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.


  1. When you were talking about inadequacy, I first thought you would be talking about how the player feels that there is no way that s/he can do that in real life. But I guess that is the same for every game, the fact that you are able to climb colossal rock monsters , assassinate with style, or come back alive after death even, tell the player that it is but a game. It could have high weight for the detachment factor, but I feel players have gotten very desensitised to it that it doesn't become a game breaker. It's a fantasy world with its own fantastic rules.

    I do enjoy ninja gaiden, but now you' think why, I always thought I liked it because the smooth animations and the things I can do are just so cool that It's worth playing just for the gameplay. Never felt like me being powerful was the main drive. I did get that feeling of me being a poor dragon ninja while playing it though...

    Too many thoughts. Realism.

  2. Fascinating read, as always.

    I understand exactly what you mean when you refer to a lack of character progression in games like Grand Theft Auto IV, though that game succeeded for me through character progression of a different kind: while he may not have gained more hit points or learned powerful new spells or combos, I felt that Nico evolved as a person over the course of the game's story, and while it is certainly to some degree about revenge, I was surprised to find that in the end it seemed to me more a tale about the need for forgiveness than about vengeance. Which is just my way of saying something I'm sure you already know; that even within the limits of a power fantasy game, there are tremendous possibilities to surprise or innovate, to break from the mold or to subvert player expectations.

    Not that I think you were arguing otherwise. Just the most immediate reaction I had to the piece.

  3. Interesting post. I feel like difficulty modes can contribute to the first problem. Recently I was playing Mass Effect 2 on Insanity and it breaks the immersion for me when my big and tough Commander Shepard who is supposed to save the galaxy from the Reapers is killed easily by a lone mercenary.

    Likewise, I think Bioshock 2 had a similar issue, but in this case I feel like the developers gave a false impression. Before release we were told that lone splicers wouldn't post much of a problem because the player character is a Big Daddy. In actuality, this turned out to be false and one could easily be killed by a lone splicer no matter what difficulty they were on.

  4. Interesting read - even if I don't necessarily agree with everything said.
    But what I would also be interested in is what other kinds of narrative archetypes or themes you see. In other words: What are the alternatives to power fantasies?

    Martyrdom? Nurturing? Coming-of-age? Defiance? Redemption? Something completely different?

  5. @ Reetesh, I think the sense of inadequacy you describe isn't far off from what I meant. It's still a negative feeling that distances you from the game character. Compare the magically recharging health in Call of Duty to the claustrophobic sense of having to change air filters or else suffocate in Metro 2033.

    @ Caro, thanks and I agree that GTA IV's sense of progression is strongest in its fiction. If anything the game is only masquerading as a power fantasy via the "Grand Theft Auto" name and tradition. It probably wasn't a good example to use here because it isn't as cut-and-dried as some of the other games I mentioned.

    @ Nathan, good points on both counts. I had similar experiences in both games.

    @ Jan, what didn't you agree with? I'll likely get into alternatives to power fantasies in some other 1500-word post but it's not like there's a limit to the themes games can cover. It's not limited to little experimental indie games either. ICO is a coming-of-age game, I think almost undeniably. Nintendogs and Viva Pinata are nurturing games. Animal Crossing is a game about being neighborly and enjoying the small things in life.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post. My initial thoughts were that what you say is great and that the world would be well served by more games playing with the idea of a character who isn't all powerful.

    As I was thinking about what you said more, I am also thinking about the fact that I have been playing Fallout: New Vegas recently. I have been a fan of the series since before the first one came out, but I almost never finish the games. This is largely due to a sense of my character being too weak for the environment I am playing in. While this is a perfect feeling for a game set in a post-nuclear war wasteland to create in me, it becomes a turn off when I encounter a solitary radscorpion right after entering a cave (thus creating an autosave) and then die 5 times in a row before I can figure out a way to get the hell away.

    That said, I am really looking forward to how Bastion will allow me to tune the difficulty to my liking in ways that I choose. I think it's a very elegant solution to the problem described above.

    I guess you already addressed my point by saying that game play systems are not as important in this classification of games than story and thematic content. Basically, even if my character is supposed to be weak, don't make the game frustrating just to prove the point.

  7. I don't know if you'd be interested, but I've been thinking about this post for a while now and I did a response on my blog fleshing out my previous comment.

