The lights are on
Many games put a heavy emphasis on making the player feel like a badass. Players are constantly receiving feedback from games about how powerful and tough they are, whether it’s through the character they controlled, the weapons they wield, the armor they customize, or the enemies they defeat. There’s a multitude of ways that games reassure players how awesome they are. There’s nothing wrong with making the player feel like a badass. Video games have the unique ability of not only providing players an empowering, adrenaline-fueled fantasy, but allowing them to be a direct participant in that fantasy as well.
However, there are so many games putting me in similar positions of power that I’m starting to feel badass fatigue. I find myself yearning for more games that take me in the opposite direction: making me feel weak and vulnerable, or giving me control of a flawed character.
Looking back at my past 18 years of gaming brings me to the realization that it’s the flawed characters, and the moments during games when I felt vulnerable or helpless, that have stuck with me the most. It makes me think that being a badass isn’t always better.
I won’t deny the fun I have trudging around in the armored boots of Master Chief while laying waste to the Covenant forces ahead of me in Halo, or the goose bumps forming on my skin as I fight a titan so massive it can’t even fit on the screen in God of War. But this drive for big action and bigger boss fights often leads to diminishing returns; more often than not, I find myself chasing an action high when it comes to combat-intensive games. As the game progresses, I need to be facing stronger enemies, completing cooler objectives, and fighting on a larger scale to keep feeling like the ultimate badass. If the action doesn’t continue to ramp up, I hit a point where my interest in the characters and combat starts to decline.
Making the player feel ultra-powerful means the surrounding game has to rise up to that same level as well, or else it quickly becomes boring.
Placing the player in a position of vulnerability allows a game to slow down the pace and present players with challenges on a much smaller scale, while retaining the satisfaction of tackling those challenges.
Journey immediately pops into my head as a game that made me feel truly vulnerable. My first playthrough of Journey was with the same person from beginning to end. Things were going well for us until we began ascending the steep and snowy mountain. While trying to reach some cover, one of the monolithic stone creatures spotted my new friend and quickly dove after him. He was launched so far down the mountainside that I couldn’t see him anymore. The second he was hit my heart sank. I stood in one spot for five minutes just staring down the hill, hoping to see some sign of him. My scarf had withered to nearly nothing, I couldn’t jump, and my call was meek. I felt powerless to help my partner, I felt exposed to the elements and the stone creatures, but most of all, I felt completely alone.
A massive sense of relief washed over me when I saw his head pop up over the horizon. Coming back from the brink of losing one another to tackle the rest of that mountain together was one of the most triumphant feelings I’ve ever felt playing a game, and it had absolutely nothing to do with being a badass.
Introducing flaws and vulnerabilities does more than just help create impactful gaming experiences; it helps create great characters as well. Many of my favorite characters from video game history couldn’t fit into the badass mold even if they tried.
My favorite example is Abe from Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus. Abe is an extremely thin and goofy looking Mudokon whose main concern before his adventure begins is cleaning the floor of a factory.
I think I gravitate towards Abe because he exhibits almost no traditional action hero traits. Everything from his stature to the way he communicates makes him out to be the polar opposite. Even the basic enemies in the game are significantly more powerful than he is. The Slig guards patrolling the factory, or the brewery in Abe’s Exoddus, all carry machineguns and it only takes one bullet to put Abe down. Every time I rescued a Mudokon it gave me the immense satisfaction of outsmarting the Sligs and various other creatures that could easily kill me.
Yes, Abe does have the ability to possess one of his enemies and take control of their bodies, forcing them to explode into chunks of meat, but possessing an enemy leaves Abe himself open to attack. Even when using his spiritual powers, Abe is far from invincible, and I felt the same way as the player.
I was controlling the most unlikely hero, one that can fart on command and uses rocks and possession as his two main weapons, and feeling heroic while doing so. Abe’s flaws make him an easy character to get behind, and they also help every successful rescue feel like an achievement.
Blockbuster titles aren’t completely without moments of vulnerability – even games like Modern Warfare have a segment or two that make the player feel helpless – but those moments are often overshadowed by the sensory overload of the gunfire and explosions that follow. Games that actually focus on making players feel vulnerable, such as Limbo and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, are few and far between.
I’m looking forward to the big holiday hits just like everyone else, but the titles that are piquing my interest the most are the ones that don’t focus on turning me into a badass. I’m really excited for the games that might offer an engrossing emotional experience on top of their enjoyable gameplay. I just hope they start coming out more often.