We’ve been exploring the seven deadly sins of game writing and design. Whenever players cease to care about the game or its outcome, they experience the despair or acedia of sloth. Players will most likely despair when they don’t have any choice, when the player is actually powerless to affect the outcome. Players may cease to care and give up, giving in to apathy and sloth. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way, and here are just a few ways to stop the feeling of powerlessness.
1. PCs have the same abilities whether the player controls them or not
If a character can’t climb walls during play, but he can during the cut scenes, players can feel frustrated and apathetic about the whole game.
It works in the opposite way as well. Final Fantasy VII is one of the hallmarks of RPG games, and even made our list of essential RPGs from a writing standpoint. One woman told me this story, however. A little girl was enjoying the game when the scene came up where suddenly you could no longer control Cloud’s movements. You know what’s coming. When Aeris dies, the girl turned to her mother and said, “Why doesn’t she just use a Phoenix Down?” Indeed, by that time you could easily resurrect “dead” characters with a Phoenix Down, but you couldn’t save Aeris because the story demanded it.
2. Don’t tie players’ hands
Even in linear stories, options are nice for players. If a player can’t find the workaround you envisioned, s/he just might stop caring. On a larger scale, allowing players to choose an ending that is meaningful rather than forced upon them, like in THE WITCHER, can make them feel quite powerful, and may encourage replayability as well.
3. No deus ex machina
Players actions should actually decide the outcome of the game. The opposite, deus ex machina, means “God’s” actions lead to the outcome.
In games, God’s actions can be both positive or negative. In Final Fantasy V for Super Nintendo, players must stop the destruction of crystals. Every time you arrive to save a crystal, it is conveniently destroyed just as you get there. On the other hand, in Resident Evil 2, you can defeat the big boss when Ada miraculously hands you the keys to the kingdom by tossing you a missile launcher. Convenience in game design is still convenience and can leave the player feeling nerfed. What’s the point of going after the crystal if it’s going to be destroyed anyway? Why can’t the guy with the missile launcher defeat the big bad?
Eliminating powerlessness may be an admirable goal, but some players actually enjoy a bit of it in moderation if it deepens the story. You will have to decide for yourself what experience you want the player to have and work from there.
Have you seen better examples of powerlessness in a game? Have their been times when you actually enjoyed a sense of powerlessness in a game story or design?