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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Life is Strange's Ending: A Meeting With Fate & Contrivance #2 (SPOILERS)

A little while ago, I wrote a blog post about Life is Strange's ending and why I believed it to be contrived.

I have received a fair amount of feedback in the meantime, some good and some bad. A lot of people feel that, between the recurring visions of the tornado and the obvious damage done to nature, the way the ending is resolved is actually quite natural. I still disagree, as I already covered that topic in my first post, but I understand that this isn't set in stone.

With that said, I'm still going to offer my suggestion for how I would've handled the ending. Apparently, it's fairly common for people to describe ways to 'fix the ending,' but I'd still like to get my own thoughts in on the topic.

Let me start with my premise. The final choice should not have been between Chloe and Arcadia Bay, but between Chloe and Max. 

Let's examine a few facts that might support this idea. While it is true that Max's powers seem to have adverse effects on nature, another negative effect is much more apparent - namely, the effect it has on Max herself. Trying to go further back than a short amount literally causes Max to exclaim that trying 'hurts too much,' and her power regularly results in her getting nosebleeds and headaches throughout the game. Indeed, while the effects on nature seem inconsistent and hardly more than background events, the damage to Max is a constant, obvious threat.

And on top of the aforementioned implications, let's not forget how the narrative of the game flows. Many of the choices you make are actually choices between Max or Chloe's well-being. For example, the very first major choice involving Chloe is either taking the blame for the pot in her room, or making her take the blame herself. Chloe will also regularly force Max to choose between her and her other friends - discouraging her from answering Kate on the phone, for example.

You might argue that, consequently, the ending makes some sense: Chloe regularly asks you to make sacrifices for her, and then, you have to choose between her or making the ultimate sacrifice. And while I understand the idea of sacrificing Arcadia Bay, this choice seems out of place when compared to all the others. Note that almost all the other choices are directly related to Max's personal situation; choosing between Chloe and Kate, or Chloe and David, or Chloe and Warren. All of these choices are essentially overwritten, thrown out the window, by this one final choice. It seems like little more than a way to force what was a complex branching story into two arbitrary branches, which is why I still hold that the choice and its consequences were contrived.

And as mentioned before, there are more facts backing this up than something as floaty or unsubstantial as the "flow of the narrative." The effects of Max's powers, and how they reflect much more clearly on her own health than on the environment, are an important argument here. In fact, the damage to nature - as mentioned - happened regardless of how much or little you use your time rewinding powers. In fact, even in the "alternate timeline" you create in Episode 3 where Chloe's dad never died and Max never experienced the event that made her discover her powers, there are still beached whales and similar signs of a damaged natural world. So, to summarize, because this conflict develops outside of your control, forcing you to make a choice based on it is a contrivance. What have you been shaping throughout the entire story? Max and Chloe. Compared to that, Arcadia Bay is just a backdrop. As a result, I come back to my premise: Between the implied damage to Max, the elusive and uncontrollable nature of the "fated hurricane" and how many choices and scenes are about Max and Chloe, a more fitting final choice would have had you choosing between the two of them. 

Either way, that's my two cents. I took way too long about finishing this fairly brief critique, but I hope I've offered some insight. I'm well aware that there might be things I have missed, and that there is room for other perspectives, so please feel free to respond to this blog with your criticism.