September 20, 2012 by swrig22
Author: Steven Wright
On September 11, 2012, a user going by the handle “Wrenchfarm” posted a front-page article called “It’s All About The Powers You Don’t Play” on the user-driven online gaming journalistic website Destructoid. In it, the author argues that restraining the amount of skills or powers that a player character may possess in role-playing games like Bioshock and Deus Ex not only creates a more distinct player character, but also requires players to consider their character’s mindset, personality, and possible strategies more closely. In this essay, I will argue that such restraint not only accents the roleplaying aspect of these games, but gives the player an additional level of ludonarrative control that enhances replayability and gives the player a limited sense of authorial input.
In the article, the author declares his excitement for the upcoming Arkane Studios role-playing game Dishonored, but says that the part that appeals to him about the game the most is not its cinematic trailer or Neo-Victorian setting, but that the player must pick a skill set and, in the author’s words, “stick to it.” (It’s All About The Powers You Don’t Play) He then goes on to say that he prefers the middle sections of critically acclaimed role-playing games like Bioshock because it is at that point that the player character is a distinct individual, shaped by the choices and actions of the player. Nearer to the end of the game, the player character has so many abilities that he “blurs into something similar to everyone else,” a phenomenon that the author laments. The author explains that part of the reason he enjoys such distinct characters is because he loves discussing the game with his friends and comparing their disparate experiences. According to the author, it is less enjoyable to do so when every player has every tool the game has to offer despite making very different decisions along the span of the game.
The author then goes on to describe the difficulties he had in trying to role-play a very specialized character in the award-winning sandbox role-playing game Fallout 3. Despite his attempts to keep his character a “scrawny little weirdo” who could only effectively attack with explosives, he was eventually forced to improve skills that made no sense for his player character because the game’s interface wouldn’t let him leave the level-up screen until he assigned all of the skill points. Even worse, by the end of the game and its add-ons, the author found that the tactics that had defined his character before he reached the maximum level no longer worked on the super-powered, stealth-resistant enemies. As such, he was effectively forced to change his character’s strategy completely by the game. He then compares his Fallout 3 experience to its sequel, Fallout: New Vegas, and concludes that he enjoyed the latter much more due to its stinginess in regards to level-up rewards. Because of this restraint, the author had to play multiple characters in order to see all the possible play-styles the game had to offer. The author then goes on to say that this lined up well with New Vegas’s branching plot – in order to see all possible versions of the story, he had to play the game through again anyway, so the need for multiple play-throughs to fully experience the game existed on both a narrative and a gameplay level. The author concludes the article by saying that “a little restraint intelligently applied can do the game a world of good…knowing when to hold something back can make for a much more finely-honed and unique experience for the player.”
In response to the article, I think it is important to consider what sort of specific, unique “experience” the author is talking about. In a game like Fallout 3, the player character’s strengths and weaknesses determine how many events in the game’s greater ludonarrative play out. For example, while the author’s character may have defeated the game’s final enemy, Colonel Autumn, by ricocheting a grenade off of a nearby wall, a more charismatic player character may have elected to simply talk the Colonel out of fighting him completely. If the player character is skilled enough that both options are open, then how the player character tussles with Autumn is simply a matter of personal preference, perhaps one that the player may give little thought to. However, if the point allocation is restrained in the manner the author of the article suggests, then the player would likely be forced to find their character’s sole optimal strategy for dealing with Autumn – a strategy that would likely vary wildly from player to player.
While this may seem constraining to some, I’m of the opinion that this approach makes the character feel more well-defined. The author’s method turns the strategy-forming process for the final boss battle from an arbitrary choice into a final statement of the player character’s unique strengths, which are determined by the sum total of the choices the player makes for their character throughout the game. It gives the character a clearly defined arc: early on, the player decided that the character would be good at a certain thing and would train at that thing, and it is only appropriate that she vanquish her greatest foe with said strength. It is a plot thread as old as Rome, but appealing to it will likely give the player a sense of catharsis that simply choosing the method of Autumn’s downfall from a list can never replicate.
After reading the article again, I began to ponder the act of character creation more, and I have concluded that in some ways it is like a limited authorship. Though all of the possible characters are built-into the system, the act of choosing the character’s appearance and traits is often vastly important to the ludonarrative the player will experience. By simply upping one statistic and not another, the player may open one possibility and close another without even realizing it. I will certainly admit this phenomenon is more “choose your own adventure” than writing an original work, but I still feel the impact of the input is sufficient to call it authorial, if only in a vague sense. The approach the author of the article described would certainly shift character creation towards a more unique, authorial style, but it is difficult to tell if others share his view. At the end of the day, however, I think most both the author and myself want our created characters to feel more like human beings with distinct strengths and weaknesses, rather than generic jacks-of-all-trades who occasionally have to make a choice that slightly changes the plot.