In recent years more and more games have made me feel like an actor who doesn't know his lines in the middle of a performance. The set dressing changes but the experience is the same: For a while, everything is happening according to the script, until we reach the point where I start screwing up my part. Pregnant pauses and awkwardness ensue. Failure in highly scripted games feels almost embarrassing, like failing to solve a simple puzzle, because the star's performance as the hero/soldier in these games isn't even intended to be challenging.
I think all this is a byproduct of what happens when games are chiefly designed to fulfill a particular power fantasy for the largest number of players, even at the expense of giving those players the ability to relate to the situation. There's an inherent dissonance to playing a realistic-looking game as a highly experienced character of some sort -- a spy or a supersoldier or whoever -- when you yourself don't know how to perform actions that should be second nature for the protagonist character. And judging by the trends, mainstream retail gaming's answer is to reduce difficulty, automate, and front-load lots of contrived training in order to ease you in. This feels like formula. So what does it take to provide a genuinely different and affecting experience in a mainstream game at this point? I think the answer is closely linked to the design of the protagonist character, and his or her persona, abilities, and relationship to the world of the game.
It used to be more common for games to ramp the player's abilities. Classic games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda demonstrated how compelling it is to start off as a character with great potential but limited ability and gradually gain access to a wider variety of powerful moves. This achieves a few things: It gives the player incentives to continue exploring, knowing that the next cool ability may be right around the next corner; it allows for intricate level designs that make the much-maligned concept of backtracking seem palatable if the player is later able to traverse areas in surprising new ways and faster than before; and it provides a natural ramp for a game's challenge and difficulty, by allowing early encounters to be simple and later encounters to be tougher and more complex. I love games that have these qualities, whether they're Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Metroid Prime or Batman: Arkham Asylum. But it seems to me they're less common now than they used to be. I don't think this is because this type of structure became unpopular. I think it's because the pursuit of realism in games (or rather the idea of "superficial authenticity") became relatively more popular.
If you're a supersoldier or a spy, you're what I'd call a "knowing protagonist", someone who's been training your whole life for this mission of a lifetime you're about to go on. The world of that mission does not support the idea that you'd somehow gain an incredible new ability during the mission, since you're already at the height of your prowess. You might find an experimental weapon or some cool new gadgets, and you might ride on vehicles or have to go through a level without killing anybody or something. But the pressure's squarely on the level design and possibly the story rather than on the ramp-up of player abilities to keep you engrossed. On the other hand, if you're somebody like Link, a kid with humble origins but a lot of potential, you start off with nowhere to go but up and you're what I'd call a "growing protagonist". As well, having a gameworld that's more imaginative than real opens up opportunities for Link or others like him to grow in power in a dramatic way.
A protagonist character with humble beginnings doesn't have the natural, superficial appeal of an already-experienced character such as a tough-as-nails supersoldier or an unstoppable assassin. But by starting out strong, these types of characters naturally and severely constrain the internal logic of the gameworlds they inhabit, forcing designers to front-load play mechanics and put all the pressure on level designs and story to keep things interesting. Max Payne, Master Chief, Markus Fenix, and Soap MacTavish all start with the same exact abilities they end with -- the guns change, the scenery changes, the story changes, but the moment-to-moment gameplay basically stays the same the whole time. I love the games these guys are from, too. But their games have influenced two whole generations of similar stuff that seemed to muscle out many of the Links and the Alucards and the Samuses, in favor of more true-to-life and arguably less interesting characters and worlds.
Reality-based games may be a big draw for mainstream developers or publishers, but reality imposes some really awful constraints on games. For instance, how do you teach a player the basic rules when you're also trying to make him believe that he's that badass supersoldier looking tough on the box art? The two goals are almost contradictory and yet almost every action or adventure game faces the challenge of building immersion while teaching the player how to navigate the environment.
Some games manage very clever solutions. I loved playing as a Russian grunt at the beginning of Call of Duty 2, learning to throw potatoes like grenades because grenades were too costly for the Soviets to train with. What a fantastic bit of exposition. Running the training course as the new guy at the beginning of Modern Warfare, while an obvious solution on some level, also worked well to draw players into the experience while making them empathize with the protagonist character -- even a silent protagonist like Soap MacTavish. After all, Soap was going through exactly the same thing as the player -- learning, training, trying to fit in. By the time Modern Warfare 2 came around, Soap was no longer wet behind the ears, so developer Infinity Ward did something brilliant by making him a nonplayer helper character (at least when we first meet him) and once again cast you as someone still learning the ropes.
Batman: Arkham Asylum also did a fantastic job of justifying the player's learning. Batman is a perfect example of a character who should be at the height of his power at the beginning of a story, unless it's his origin story. But in Arkham Asylum, developer Rocksteady Games justifies making him a "growing protagonist" by telling a story of a routine Batman mission that happens to go pretty badly wrong... leading to Batman being physically unprepared for what's to come and having to scrounge up additional tools from the Batmobile, his secret Bat Cave, and so on. Batman's growth is further expressed by his suit becoming more and more tattered over time -- he physically appears more experienced by the end. The moments where Batman gains new powers in the game feel pretty forced from a story perspective, but they enable the open-ended structure and that immensely satisfying feeling of having escalating powers and abilities.
A protagonist character's status in his world at the beginning of a game is the foundation for the internal logic that structures the player's progress. If you start off as a supersoldier, there's not a lot of room to grow. You might succeed against all odds, but no one's going to promote you if you're already Master Chief. Or if two hours into the experience you already have your own team, your own spaceship, and carte blanche to do pretty much whatever in the galaxy as in Mass Effect, then no wonder you're going to wind up feeling a bit let down by the shallow systems governing character progress -- there's no real room to grow, not within the constraints of a "hard science" world where you start out on top. On the other hand, in BioWare's own Knights of the Old Republic, your character dramatically gained power, becoming a Jedi and gaining all its perks at record speed... something that felt almost suspiciously too good to be true until the game's big reveal that completely justified your character's remarkable ability to grow in power. Of course, the role-playing genre tends to heavily revolve around the concept of character progression, but almost any kind of game can use fiction to justify and support progression of the player's abilities and a smooth ramp of the complexity of the game rules.
So, coming back to the question posed at the beginning: How to satisfy the mainstream power fantasy while avoiding the dissonance of having the player's lack of experience with a game collide with the protagonist character's strength and know-how? There's no formulaic answer, of course. But games that work hard at this problem I think tend have tighter internal logic, more empathetic protagonists, and a stronger structure than games that just assume you want to be a supersoldier and that you're OK with a few minutes of obligatory tutorial at the beginning even if it has nothing to do with the plot. Assassin's Creed II is a good recent example, a game that had a ton of natural appeal through its fantasy of becoming a cool-as-ice assassin stalking through the back alleys of rennaissance Italy -- but you had to earn your way into that role, learning the ropes as you went along. I didn't like the first couple of hours of that game as much as the rest (I'll come back to this when I write more about exposition), but I think playing through the "origin story" of Ezio made the brunt of the experience of that game all the more rewarding.
In short, I think it's a good thing for a gameworld to justify the protagonist character's ability to change during the course of the game. If I could make whatever game I wanted, I'd make one with a protagonist character who has a significant capacity to grow throughout the game, as a reflection of the player's own growing familiarity with the game rules.