From Software's Dark Souls has been one of the biggest surprise hits of recent years. It's a game about feeling overwhelmed by a hostile world, so committed to not giving the player an inch that many of its boss monsters can only reasonably defeated by exploiting flaws in their AI.
Dark Souls does not make you feel powerful. Even as you improve your character’s stats, equipment and abilities, you’re never allowed to feel like you’re catching up. The mightiest warrior is still only a few lapses in concentration away from death at the hands of the lowliest skeleton. What makes Dark Souls resonate so much with so many people is the huge satisfaction of succeeding against the odds, of beating a seemingly unbeatable system. By giving you nothing, it makes you appreciate what you earn. It’s a game that deliberately puts you in a position of weakness.
It’s the opposite philosophy to the vast majority of modern AAA video games. From the action-movie-simulators of Activision, to the theme-park-sandboxes of Ubisoft, power fantasies are the industry’s status quo. There’s nothing wrong with power fantasy – there’s an undeniable joy to taking an hour away from it all to be a ‘bad-ass’ – but some of the most compelling and interesting gaming experiences out there are borne out of depriving rather than indulging players.
Two of the fastest growing trends in gaming are survival games and rogue-likes. Titles such as DayZ, The Forest, FTL and The Binding of Isaac frequently dominate the Steam sales charts, with recurring elements across both genres including randomly-generated environments, management of limited resources, and permadeath. Unlike Dark Souls, the hostile world is not static, it is chaotic, ever-changing. Even in games like State of Decay where the world layout is fixed, the elements within that world are unpredictable – enemies roam where they please, valuable supplies are relocated on each playthrough, and NPCs live their own organic lives.
This chaos is a way of continually refreshing the player’s lack of power. When you find something unfair, you don’t get to face it over and over until you’ve deciphered a solution, or memorised the movements to avoid it. You either deal with it, or it beats you, and you may never see it again. Each failure is unique – often the joy of the game becomes the experiencing of more and more dramatic or humiliating deaths, a kind of celebration of cruel randomness.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown has been another surprise hit of recent years, bringing turn-based strategy to an audience largely assumed to be totally uninterested in the genre. A big part of what made it so successful was its use of rogue-like elements. The stories people swap about their experiences of the game aren’t stories of their great victories; they’re stories about the deaths of their soldiers. When you do beat the game, what defines your playthrough isn’t the clever plans that won you vital missions, it’s the heroic sacrifices and fatal accidents that paved the way. As soon as you do finish, others invariably encourage you to try a harder difficulty, or to turn on ‘Ironman’, a mode that prevents even the safety-net of saving and reloading. The escalation isn’t about testing you or improving your skills, not really – it’s about seeing for yourself just how hostile the game can get, and how spectacular your failures will be on the long, hard road to the next success.
Rejecting the gaming power fantasy doesn’t just have to be about making things difficult, however. Papers, Please is not an especially difficult game to beat – its tale of a Soviet border guard checking immigrant’s documentation is really just a test of memory and observation. It’s not a game about failure, it’s a game about what you’re willing to do to succeed.
Central to the game is the idea that your character is trapped in a situation within which they have very limited options. You are a pawn of an oppressive, unjust regime. Many games would be about giving you the power to violently fight back against your masters, but Papers, Please is just about trying to live a normal life within the system. You win by making enough money each day to keep your family warm and fed.
You know the system is unjust – every day at work you’re ordered to turn desperate, poverty-stricken people away from the border, potentially splitting up marriages and families, because of errors in paperwork. Are you willing to break the rules, the game asks, to help these people, even if doing so endangers your own family? What’s more important – success, or a clean conscience? The game exploits the player’s instinct to win in order to demonstrate how a good person may feel compelled to do bad things, rendered powerless by their situation.
There are games also that try to strike a balance between the two philosophies, punctuating power fantasy with moments of helplessness to create a stronger emotional impact. Some achieve this more successfully than others.
2013’s reboot of Tomb Raider, though largely well-received, was criticised for the dissonance between cutscenes and gameplay. The former depict Lara Croft as vulnerable, inexperienced, and psychologically unprepared for the circumstances she finds herself in; the latter makes her an unfeeling, coldly efficient killing machine. The game is interspersed with scenes of the protagonist suffering shocking injuries, only to apparently recover entirely in time for the next combat sequence. The intent is clear – the developers want you to sympathise with Lara and her predicament, but at the same time want you to feel like an action hero. Unfortunately they just didn’t get the balance right.
Though the franchise has now become something of a symbol of mindless gunplay, the original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare actually used a moment of helplessness to fantastic effect. For significant chunks of the game you play an American soldier in the Middle East, fighting a terrorist threat. In contrast to the slower, more stealth-based missions of the British, these missions are consciously brash and over the top, with your fellow soldiers even spouting macho one-liners as you go. It’s perhaps self-aware, but it’s 100% action movie power fantasy – up until the memorable moment when your squad fails to stop the detonation of a nuclear bomb. In a then-groundbreaking gameplay sequence, you experience the blast and its aftermath first-hand as your character is suddenly stripped of their apparent invincibility. You’re able to crawl slowly through the wreckage, but you quickly realise there’s no solution, no way out, only death. It’s a hugely affecting moment that creates a powerful contrast, rather than dissonance, with what comes before.
My favourite example is one that I suspect flew under most people’s radars – the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia. The game sees a wise-cracking nomad teaming up with a mystical princess to cleanse her kingdom of demonic corruption – and largely the plot is exactly as cliché as that sounds. The Prince (in name only, for this entry) is the typical rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold video game protagonist, a brilliant sword-fighter and acrobat who always has a witty one-liner ready. Due to Princess Elika’s magical powers, you can’t even die in the game – if you fall from a great height, or find yourself overwhelmed by the game’s enemies, she uses her spells to save you.
What makes the game so interesting is its ending. In the process of banishing the corruption, in the form of a fight with the final boss, Elika is killed. We discover that she actually already died, before the Prince even entered the story – and the reason the kingdom became corrupted was due to a literal deal-with-the-devil made by her father to bring her back to life. The Prince realises that he too can’t live without her, and he resolves to recreate the deal.
As the player you have no choice but to systematically undo everything you have achieved. One by one you go to the ‘Fertile Grounds’ that were the game’s objectives, and re-invite the corruption back into them. It isn’t a choice – your only options are to do it, or to turn off your console. It’s an incredible moment in an otherwise unremarkable game. You’re not only rendered powerless, you retroactively render all your previous power null and void. The result, as well, is not a romantic reunion between the two. You never see her wake – all you see is the roiling darkness you’ve reinvited into the world. The game is keen to make it clear – there is no victory here, only a failure you were powerless to prevent. It’s one of the most interesting subversions in gaming, and a bold example of the value of a willingness to not always give the player with what they think they want.