I got a few responses from my previous post, and now I want to share my feelings on the subject.
As I stated in the post, I don't agree with David Cage, but I also don't agree with the statement from the reader either. To dismiss what games can offer emotionally or just from a narrative perspective generally with a blanket statement about how games give you the "opportunity to fill the shoes of the lead character" misses the point entirely. What games offer has nothing to do with being in the shoes of the main character, and everything to do with choice and perceived agency.
To answer my own questions, I have never, really, felt like I was in the shoes of a main character of a video game, or that the main character was in any way a reflection of me. Since I can't say that I have ever felt that way, I can't say that there were any instances of having a heightened emotional experience because of it.
In my option, the tools for creating heightened emotional experience in games are frequently exactly the same tools used for creating heightened emotional experiences in movies. Both revolve around empathy, either for the main character or the characters that surround him. Then when something good or bad happens to those characters, you yourself feel good or bad (or embarrassed, or sad, or whatever). The thing is that movies are mostly limited to creating feelings through empathy, but they're better at it that games are for sure, partially because we are given no say in the choices of the characters, and yet we understand the choices they make.
It the comments, good friend Borut talks about a fictional slavery game, driven by empathy for the slave:
If I play a game set in the South before the civil war where the main character is an escaped slave, will I actually feel like a slave? Probably not – but I will have a deeper understanding of what it might have been like, a more powerful understanding than if I watched a movie about it.
I responded in the comments:
Are you sure games are any better at achieving this than other mediums? Could you make a game that captures the hardships of being a slave or an escaped slave be any better than Roots? Part of being a slave was the unfair punishment, something we avoid in games completely.
The classic whipping scene in Roots is probably my best example of a case where empathy actually works way better than agency. Imagine if you were Kunta Kinte in a Roots game, and after every whip, you were asked what your name was. How many times would you respond with the African name? When / if you finally responded with the English name, how would you feel? There is no reward for using your English name, and no reward for using your African name. In both cases, there is only punishment. Because we empathize with Kunta in the movie, we understand why he wants to use his African name, and feel horrible about the punishment he receives because of it. But given the same abstract choice in a game, how often would you respond with the choice that is correct for the character?
This does not, however preclude the idea of offering new or different types of emotional states in games. Borut, again, points out that "a couple Bioware games have made me feel guilt when I treat party members badly (guilt is unique to games)," and he's right. But the feeling of guilt is driven by empathy for the characters you're being mean to. And if the character you're playing should be mean to characters, doesn't this prove that you're not necessarily in the mind of the main character when you perform actions in games? Your character feels good about being a douchebag, shouldn't you? The feeling your having is a result of seeing the impacts of your actions on characters you care about. This is the key to emotional impact in games.
In my opinion, games heightened emotional states don't come from "being in the shoes of the main character," but though agency, and the feelings of agency given through choice. Without that, you're left only with the powers of empathy given in movies. Furthermore, players need to be able to draw the causal line from decisions they've made to the good or bad things happening to characters they care about. You can see this already, even in games that have no plot. Players can create strong emotional connections to, and empathize with, any number of things in games that, through the player's choices, end in a particular situation. This state is heightened when they know that the situation was cause by some specific choice they made, and not just hand of the evil writers. In plot based games I feel the impact can be heightened further, especially if the designers are able to both create empathy for the characters and provide the choices that allow those characters to succeed or fail. Just because it hasn't been done (well), doesn't mean it can't be done, and in fact I think it should be done, and soon.
There is, of course, more I want to say on this subject concerning who we are as characters in a video game, but I want to leave it at that for now.