Sunday, June 26, 2011

Power Fantasies and Their Problems

For a short time in college I considered enlisting in the military but you have to understand my mind was in a very dark place then. I got over it, though I still find shooters and military-themed games fascinating. What boggles my mind, though, is how wrong most of them are about why I want to play them. It's as if they think I think being a soldier is this thrilling and glorious experience. At least Modern Warfare got it right when it killed me in a nuclear blast.

This isn't one of those complaints about there being too many shooters, though. Instead I bring up shooters to make an observation about games that are power fantasies, and some of the problems inherent to that style of play.

For the most part, a power fantasy is what it sounds like. It's the idea that if only you were a better more capable person. Games allow us to play as characters with abilities far superior to our own. God of War, Halo, Ninja Gaiden, Gears of War, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Devil May Cry, Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, and The Witcher are all examples of power fantasies in games. Such games naturally fall into the action adventure, shooter, and role-playing genres, because power fantasies tend to revolve around dominating one's opponents, and these genres revolve around combat.

Identifying a Power-Fantasy Game: Themes vs. Systems
I think power-fantasy games are characterized at least as much by their thematic and fictional content as by their gameplay systems and player interactions. For example, take the old laserdisc arcade game Space Ace, which is by all means a power fantasy about being a sci-fi action hero. The gameplay itself consists of reflexive button presses and memorization. Just dial in the proper button sequence, and you get to watch a cool cartoon unfold. Games like this are where quick-time events came from. The same format could just as soon be used for a game based on Schindler's List. So then you'd have two games with identical gameplay, but only one would be seen as a power fantasy. Not sure what people would make of the other.

Spy Party designer Chris Hecker offers a succinct argument against power fantasies on his blog that got me thinking about this themes-vs.-systems distinction. In Bastion, the game I've been working on, I wanted to avoid creating the tone of a power fantasy. For example, the protagonist character is someone the player is intended to feel for rather than envy. On the other hand, aspects of Bastion's game systems can be likened to those found in power-fantasy games -- it's a combat-oriented game in the action role-playing genre. Does that mean it's a power fantasy in spite of my intentions? Of course not. The narrative and thematic substance of a game sooner defines its character as being a power-fantasy or not, rather than the genre or the gameplay systems.

To illustrate my point, take ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. These games revolve around conventional gameplay challenges, including relatively straightforward platforming and combat systems. You run, jump, and kill things in those games in a manner that's comparable to games like God of War or Assassin's Creed. However, I don't think many would consider ICO or Shadow of the Colossus to be power fantasies. The emotional content of those games gives the experience of overcoming their challenges a nuanced and contemplative feel.

Problems With Power Fantasies
I don't want to make power-fantasy games for a variety of reasons that have little to do with how common they are. Rather, it's because I think power-fantasy games have three inherent, thorny problems I would like to avoid:

Problem 1: Risk of creating emotional disconnect or sense of inadequacy in the player
In the typical power-fantasy game, the player's skills will initially not be aligned with those of his character. You're controlling a character who is far superior to you.

This can make the crucial first experience with the game feel dissonant or off-putting. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which I think is a stunning and well crafted game overall, if you don't know how to sneak around as well as Nathan Drake knows how to sneak around, then there's a good chance you'll get flustered in one of the opening sequences. There's no explaining why Nathan Drake is suddenly incompetent in what should be a routine mission -- immersion is broken and you're reminded that you're just a poor schlub playing Uncharted 2 and failing at it. In The Witcher 2, my favorite game so far this year, the outstanding exposition and beautiful world can likewise come grinding to a halt as soon as the actual gameplay starts and you realize just how lethal the world of the game really is, and how lousy of a swordsman you are in spite of how proficient your character is supposed to be. You lose empathy for your character because you never experience having to go through what he went through in order to be good at his job.

Some games get around this type of problem through smart use of exposition or flashbacks. I thought the first hour of Assassin's Creed 2 wasn't as exciting as the rest of the game but at least it let you work your way up to earning the ninja-like skills of the protagonist. Most of the time, though, if a game is inviting you to be the badass then it's going to have an awkward learning curve, either nakedly easy or too hard.

Problem 2: Design limitations of an inherently powerful protagonist
If you're playing a game in which your character is very powerful and versatile, then not only is the game going to be harder to learn than it probably needs to be, with tons of front-loaded tutorial, it also won't leave much room for growth. Or it'll be some kind of nongame where you give minimal input, like Space Ace. Ironically, all this undermines the basic appeal of a power fantasy, which is to have a growing sense of superiority.

In Grand Theft Auto IV or almost any of the games derived from that series' template, you start with the power to wreak all kinds of havoc inside that sandbox world. You might work your way up to faster cars and deadlier guns than what you have access to right from the start, but in spite of the open-world scope, the sense of character progression is naturally limited. This is especially true of games set in the real world. In games like God of War, you start off extremely powerful but there's still a sense of progression as you move from superhuman to godlike powers. But in a military shooter, where you're a man with a gun, you don't expect to gain new abilities, and in 99 out of 100 such games, you don't. Realism.

Role-playing games have a traditional solution to these problems, by making the player start off as a nobody and gradually letting him grow his powers while his notoriety in the gameworld grows through the fiction. Even still, RPGs are notorious for their complexity, often front-loading far more game systems than the player ought to be concerned with at first. And most RPGs still are power fantasies from a fictional point of view.

If you're not making a power-fantasy game then you have far more latitude when defining your protagonist character. The player doesn't always want to be the badass, does he?

Problem 3: Limited emotional range
When a game is a power fantasy then it occupies a narrow and limiting emotional range. Power-fantasy games can be about justice, revenge... and, that's about it.

Look at the long list of games I've cited above and try and point to ones that aren't about justice or revenge.

Justice and revenge are age-old themes, deeply ingrained in human nature. The emotional range associated with these, I'd say, tends toward the aggressive and the negative. Some of the best works of fiction in the history of fiction have concerned justice or revenge. But these themes aren't everything.

Of course there's a whole slew of other themes and corresponding emotions that games can explore. It's an oversimplification but ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are games about love more so than they are about justice or revenge. By successfully applying an alternate thematic spin on conventional action adventure tropes, these games stood out as unique and provided unique and memorable experiences.

. . .

Power-fantasy games have a lot of things going for them. That's why so many of them are made. Games that attempt to solve the problems I've listed here have plenty of their own problems, including, I suppose, having a potentially more-limited appeal than power-fantasy games do. Even still, when thinking about the kinds of games I want to make, I'd much rather take my chances with exploring relatively untapped thematic territory than trying to attack head-on some hundreds of different games I hold in very high regard. I've tried that before and didn't like it as much.