GameCrank: The Right to Feel Awesome

Patrick

It’s no secret that a lot of games these days are about power fantasy, about putting you in the shoes of some unstoppable, tough-as-nails tough guy who you wish you could be. It’s one of the most potent forms of escapism there is: role-playing as a master assassin, a God-like warrior, or a nigh-invulnerable force that can crush everyone in its wake.

The problem here is that we aren’t like that. This is the real world. And in the real world, people stink. I’m not as strong as Kratos, fast as Sonic, stealthy as Altair or Batman, or even really as good as any action star at anything, ever. Not only that, but my ineptitude tends to follow me when I pick up a controller and enter a virtual world for the first time; I’m just learning the controls, the physics, and the basic principles under which the game operates. However, most game characters aren’t designed with that in mind, are they? Haven’t you ever noticed that it’s kind of weird when you see Bayonetta smacking around angelic monsters 20 times her size in cutscenes without breaking a sweat while you, the player, can barely manage to pull off simple combos in the game itself? Don’t you feel it kind of strange that Duke Nukem appears so confident and brash in dialogue but, in reality, while you’ve been controlling him, he barely made it out of that last fight alive? When Batman said “I eat these punks for breakfast” in “Arkham Asylum,” didn’t you want to smack him in the face and say that you’ve died 5 times while trying to “eat” them?

I’m sure there has to be some technical term for this phenomenon, but for now, I’ll just call it player/character desynchronization. It’s when the portrayal of the abilities of playable characters in video games don’t match up with those of the players who are controlling them. It’s when you’re playing as a character who you know is much more skilled by his own merits than when he’s played by you. For example, in the original “Assassin’s Creed,” you play as a character that’s dedicated his entire life to mastering the arts of stealth and combat. However, you haven’t. You’ve been playing the game for only twenty minutes. Yet the other characters in the game treat you like you’re some sort of prodigy, saying that you’re the greatest assassin in the entire order–even though you’ve just been introduced to Altair’s equipment and skills for the first time, and you’re fumbling around, barely able to survive.

This sounds like a major issue. It sounds like a problem that can destroy a gamers’ immersion in a game and disconnect them from the experience. For the most part, though, I generally don’t have this problem that often with games. It’s something that has always intrigued me: why do I not feel disconnected when I’m controlling characters that are nothing like me?

Well, first of all, I have to acknowledge that I’m not immune to developing inferiority complexes when it comes to game characters. Most specifically, this happens when the game tells me that my character can do things that, while playing, I can’t actually do, no matter how hard I practice. Take, for example, “Devil May Cry.” Each game features dozens of cutscenes showing main character Dante whooping the butts of dozens of otherwise-difficult enemies with moves and attacks that I can’t actually perform during normal gameplay. I would love to shoot-up demons while eating pizza, but not only can I not do that, but my actual bullets in the game aren’t as efficient as cutscene-Dante’s, since his can turn people into mulch while mine are only slightly more effective than spitballs.

All in all, though, this tends to be much more of a problem with cutscenes than it is with character development. Cutscenes can do a lot more than this when it comes to breaking immersion, so it’s not even that big of an issue. The only time I truly get frustrated is when a game tries to shove into my face the fact that my character isn’t just better than me, but that there’s no possible way I can be as good as him. This destroys the one aspect that saves this kind of design: aspiration.

Probably one of the biggest reasons I play games is that they give me goals to achieve. They show me who I am right now, but also what I could be. Sure, right now I’m just an amorphous teenager holding a piece of plastic, but given time, I can be anyone else I want to be. When I first start playing games, I look at the character I’m controlling and think, “Okay. This is who I’m going to be.” Aspiring to be as cool or as powerful as the main character in a game is one of the best hooks you can have, and it can often help to curb the frustration you might feel when just beginning a new game.

I’ve mentioned “Assassin’s Creed” a few times before already, so I might as well roll with it. One of the biggest reasons why I prefer the first “Assassin’s Creed” game more than “2,” “Brotherhood,” and “Revelations” is that it was the first time I had the challenge of learning to be an assassin. The game told me I was Altair, the greatest assassin in the brotherhood, but didn’t necessarily hold my hand and let me be as awesome as he was. During my first few hours with it, I was clumsy, unskilled, and felt nowhere near as confident in myself as the arrogant protagonist was. Heck, the whole premise of the conflict was all about how Altair’s skill has caused him to become overconfident and endanger his order on account of his brash actions and lack of restraint. The character was acting in the exact opposite way as how I was acting. Don’t you think that would bother me after a while?

Well, it didn’t. I got better. I mastered the mechanics and mastered the game. By the end, I didn’t just feel like I was Altair, but that I was Altair because I deserved it, because I earned it. Accomplishing goals gives you the right to feel awesome, and it gives  you the kind of satisfaction that no other kind of instant gratification can provide. When replaying a game, I’m reminded of how far I had come on my journey now that I could complete challenges that had previously given me a really hard time. That’s the kind of feeling that you can only get by feeling like you worked for it, and it shows you, personally, your growth as a person and individual. That, my friends, feels awesome.

GameCrank is written by Patrick Pontes.

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