How to avoid powerlessness and apathy in game design

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?

This post brought to you by Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.
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Filed under Game Design, Writing

5 responses to “How to avoid powerlessness and apathy in game design

  1. TVTropes has a huge list of examples of Gameplay and Story Segregation, in various subcategories like “Cutscene Power to the Max”, its inverse “Cutscene Incompetence”, “Plotline Death”…(Of course, be careful, TVTropes can suck in hours of time as you click on intriguing links! 😉 )

    It seems to me that what you’re talking about is moving toward a “programmatic” model of story where the game world is able to react to whatever actions the player takes. (At least, that’s what I would like to see.)

    As for examples of what you talk about: I’ve recently been playing Soul Nomad and enjoying it. (One big weakness of the game is that the story is very linear. The writers spent a lot of time developing characters and plot twists that are interesting, but you as the player just have to play through and watch this stuff happen. So, some people would probably be upset by that, and it’s not really advancing the state of game writing, but you just have to figure out if you enjoy that kind of experience.)

    The plot revolves around killing “World Eaters”, three immensely powerful demons/monsters/something or other. You face Feinne early on; she’s level 1000 (and to complete the game normally you really don’t need to get your characters past level 70 or so). So, the first couple of times you face this level 1000 monstrosity, you’re expected to lose. However, the other big plot element in Soul Nomad is that your character is bonded to Gig, a demon/god/spirit/something or other. The first time you face Feinne, Gig offers you the power to defeat her. If you accept, you get the “MAX Gigify”, an item that increases your character’s level by 2000 for the duration of one map! Of course, after the battle Gig collects his debt by taking over your body–Game Over (the “bad ending”).

    If you refuse Gig’s offer, then you lose to Feinne and your characters run away to continue the story in other places. Eventually you face her a couple more times…And the final time, Gig gets so angry that he offers you his power with no strings attached–in the form of the same MAX Gigify item. So you’re conveniently able to become powerful enough (for only one battle!) to defeat Feinne “legitimately” and continue the story.

    (Of course, if you increase your levels really high and then restart the game, your stats carry over…So you can defeat Feinne the first time you meet her without Gig’s help! This sends you to an “Extra Stage” and a different ending of the game, as a recognition of your accomplishment. But that’s another story…)

  2. That ‘crystals destroyed before you get there’ thing is definitely not Ocarina of Time, but it’s REALLY familiar. I’ve googled around, but nothing. Wish I could remember where it’s from!

    As for enjoying a game despite powerlessness and plot fiat… Well, I really enjoyed Jeanne D’arc on the PSP. The game has massive unskippable cutscenes, unkillable enemy NPCs that always somehow escape, and multiple cases of ridiculous deus ex machina, but I still enjoyed the hell out of the story. Possibly because the characters were so interestingly written that I actually looked forward to the next bit of story. Whoever did the translation on that game knocked it out of the park.

  3. Do you think it’s Okami instead?

  4. Don’t think so, as I haven’t played Okami but that crystal thing is very familiar. It’s gonna bug me now. 🙂

  5. Final Fantasy V! I win 🙂

    John – thanks for the link to the tropes. I was going to include that somewhere at some point (vagueness rules), then it completely slipped my mind.


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