Does whatever a spider can! Let's discuss Spider-Man: Homecoming!


November 26, 2012

Bored with Power


You know, I’ve been thinking.  (Cue the frenzied screams of a thousand innocent orphans.)

I like video games.  I like a lot of video games -- and say what you will about the industry today, but there are still LOTS of gems out there, so it’s safe to assume that I’m going to keep gaming for a while longer.  But even with that in mind, I find a lot of games today frustrating.  Aggravating.  Inspiring sadness and exhaustion, rather than solace and elation.  I don’t like feeling this way about one of my favorite pastimes, but it’s becoming increasingly common.  And I think I’m starting to figure out why I have problems with so many games.

I’m tired of feeling powerful.  Dead tired.

Now before I go on, I want to take the proper precautions because there are going to be some…topics that may inspire dissent.  Wheat lands, swathe me with your divine protection!  Barrier!  Okay, good, my defense is up.  That’ll protect me from any harsh attacks -- not that I plan to make any, but this being the internet, you have to be careful.

The real game doesn't look like this, of course.  It's about 80% darker.

I hate Resident Evil 6.  That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the savage (and deserved) beating it’s taken from critics and fans alike.  And even though I tried to like it, and was willing to give it a fair shot, and let it stand on its own merits as a new direction for the franchise, I just feel like nothing works.  Nothing.  I don’t know if it’s worth a three out of ten, because at the very least everything functions as designed.  But, I’d say it’s CLOSE to that score.  It just feels so wrong in every aspect -- not just because “it’s not survival horror” anymore, but gameplay, story, presentation…everything.  I probably should have expected as much given that the demo let me use Helena to great effect -- i.e. drop-kicking one zombie and then hitting another zombie with an elbow drop -- but I was under the impression that a little wrestling would go a long way towards sprucing up what I hoped (at the time) wouldn’t be a dull, nonsensical, wall-to-wall cacophony of explosions and mock-drama.  It didn’t.  It certainly didn't help that the developers couldn't figure out how to switch from one scene to another without another explosion triggering it.

To say that the melee attacks are a part of the problem with RE6 would likely be an understatement -- but really, I have problems with virtually everything else the player can do.  Why can I grab monsters and knee strike them like I’m Gene from God Hand?  Why can I power bomb mutants?  What’s the point of firing from the ground outside of a few novelty kills that probably aren’t worth the effort?   Was it necessary to let the player squirm across the floor on their ass?  Why is sliding done by pressing the aim button while running, when logic dictates it should be the melee/shoot button?  Why all this added mobility and then constrict players to hallways and corridors that can barely house the average man’s shoulders (much less Chris’) and thwart players’ attempts to navigate with invisible wall-generating chairs?  Why do bars that are just the right size, shape, thickness, and durability happen to appear just when Jake needs them?  Why is it possible for Sherry to die if she has a healing factor?

And now here are two women wearing improbably-fetishistic zombie battle costumes.

See?  This is the problem with giving a character -- or a player -- so many powers.  I’ve barely even touched on the story, and already the game falls apart in trying to expand and rationalize your skill set.  It’s not just a matter of the monsters being scary (or scarier because you can’t snag them in a Boston Crab), but a matter of presence.  If beating an enemy comes down to punching their lights out, sometimes even while they’re shooting me, why should I consider them a threat?  What makes the guys at the start of Chris’ campaign any different from the guys near the end of Chris’ campaign if the same tactics work, they both have the chance to mutate, we have no idea who they are besides the all-inclusive title of “goon”, and the only discernible difference is what they’re wearing?  The answer: there isn’t.  There’s no tension, no reason to care except to relieve myself of this horror and be that much closer to doing something more entertaining than RE6, like playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn or standing downwind of my dog while he pees on an anthill.

