Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Emotion, Frustration, Loss of Control

I tend to think of the PC games that I play in terms of the emotional reactions they extract from me. When I start a game I want to be awed and inspired. I want to be surprised, scared, ecstatic, and disheartened. I want to feel a sense of accomplishment when I complete a game, and perhaps some remorse at knowing that my time with the game is over.

Given their interactive and intimate nature, I believe PC games have the ability to extract these emotions better than any other medium, including console games, films, and novels. Not only is there potential for the player to empathize with in-game characters, as is traditional for films and novels, but there also exists the potential for players to experience emotions through interactions with the game world, such as making decisions and completing quests.

Of course this potential has yet to be reached. Certain films and novels have brought tears to my eyes. No videogame has come close to accomplishing this. Nonetheless, those PC games that are able to extract strong and lasting emotions, while still providing a wide range, are those that I enjoy the most. Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic is one such game. The Hunter-Killer assassin droid HK-47 made me laugh; the Jedi Knight Bastila Shan made me contemplative and compassionate; and Revan’s plot twist was overwhelming to an extent that I had never felt before in a videogame. When also taking into account the solid and rewarding gameplay, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic easily provided me with one of the best experiences I have ever had.

If a game is unable to produce any emotional impact, I very quickly lose all interest. These games are what I would call boring. After taxiing around passengers, purchasing new attire, partaking in mediocre combat, and escorting a date to the bowling alley, I was thoroughly indifferent to Grand Theft Auto IV. The game provided a great deal of freedom and activities. Unfortunately none of it was compelling for me.

Despite my desire to experience a wide variety of emotions from PC games, there is one emotion that, if felt strongly, can ruin a game for me even more so than boredom. That emotion is frustration.

Regrettably, frustration can be a very fundamental component to playing videogames. In order for a videogame to hold the player’s attention, it typically must be challenging. If a game is not challenging enough, then it cannot be rewarding. If however, the game is too challenging, it can cross the very fine line into frustrating. When a game achieves that frustration level for a long enough period of time, the reward simply doesn’t provide enough motivation for the player to complete the challenge, at least for non-masochists like me.

Beyond the simple difficulty level, a number of design decisions can attribute to frustration. One example might be escort or protect missions. Such tasks are particularly aggravating when the player is forced to protect a non-playable character with poor AI. Fable provided a number of escort missions in which NPCs not only stood still while taking damage from enemies, they even placed themselves in front of the player’s weapon, essentially acting as shields for the enemies.

There is however one design decision that particularly irritates me, and that is the removal of control from the player. In referencing this loss of control I am not referring to cut scenes or other such non-playable sections. I am specifically referring to a loss of control during actual gameplay or combat, which can occur in a variety of situations, due to a variety of reasons.

One such example of removal of control from the player is the Scout’s Sandman weapon in Team Fortress 2. With this weapon the Scout is able to launch a baseball at opponents, stunning them on contact for a period of time proportional to the distance the ball traveled. While seemingly novel, this provides for very frustrating gameplay as the stunned player must sit and wait to regain control of his or her in-game avatar, all the while watching from a third-person view as enemies deal uncontested damage.

Another more recent example is the ability for Hunters to knock down Alex Mercer in Prototype. Hunters and their superior analogues are tough opponents for Alex throughout the game, and require a good amount of damage to defeat. As the number of simultaneous Hunters that Alex must face increases, so does the need for more powerful and complex attacks. Unfortunately the player’s ability to perform these attacks is removed when a Hunter hits Alex and knocks him to the ground. In such scenarios the player must simply wait while Alex gathers himself to attempt an attack again. There were a number of occasions during the game in which I found myself trapped in a corner while constantly being knocked to the ground by multiple Hunters. I had no choice but to watch Alex slowly die before I reloaded the last checkpoint.

The loss of control, however, goes beyond simple frustration at a gameplay level. When such situations occur, any immersion that the player has experienced is completely negated. The player is reminded that they are simply playing a game, and are no longer experiencing an adventure through their own, or their avatar’s eyes. Speaking in film terms, removing control from the player is analogous to an actor looking at the camera. Because of this loss of immersion, any connections that the player has established are lost, and any subsequent emotional impact is dampened.

To some extent, I can understand why a developer would choose to remove control from players. Doing so can increase the challenging nature of a game, and therefore in theory, increase the reward. However, the further repercussions of a loss of control far outweigh any sort of reward. Not only does the developer create the potential to dilute the entire game experience, he or she also risks disenchanting the player.

When I play a PC game, I want to experience a myriad of emotions. The more I’m able to experience, the greater the game is in my mind. However, one emotion that I always want to avoid, despite its resiliency, is frustration. Developers can aid in this battle by not removing control of my avatar from me.

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