded merchandise of it, which is something I can’t say about a single other game. The story is genuinely sweet, but the real skill is in how the puzzles reinforce it. Each rectangle has slightly different skills, some more useful than others. Chris is a shitty jumper whose initial story revolved around resenting the better jumper, and who is nothing but dead weight in the first puzzles (the other rectangles could get through without him, but he could not with them) suddenly becomes indispensable, I felt pride and relief.
TWA starts out a little slow. If you want to play, finish the first world before deciding whether to continue or quit. But I highly recommend it both as an interesting example of human psychology, and as a piece of happy art, which I don’t think we see enough of.
Okay, fine, I don’t see enough of because I’m a severe subscriber to the dark and edgy trend. But that just makes Thomas Was Alone more impressive.
*Attenuated by the fact that women attending college during WW2 is a narrow subset of the population.