It’s easy for me (or anyone) to pick on RE6, because I genuinely believe it’s deserving of snark, criticism, and dissection; the more people talk about how much it irritates them, the more likely I assume we are to get something better next time, and there WILL be a next time.  Because, you know, Capcom.  But speaking personally, I have issues with a lot of games precisely because of their use -- or misuse -- of power.  In Final Fantasy 13, Lightning starts off with insane sword and gun skills at the cost of having strong antagonists to get in her way.  13-2 starts off with her as a virtual demigoddess, and supposedly Lightning Returns plans to make her “more powerful than ever.”  Lightning’s problem was never that she didn’t have enough power; it was that she didn’t know what to use that power for.  Well, that was ONE of her problems, at least.


And that’s not the only game I have problems with.  Darksiders 2 let you play as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, but what set him apart from any other character in an action game besides his appearance and weapons?  What made Death unique besides his ability to use two scythes?  It sure as hell wasn’t the ability to use a revolver, because Vincent Valentine did that in Dirge of Cerberus (brrrr…just got the chills…).  Why does Death even need to use weapons if he’s a horseman?  Can’t he just think “Die” and kill his enemies?  And how much cooler would that be besides the usual melee monster in action games?  Why does he even bother platforming and climbing if he can just transform, even temporarily, to boost himself where he needs to go?  In the CG trailer for Assassin’s Creed 3 at E3, why is it that nobody can stop Connor’s one-man charge in spite of an untold number of British forces with a presumably-clear shot of him?  Why is an assassin throwing himself into the middle of a battlefield in spite of the series’ heavy suggestion of stealth and subterfuge being a key part of gameplay?  In Borderlands 2, what makes a Vault Hunter special -- barring the ability to summon turrets or trap enemies in bubbles -- that a collection of soldiers with guns couldn’t do on their own?  Why do people -- Claptrap, Sir Hammerlock, the game itself -- try to imprint the idea that I’m some kind of badass for shooting indigenous wildlife or masked, rambling goons?  In Tales of the Abyss why is it that the first time I’ve heard of a “second-order hyperresonance” less than an hour before the end of the game, but somehow vital in saving the world?   Why can Sora and Riku suddenly cut through skyscrapers with their oversized keys in Kingdom Hearts 2?

Those are just a few questions that I could ask out of many, all of which are directly or indirectly related to power.  But there are two big issues I have in general: power makes you badass and power for spectacle.  And in order to explain them, I’ll have to branch out to some other mediums.


By now, I assume you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises (and the only reason you haven’t is likely because you don’t exist).  I won’t debate whether the movie’s good or not -- not here, at least -- but I’ll start by asking a question: who does Batman struggle against in the movie?  In terms of abstract concepts, you could say he struggles against himself, his past, or time itself.  In concrete terms, Bane is the obvious choice, and so is Catwoman to a lesser extent.  But who else?  Besides Bane, who else can put up a fight against Batman, even after he’s been out of practice?  Bane’s supporters?  Nope.  Goons with guns?  Nope.  The police?  Nope.  An entire army of Bane’s forces organized outside the masked bruiser’s impromptu HQ?  Nope.  Batman just moseys on through, punching his way to a final fight.  The only one who can even slow Batman down is Bane, but even then Bane is just one person.  So who does Batman fight besides him?  Cannon fodder enemies -- goons that show up and are soundly dispatched seconds later.  They’re distractions used to make Batman look good and the average person look bad…but when Batman gets hit with Bane’s Ultimate Atomic Buster AFTER taking such a sound thrashing, it makes Batman look worse by comparison.  Sure, Batman’s a total badass unstoppable face-breaking machine when he’s against untrained gunmen; pit him against someone with equal training and greater mental fortitude, and suddenly the Dark Knight looks more like a big fish taken out of his small pond.  This is the problem with power being used to establish a character as badass -- it’s just a matter of time until someone with more power makes you look like a tool.

And then there’s Dragonball Z.  I don’t think I need to say much about this one, but in case there’s anyone who needs a quick primer, here you go.

Regrettably, that involves him taking off his pants.