  8. I'm also interested to see what Jan disagreed with. I thought everything was fine.

    One question though, you mentioned that in Call of Duty you don't really "grow" in the game. While it's obviously not realistic due to the regenerating health, but then how are you supposed to grow in games like those? It's a military shooter, so the game can't force you to have worse aiming or slower movement during the beginning. How would this concept of developing your skills work in a linear shooter?

    In a way, shooters already have some form of immersion. In Call of Duty, you're just another soldier in a sea of clones. You're not expected to be a great soldier, or the savior of the universe, or some top elite special forces guy. So wouldn't it make sense that it depends on how the player is able to aim and shoot?

    This is probably what you meant when you said it's better to start characters with a "clean slate". That way, there are no expectations of the player, in terms of choices and skill. However, how would this work in the more interactive sequences? Where you act angry when your friend is killed, or when you cry afterwards? Isn't that already molding the character for you?

    The only way I see this working is if the game is 100% sure that the player also feels the same way, at the same time, so that he can relate. And that would mean sequences like these could only work late game, correct?

    Thanks for reading.

  9. Hey,

    totally necromancing this thread. Sorry for not replying initially I have no clue how this blog thing works and funny enough am a terribly slow adapter. Need to pay more attention to this now that I think I'm starting to somewhat 'get' Twitter.

    Anyway things I would disagree with for the point of playing Advocatus Diaboli more than anything else (as in: the blog post was great I just want to see what happens when throwing things at it):

    Problem 1 & 2: emotional disconnect & design limitations

    I think those are design problems that are solvable when abandoning conventions about difficulty and player progression. Who says that power fantasies would need to be hard to play at all? Prove in point: Playing Rez on lowest difficulty is still a blast and I would consider the constant feeling of forward momentum and dominance a power fantasy. But may be that's a question of what a 'power fantasy' is - not an English mayor at this end of the keyboard. ;)

    On the other hand like you say some games make an attempt at explaining. Assassins Creed and God of War series come to mind as they actually strip power from the player after initially having a go at it, providing an explanation to why things are hard going forward. May be not the most satisfying dramaturgy but hey who says games have to be a comfy either?

    Problem 3: Limited emotional range

    I don't know. I can see that the problem is there, it is pretty undeniable just going by how common it is.

    On the other hand like most problems I think it is solvable. Again provided that something as positive as Rez would qualify for a power fantasy then there are other things there for sure. Like Eddie Cameron wrote on Twitter (redirecting me to this here): '(...) I'd like to think a fantasy can be empowering too'

    Otherwise I would go as far that you can add regret and self-reflection to that list.
    At least that's what I think we tried to do with Spec Ops: The Line

    Anyway great blog post, as you can see it stayed on my mind for quite a while.
    I'm still interested in what the alternatives will be, although since I asked for them we got things like Journey so I'm sure more of them will show up more prominently and commonly at some point. At least lets hope so.

    Jan David Hassel

  10. I think its no coincidence that the list of games I really like, for the most part, give you all the abilities you need (more or less) from the get-go: Portal, TF2 (though I've not kept up with the patches), Left For Dead, C & C: Generals (Tech tree notwithstanding; you can climb it in minutes.), Sim City, Myst, -- generic racing game ---, Super Mario Bros., etc. Half Life is the only standout, and the progressions in that game are not overwhelming.

    If you have your abilities instantly or soon, you focus on "How do I USE my abilities intelligently?"; if you constantly gift up a player, they are constantly resetting their progression as a SKILLED PLAYER to reconcile the new powers -- or worse yet not NEEDING to gain skill because they are mowing down enemies with their new abilities.

    As a designer you are given three options to respond to a continually amped up player:

    1) "More of the same" - more opponents - and that only works for a while and makes the player less emotionally involved or engaged with cannon fodder.

    2) "Amped up opponents" -- so the graphics get better, but the battles turn into longer grinds as everyone's health bars/armor gets longer. Or, everything balances out, so why bother?

    3) "Better is just better" -- the game stops being challenging and it becomes a race to see how FAST they can get through it, reducing experiential value of the game.

    If you want to make the game more interesting don't ladle on powers - make the OPPONENTS/GOALS more challenging and demanding of focus and talent. QUALITATIVELY -- not "Now you have to kill FIFTY tunnel rats" but "The tunnel rats now have sniper rifles and cruise missiles."