Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Power of Disempowerment #2 - A Fleeting Joy

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the way designers can both give the player power, and take it away from them, and how this reflects on certain games. I gave a general idea of the concept and its advantages, so I'd like to highlight a few of its pitfalls now.

The 'Taste of Power' trope I touched upon is just that; only a taste. But what happens if you give the player too much? What if you disappoint them?

To illustrate this point, let's talk about Alan Wake.

Alan Wake is a thriller videogame with third-person action mechanics. Without going into too much detail, for those of you who might like to play the game, the protagonist - Alan Wake - fights a seemingly unstoppable dark force for the majority of the game. The enemies - people called 'Taken', because they've been taken by the dark force - take time, focus and supplies to get rid of. You need to shine a light right on them until their protection wears off - which takes batteries - and then shoot them several times, which takes bullets. With enemies taking this level of time and effort to be defeated, tension builds constantly, and you'll simply have to run away if you get surrounded.

... Except, the game has brief moments of overbearing generosity. The designers wanted to encourage and reward exploring the area, by giving the players small caches of supplies or powerful weapons. The problem is that these supplies are too common, and some of them, too powerful; the flash bang grenades, for example, can immediately destroy a whole crowd of enemies. Having this happen once every few hours would make it a shining example of a 'taste of power', while preserving tension. But a player who properly explores will likely find themselves with pockets full of weapons, flares and flashbang grenades at certain points in the game. The game can often turn from a tense thriller to a typical third person action game, albeit a competent one.

Perhaps worse than this design 'problem' is the way the developers tried to solve it. To ensure that the player's power is kept in check, their weapons and tools are regularly removed at the end of episodes or certain sections. Sometimes a brief explanation is given - the protagonist may have been hospitalized or drugged - but other times your inventory just vanishes. If the designers hadn't done this, the game might've been a breeze for a subset of players, but as it stands many players will feel cheated that their hard earned items are taken from them arbitrarily. 

In my opinion, Alan Wake would've reaped the benefits from rewarding the player for exploration in a different way; either by only giving the player useful tools that don't trivialize most enemies - flares, for example, which only keep enemies at bay - or being very stingy with the weapons, only hiding rifles and shotguns at the most secretive and dangerous locations. 

In many ways, the game's sequel - Alan Wake's American Nightmare - took these possible design issues and "fixed" them by making the game work around them. The result is a game that lacks tension entirely, but is a surprisingly competent third person action game.

In American Nightmare, Alan Wake is stuck in a time loop - which in turn explains away why he keeps losing his items - but it doesn't really matter that you lose your items anymore. Strewn about American Nightmare's world are special boxes that you can open depending on how many of the collectible pages you've found. The player never loses these pages, which means they can always gain direct access to weapons they've unlocked again. The issue of the player arbitrarily losing their items is gone, but the result is that the player is almost permanently overpowered if they spend any time collecting the pages, mostly because the game is still much too generous. The player needs a grand total of just 3 pages to unlock a submachine gun, which will shred most common enemies in a heartbeat. The more varied selection of more powerful enemies only mitigates this problem a little.

In my opinion, to completely justify its shift in design philosophy, American Nightmare would've had to be less generous with its more powerful weapons - but I respect that it doesn't arbitrarily bar the player from them after they've been unlocked, unlike its predecessor. 

With that being said, it's understandable that Alan Wake's American Nightmare wanted to prevent the player from feeling cheated. Giving the player a taste of power, only to take it away, can be confusing or frustrating - especially if it changes the mechanics of the game. Alan Wake has the advantage of always being a third-person action game. Even if you don't get the powerful gun and the powerful light, you're still aiming with a weak revolver and a small flashlight. Similarly, Final Fantasy VII and X simply allow you to play with a more powerful character with more powerful versions of spells you already know. Games like Metroid Prime, where entire mechanics are introduced - and then disappear - take a big risk. In my earlier piece I argued that Metroid Prime uses this to great effect, but that won't stop certain players from feeling cheated or confused.

Lastly, I'd like to offer one more example. The previous examples all involved giving, and then removing, power from the player - but in each of these examples, similar or more power could then be acquired. This was not true, however, for a certain stage in Rayman 2. I'd like to close off this piece with one of my less positive childhood experiences with the 'taste of power' trope.

Rayman is an iconic hero, perhaps most well known for his detached limbs and his ability to use his hair to float over short distances.

As the game progresses, Rayman gains more and more powers through special Silver Lums. Every time such a power is acquired, it is permanent - until you reach Beneath the Sanctuary of Rock and Lava. In this stage, Rayman is finally given what seems to be the ultimate power - a Silver Lum that gives him the ability to fly freely. When used properly, you can fly indefinitely and in any direction, though it is quite hard to control. You're then asked to learn the new flying mechanics in a trial by fire; a challenging stage that demands control and precision.

This may seem like a natural step for any designer or regular player, but as a child, it blew my mind to be able to fly around at will - even though I was terrible at it. After dozens of tries, I finally completed the stage and was excited to see what new challenges I could overcome with the power of flight. And then the stage's boss sneaks up to you in a cutscene and punches you out, causing you to lose your new power permanently. 

It's easy to rationalize; it was just a special stage. Being able to fly would break most of the game, or it would have to be built entirely around flight and stop being a platformer. But due to the way the power was presented, and how well you were forced to learn its mechanics, I felt extremely cheated when the game just took them away without warning. I cite this example, because it combines the risk of changing the mechanics (like Metroid Prime) and the arbitrary removal of power (like Alan Wake). And even worse, you never get this power again. 

Now, like always, I want to stress that all of the aforementioned games are very good in their own right. I just take issue with minor and specific parts of their design.

To summarize: If the designer is too generous with moments or levels of power, this can either trivialize the game's challenges (Alan Wake's American Nightmare) - or force the designer to arbitrarily remove power from the player at certain points (Alan Wake, Rayman 2). The risk of confusion and disappointment is higher if the power involves new or different mechanics (Metroid Prime, Rayman 2).

But that's enough out of me! What are your favourite moments where you - as a player - were given a 'taste of power'? Which moments made you feel cheated or disappointed? Please post a comment below.

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