Power Fantasies

Do you think we should collectively stop using the term “power fantasy”?

Yes. I think this because I don’t think fantasy is an appropriate word to describe games as, and I think that the perspective of just a challenging immersive world leads to poor games. Power fantasy, almost implicitly, implies that the game is something that makes the user feel powerful, like living vicariously through someone. This goal seems to lend itself to games about characters that can effortlessly do things we cannot, rather than games that impel us to think in interesting ways to overcome them. It’s rather orthogonal to making a good game, because a good game could entirely be about a character that is weak or otherwise unappealing.

A lot of our games are about combat. A lot of our best games are about combat, because it’s hard to make good systems of representation for complex abstract games and because it’s a topic that has a large realm of possible developments for gameplay mechanics while still being easily quantifiable. If you make a game about art, how the hell are you going to judge the quality of the art? It’s hard to even score it accurately by using image similarity algorithms.

A lot of tasks in real life that we typically perform are either following directions, such as cooking, are not easily modeled, such as debating with another person or inter-personal dialogue in general, or the value in them comes from personal expression, making it difficult to score or quantify, such as dance, drawing, music, and cooking again. To create depth, there needs to be decisions, reasons to do one thing over another, but the outcome of those decisions needs to be clear.

The way most games achieve this is through risk and reward, with more optimal or rewarding options also being riskier. Then they distribute these risks through different channels (give different options different weaknesses) so it’s uncertain which option fits the situation. Naturally this means combat is a good fit for fostering these types of interactions. Platformer games or other movement games can foster similar, but the trouble is that without a light combat element, like mirror’s edge’s soldiers or mario’s various obstacle enemies, there isn’t really a tradeoff between more and less efficiency, more and less risk, except speed usually. I don’t think that timers are a good thing to put into your game from a marketing perspective as the main goal of the game, even if they do create the interesting risk/reward type of tradeoff you get in combat games. Mario and many others also include coins or other currency as bonus rewards for taking more dangerous routes. If anyone has any ideas for how to make platforming more of a risk/reward type of thing while still creating depth and decisions without using a timer explicitly, then please tell me your thoughts.

I like to think that even though our games are so combat dominated that in a way, they’re not really about combat. Think about it, what aspects of combat do they really tap into that have any real application? The systems involved are rather abstract honestly.

Juggle combos? Wall bounces? infinite prevention systems? hitstun based on crouching versus standing? Invincibility to throws during hitstun or blockstun, but not special types of hitstun? invincibility frames? Upper body invincibility? parries? counterhits? whiff punishes? The way that being hit in the hand is the same as being hit in the chest in most games? (in dark souls getting hit in the limbs by an arrow actually grants bonus damage compared to the chest) Combo counts? Style meters? Invincibility when knocked down? grabs letting you tech other grabs? Parries? Stamina meters? Critical hits? Super Armor?

A lot of these things have token inspiration from the real world, a lot of other ones don’t. Our games about fighting, beating things up, and shooting things don’t really make us any better at doing those things, they make us better at skills specific to those games generally.

People say, “It’s not really beating someone up.” I say, “It’s not really simulating beating someone up either.” I don’t think games should be about handing someone power, they should be about someone becoming powerful relative to the system, in the way that people who are good at Go are said to be Strong Players.

So concerning VR, why can’t ‘power fantasy’ type games be heavy on mechanics?

VR can simulate life with added elements of fantasy, and nothing is more complex than life, right? Of course this means that in the future everything will be a first-person adventure, which sounds lame.

Dude, VR is a screen strapped to your face. You’re making the massive leap that VR is suddenly as complex as life is, when the thing barring that isn’t having good enough screens, it’s the difficulties of content creation and many of the intermediate physical simulations necessary to make that work. And this isn’t something unique to screens strapped to your face, this is just a matter of programming more things into the game, which is something that ALL developers deal with. If you want to make a more complex game, you don’t need VR to do that. I don’t even know how you’d jump to thinking that because it’s VR suddenly it’s a complete physical simulation.

The point isn’t just being complex, simulation style games are pointlessly complex. The point is to funnel that complexity into something that challenges the player, that requires the player to actually understand all the shit going on and leverage it to their advantage. Sure, life is absurdly complicated, but most of that complexity is going on in completely different places than us and we can’t affect it at all, not to mention that the vast majority of it is completely pointless from a games perspective.

Then you’re crossing this VR thing over into power fantasies, which is a different category entirely. Power fantasies care less about immersion and belief in the world, and more about belief in the strength of the player character. God of War has quicktime events so they can demonstrate how powerful the player character is with moves you can’t use in normal play, God Hand has quicktime events so the player has a skill test to get them out of mistakes or to offer bonus damage when you’re already doing well. God hand doesn’t care much if you believe in the shoddily presented world, they care about making the best game they can even if the main character looks like a doof sometimes.

Not to mention that VR isn’t exclusively used for first person games, and VR has a lot of limitations which create simulation sickness if you go overboard, like if you make the camera move too fast, which can cross a lot of game types off.

The point beyond this is, even if I was transported to a fantasy universe, I’d still want to play some Street Fighter Third Strike or some of my favorite tabletop games, or 20 questions. Because the thing I’m looking for is a dynamic system that is focused in some way on a clear quantifiable set of goals so I can enjoy the process of hunting through all the possibilities of the system and get speedy experimental results back as I try different things to succeed.

There are so many conflations and confused models in your head, I don’t really know where to start. The ideal I am pursuing is not immersion. The holodeck is not the ultimate goal of games.