Now don’t get me wrong -- I have fond memories of DBZ, and wouldn’t mind watching it again today.  And I’d argue that there’s more depth than most people give it credit for, but that’s a topic for another time and place.  Even with all that said, there are a LOT of things that DBZ does that are kind of…okay, REALLY stupid.  The show starts off with a bang, forcing franchise mainstay and patron saint of spiky hair Goku to team up with his rival Piccolo to save Goku’s son from the wicked Raditz -- who not only reveals that Goku’s an alien from another planet, but that he and Raditz are brothers.  Raditz proves that he’s a more powerful enemy than anything Earth has ever faced before, forcing Goku and Piccolo to go to their extremes to finish him off…and even then, it takes the loss of Piccolo’s arm and the death of Goku to pull off a narrow win.  The series could have ended right there -- or could have been the ending to its predecessor, Dragon Ball -- and I wouldn’t have minded.  But of course, the stakes had to be raised.  Power levels had to increase so that the heroes could take on new villains, and fights could get even more preposterous (and entertaining).  And of course, to establish both the new threat and the stakes, most of the good guys had to die or get severely hurt, only for Goku to sweep in and make things right.  And this happens more times than I’m proud to admit.  But hey, it’s all right, because there’s lots of fighting and mach-speed punching and flying and beams fired and golden hair, and you’re having a genuinely good time watching Kamehamehas and Special Beam Cannons…and then after you see the hundredth plateau in the distance get atomized you start to wonder, “Okay, now what?”

There are lots of good moments in DBZ, make no mistake about that.  But there’s a definite shallowness to it, an emptiness that keeps it from earning too much respect.  There’s a finite number of times you can blow up a landscape, a finite number of times you can introduce stronger enemies with hax powers, a finite number of times you can establish a threat by crippling one ally, and a finite number of times you can make a character sit on the sidelines because he can’t keep up with the rest of the action.  Superpowers and skills and technology are all great ways to inspire awe in an audience, but use them too liberally -- use them at the expense of everything else in your product -- and you commit the greatest sin a creator can commit.

You make it boring.  

Fun fact: this scene has zero impact on the game whatsoever.

Nobody WANTS to make a boring product.   Do you think Michael Bay and his friends set out to make one of the most hated trilogies on the planet?  Do you think Stephenie Meyer gave it any less than a hundred percent to get her story out of her mind and into readers’ hands?  Do you think Capcom planned, or even expected one of its IP darlings to be such a mess?  No, of course not.  They just put gave their ideas a medium to thrive in, with all the theoretical components needed to make a good product, with all the winking nods that would tell the audience “Hey!  Buddy!  Your life will be soooooooooo much better if you let this into your heart!  Embrace it, dude!”

In my eyes, the problem is the same as it’s always been when it comes to a bad product: misappropriation.  So much focus is put into one element that the balance is skewed, and other elements end up either ignored or outright absent.  When it comes to video games, the element that demands focus -- the one needed for differentiation, personality, player/game interaction, what have you -- is power.  Players need to have some form of power in order to emphasize the fantastic nature of the game their playing, and their role and importance to it.  At a base level, there’s nothing wrong with that.  The problems come when it’s all in excess, at the expense of everything else worth merit, or just the fact that everyone else believes and promotes the idea that power is everything.

“But Voltech!” you cry out, slamming your fist against your desk, with so much force that it knocks over the beverage of your choice.  “I know you well, you afro-haired loon!  You, a peddler of poetry based on fighting games, has no right to even begin bemoaning the concept of power in games!”  And to some extent, you’d be right.  Fighting games rely heavily on giving players power…but they balance that out by pitting you against equally powerful opponents.  Tiers aside, every character in a fighting game has skills they can use to beat another -- and even beyond that, your opponent becomes even more dangerous when you test your skills against an adaptive human as good as, or better than you.  Even if you’re playing as the best character in the game, you stand a good chance of losing if your skills and strategies aren’t up to the task.  There’s a big difference between a scenario like that and roundhouse-kicking a zombie.


