Friday, February 26, 2016

The Power of Disempowerment #1 - The Designer Giveth and the Designer Taketh Away

You've heard the phrase 'player agency' thrown around, no doubt. Player agency is all about the control, the influence the player has over what happens in a game. In this series of blog posts, I'd like to discuss how enhancing and limiting the player's agency can contribute to an experience. 

Before I go in-depth, I'd like to illustrate the topic with an example. In a game where the player explores a hostile environment, the ways in which they can traverse and influence this environment would be an important part of their agency. A good example of a game like that would be Retro Studios' Metroid Prime.

Metroid Prime had a lot to live up to. The Metroid series had skipped a generation where its peers had jumped to 3D, and the fans were anxious to see how a game from this franchise could work with an additional dimension. To ensure a smooth start, Metroid Prime lets the player control a very well equipped Samus in the first section of the game. Most of the power ups you'd usually be looking for in the early game are already available to you. This allows the player to experiment, traversing the environment in a flexible way - the player is given a lot of agency to begin with. This allows the player to learn the game's mechanics in a fun way.

But just as soon as the player has gotten their bearings, defeating a few enemies and even a boss, the designer kicks the crutch right out from under them. The ship that serves as the introductory area begins to explode, and although Samus escapes safely, her power suit takes a massive hit from the explosion and loses most of its functions.Suddenly, the player's left with only some basic functions.

And it doesn't end there - the player is then let go on an enormous planet that they only have few ways to traverse. Suddenly, their agency is quite limited. After having been given a preview of what abilities they could have, they are now asked to build their arsenal back up from zero. But here's the thing: the game doesn't end when you're back up to where you started. In fact, by the end of the game, you're much more powerful than you were at the start. This is true for most games where the player increases statistics or acquires abilities and items, but the initial loss of your abilities makes reaching that point much more satisfying.

I cited Metroid Prime because I personally like the way you build your arsenal through exploration, which then allows you to explore better to then improve your arsenal further. But this is actually a pretty common trope in videogames; especially RPGs. TV Tropes calls it 'A Taste of Power,' which is apt. An entertaining fact: Often when I begin to write about something, the Tropers will have noticed it before I did.

But there's more than one way to disempower the player by "empowering" them. You can offer them a brief taste of power to show them what they will - at one point - be able to do... but you can also instill a sense of foreboding.

A series I've seen pull this off properly is Final Fantasy. Take Final Fantasy VII, for example.

Though this might be a bit of a spoiler, Final Fantasy VII is old enough that I feel comfortable to share at least a few details. At some point in the game, the player is given control of Sephiroth in a flashback. This is significant, because Sephiroth is actually the game's main antagonist. Cloud, the protagonist who also plays a role in this flashback, is incredibly weak by comparison. So, for just a short section, the player has a powerhouse of a character at their disposal; the catch is, they'll have to face him sooner or later.

One of its successors, Final Fantasy X, tries something similar.

After facing a challenging boss, Seymour - a character who laters turns out to be a major antagonist - joins your party for the rematch. Using his powerful magic, you can crush the formerly challenging boss into the ground with no effort. But again, at this point in the story, you likely already have your doubts about Seymour; again, while you're empowered now, you know you'll have to fight against him in the future.

It really is quite interesting to see the different ways Metroid Prime and Final Fantasy use these brief moments of empowerment to motivate and foreshadow in their own ways.

Some designers give the player a glimpse of what's to come to motivate them; to make the achievement of reaching and surpassing that point all the sweeter. Other designers use it to warn the player, to add tension and atmosphere. These are just some of the ways that the designer can mess with the player's agency to empower and disempower them. I'll be writing more about this topic in the future!

I'm interested - what moments of "empowerment" and "disempowerment" in videogames did you love? Which did you hate? Your responses and feedback are welcome.

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