And make no mistake, there are a LOT of games that not only balance power (if they use it at all), but offer something just as substantial.  Trauma Team is a great example -- you play as six doctors with varying skill sets, but all of whom are established aces in their field.  The actual science may be suspect (though a step-up from excising flaming demon spiders by stopping time), but the fact remains that you’re using player skill and mental fortitude to clear stages -- engaging with the game and its myriad threats to bring about a happy ending.  The old Treasure platformer Mischief Makers works as well; you have only one basic ability (grabbing stuff), but you use that ability in countless ways to beat everything, up to and including a Megazord.  Red Dead Redemption evened the playing field and kept the spectacle downplayed; John Marston’s skill set was as grounded in semi-reality as his opponents, creating tense moments and tenser gunfights.  Mass Effect, in no uncertain terms, named Shepard as the savior of the universe -- but only through the assistance of comrades on and off the battlefield can the commander gain the strength needed to even survive an encounter with his foes. 

Frankly, I think that games create a stronger resonance between itself and its players when the characters are actually weakerShadow of the Colossus is a fine example -- was there anyone out there who DIDN’T think “Oh man, how am I going to beat THAT?!” when they first encountered a colossus?  It’s huge, and powerful, and lurches across the field with thunderous steps, and has skin thicker than the average Hummer.  All you have at your disposal is a dinky little sword and bow, and a horse.  The most you can do is climb and whistle.  You barely look like you can swing your sword properly, your dodge roll sends you tumbling, you lose your balance easily, and you end up getting flung around like a flag in a hurricane every time you clutch a colossus’ hair for dear life.  And all of this is to the game’s advantage.  Weakness, in its own ironic way, can become a game’s strength if used properly.  It can be used from a gameplay perspective to create tension, and drive the player to be the best they can be.  It can be used from a design perspective to emphasize each action, each visual and audile and tactile element the player experiences.  It can be used from a story perspective to set up the stakes, or make you realize what little hope you have, or at the very least make it easier to keep track of what a character can or can’t do.

Go and get this game.  Please.

Weakness is something that’s to be valued -- something that RE6 has forgotten, and I fear a lot of industry big leaguers are on the precipice of forgetting.  We’ve all taken note of the landslide of violent games that have been or will be released in the wake of E3; imagine how much more varied the release schedule would be if games didn’t focus on how awesomely or gruesomely you could slaughter your enemies.  Imagine how much more could be gained if you weren’t playing as some faceless gunman or brutish action hero, but a well-defined everyman thrown out of his element and into some wild situation, forced to survive based on wits and a meager skill set.  Imagine the possibilities when the concept of “less is more” is rightfully embraced in the industry zeitgeist -- when a single element of design philosophy can say and do more than a dozen mashed together.

I say “imagine” because that’s about all I CAN do.  I may be The Eternal Optimist, but in light of RE6, I can’t help but feel a little depressed.  RE6 is a game that exists now, and has been in the works for years.  It’s a culmination of mismatched ideas designed to appeal to everyone, a sort of monkey’s paw that gamers wished upon with their dollars.  It did so poorly, but there are other games that have succeeded…but at what cost?  How many games this generation -- or any generation, for that matter -- are geared toward making players feel powerful, or ultra-skilled, or just plain badass?  How many more will there be, and under the same rule set and conventions we’ve had for more than half a decade?  How many more casualties will we have in the name of progress, and of satisfying a perceived lust for power?  What’s the point of it all?


I’ll be honest.  I’m not a badass.  I’m not ultra-skilled.  I’m not powerful.  I’m a super-bantamweight with slow reflexes and a slower land speed.  A stiff breeze can knock me over, give me a wedgie, and make off with my lunch money, snickering all the while.  And you know what?  I’m fine with that.  I know there’s always going to be a big divide between what’s happening in real life and what’s happening in the game (it certainly helps that there’s a TV screen between the two).  I don’t mind playing as -- or even being -- someone else for a little while, as long as the game offers something unique, unexpected, and rewarding.  An excess of power isn’t going to offer that.  Not anymore.  I’m getting older, as are other gamers, as is the industry.  And if it’s going to keep on thriving -- if it’s going to keep on giving me, and all of us, experiences that put smiles on our faces -- it’s going to take more than a bunch of fancy moves.

I’m ready for you to start branching out, video games.  You’ve done it before -- many, many, many times before.  And I know you can do it again.

10 comments:

  1. A very interesting post.


    I feel rather jaded about video games. So much so that I refused to get a console from this generation until I saw what the libraries look like. I don't regret waiting, but I'm still very uneasy with the direction games have been going.


    Having a ton of power can be fun at times, especially if you like breaking a game for the lulz, but one thing is important: everything in moderation.

    In a way if a character is too overpowered, they can easily fall into some form of a bland "Sue" category. (God Mode Sue comes to mind). I find these guys by far the most boring and uninteresting because almost NOTHING can stop him/her. There is little to no legitimate conflict or tension to keep you invested. In visual or written media, you tend to watch and not give a shit. In video games you sit back and yawn as you mash buttons to make the character perform an overkill technique more ludicrous than the last. At least that's what usually happens when I play a video game, watch a movie or anime, or read a book or manga.



    Another thing I have begun to notice is that when games are not too overpowering... they are too easy. Like so easy that you feel empty inside. I began to notice this about five years ago after I beat Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess. I am still baffled at how quickly and easily I beat it the first time without getting a "game over" screen. Ever since I found more and more games easy to beat or I heard more and more gamers pointing it out. I am still not sure of it's because of lack of creativity in level design, too much unavoidable hand-holding or tutorials (*looks at Ubisoft*), or that we're all professional gamers. Since my first console was the Gamecube, I seriously doubt it's the latter.


    There seems to be something with this generation that seems off, either games are too easy, very uninspired, or far too overpowered. Maybe I'm oversimplifying things, but this has been bugging me for nearly six years.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm with you -- I don't know what happened this generation, but SOMETHING happened. And whatever that something is, it's affected the gaming climate for the worse.

    If I had to do a little theorizing, I'd say it's that games (and the developers behind them) are trying too hard to deliver an "experience" instead of a game. More power -- that is, more hardware power -- has been a big help in making games that would have been impossible on past consoles a reality. Creative vision and all that. A game like Skyrim -- its own issues aside -- would be impossible on the GameCube, and certainly on the N64. That much is obvious. But here's the thing: it's those limitations that draw out the best in games and their devs. Rather than focusing on the spectacle you can make possible with your new engine, you should focus on using what you have (or less) to make sure you deliver games that leave an impact regardless of horsepower. That's honestly what I believe...but I seem to be in the minority here, because devs lately seem to have not learned or even FORGOTTEN that lesson.

    So in exchange for taking in lessons and new ideas, the idea is to use that horsepower to create experiences -- things that try to make you feel epic, and powerful, and fawn over the sights and tech on display. Basically, it's pandering to the player to the highest degree. But as you said, moderation is key; a character who alternates between triumphing over enemies and struggling against enemies is by design better than one who's supposed to be this all-powerful engine of chaos. Struggling makes the characters fleshed-out and human; focusing on who they are trumps what they can do. Until the industry can learn to stop trying to sell us these ultra-skilled, invincible space marines/warrior gods/ninja assassins/one man armies, we're in for a rough time. But we'll just have to keep playing along for now as they string us along on their epics...

    Well, that rant aside, it's interesting that you'd bring up difficulty. I suppose that the lowered level of difficulty comes from a trio of factors -- overpowered heroes against underpowered foes, for one. But again, this might be a matter of leading players through these experiences (making sure they see every last painstakingly-crafted setpiece), combined with the need to cater to the casual market. How much any of those three factors affect a game depends, but I think it's a theory that holds water. Of course, there are ways around those problems; Kirby's Epic Yarn is an easy game, but I'd argue it was purposefully -- and properly -- designed to be easy. The intent is to lead you through a dreamlike, pleasant adventure, and the de-emphasis on any stressful encounters makes that intent clear from the get-go. Kirby's not out to mow through hordes of monsters, nor is the game pretending that its narrative is any more than a flighty fairy tale. And because of it, I'd argue that even with its aesthetic and nature it's infinitely more mature than plenty of games these days.



    Well, just a little food for thought...or a feast. Or a verifiable essay for you to munch on. In any case, thanks for stopping by.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You raise some very good points. I mused some time ago that developers these days want people to play all the way through their games because they're proud of what they've done. I think that pride isn't misplaced, but that it can result in them not challenging the player out of fear that any level of frustration will cause them to completely abandon the game and move on to greener pastures.


    I don't believe that this is true. I've had a good time with challenging games. Hell, I still love the original Devil May Cry because, while Dante is extremely powerful, his enemies are equally as dangerous if you're not careful. Having just made it through Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I feel that some of that same spirit is there. Adam Jensen may be outfitted to the gills with supertech, but a guy with a shotgun can still wreck you if you're dumb. It should be that way, because traipsing around as a nigh-unkillable supergod is fun for about ten minutes or so, after which point it gets boring real fast.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yeah, I hear you on the challenging games front. I'm the type of gamer that prefers a smooth ride to uphill climbs (I've cranked up the difficulty in games maybe once or twice in my life), but now that I think about it, it seems like I'm more likely to finish a hard game than an easy one. Granted I'll finish games with my brother thanks to co-op -- like the Halo games or the Gears of War series -- but I can hardly say those are challenging or gratifying. Ironically, the games that I had every reason to give up because they were so hard (Catherine, both Devil Survivor games, and ESPECIALLY Sin and Punishment: Star Successor) are the ones that I felt compelled to play through to the end. You'd think that I'd have more fun pinning my organs to a wall with railroad spikes, but, well, here we are.

    I'll tell you what, though -- it'll be interesting to see what happens with the new Dante (or Donte, if you prefer) in DmC. My brother played through the demo a few days ago, and even on the hard difficulty he made it through with relative ease -- probably more so if he hadn't nearly gotten himself killed trying out "this one move". I have my reservations about the game and the character, but I'm willing to give them both a fair shake once the full version comes out. The entire series, one could argue, is a teenager's power fantasy -- BUT here's hoping that the new game manages to be at the very least a GOOD power fantasy.

    ReplyDelete
  5. :fanboy mode engage: If you haven't seen it already, I would like to point you to telltale games' Walking Dead. The main character in that, Lee, manages to keep a consistent level of badassery while being inherently flawed. I can't go into details without painting spoilers.


    He also is a rare example of a strong African American protagonist, something virtually unheard of in Video Games.


    Gameplay wise, it's basically a point and click adventure with relevant QTEs. They exist to put you on edge and push urgency of situations. But one of the most basic factors that lends to urgency is limited time to make difficult choices. Lee is expected to be a diplomat, a savior and sometimes a monster.


    Do yourself a favor and check it out. I know it's easy to dismiss 'movie games' in this case 'comic book games' but Telltale really surprised me on this one. I've stuck with the company since they revived Sam and Max and proved they can make a great, quirky, point and click... but this is something else.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oh yeah, I actually tried that game. I didn't know what to make of it prior to release, and hardly followed it before then, but...wow, that game is surprisingly good. Hopefully I'll be able to pick up all five episodes at one point or another. It'll at least give me a chance to revive my old battle cry from the days of Mass Effect: "Diplomacy, HOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"


    From my experience with the game, it's surprisingly tense, and the consequences have some genuine weight -- more so than a LOT of games I've played this generation or otherwise. I remember screwing up one of the QTEs and failing to save Clementine; thankfully one of the others managed to pick up the slack, but...cripes, did I feel like a scumbag when I talked to her later. Yeah, she was okay, and that was what really mattered, but it should have been me that saved her.


    It should have been me... *sheds single manly tear*

    ReplyDelete
  7. I am not too proud to admit the five episodes drew tears several times. (Not exactly the manly variety)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Fair enough. I was bawling at the end of Sonic Adventure 2, so suffice to say you've got the edge in terms of dignity.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Some excellent points here. I just hope that the industry will strive for better and deeper experiences as it grows.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Presumably, it will -- the fact that games like Journey and The Walking Dead not only exist, but are getting the respect they deserve, prove that SOMETHING'S gone right. And things will only get better from here.


    Let's just pretend Resident Evil 6 never happened and move on, as I always say. Well, I've thought about saying it, at least. And saying it once, and then acting like it's the sagest advice anyone could ever receive. The game is terrible, basically.

    ReplyDelete