I was recently robbed on the way home from work, and… like most people, instead of talking to the police about it, I wanted to write an article discussing the way being robbed can be used to further my studies of gaming.
I was stopping by a fast food restaurant after 16 hours at my current day-job when a man approached my car and asked if I could give him a ride back to his car that had his family in it. What happened next was this surreal nightmare of robbery, hypnotic suggestion, and fight or flight response. Basically, I ended up taking some cash out of an ATM, driving him around town a bit, and then dropping him off at a hotel, but… he did this without ever REALLY threatening me.
I’m a big dude, and I am fairly confident in my ability to defend myself, but, during this entire situation, I felt helpless, confused, and… I didn’t even realize I had really been robbed until I got home. This entire situation has been something that I’ve been reflecting on, and, when discussing it with my friends and wife, a good friend of mine that I’ve referenced in articles before, “Plague”, said that the whole story reminded him of the Russian Handshake scam.
If you’ve never heard of the Russian Handshake, you basically reboot somebody’s brain by starting an action, then canceling it and offering another suggestion quickly. This, on top of his fidgeting with something under his shirt, and getting me to agree with random conversational pieces together all lead to a situation where, while I was awake and operating at a level where I felt something was fundamentally wrong, I felt powerless to stop it.
…but, whatever, it’s just a robbery, and it wasn’t like he stole every dollar in my bank account. We have far more important things to discuss. Like, can this be done, or IS it done in video games?
There are a few articles online about helplessness in multiplayer games, they discuss things like, “you might feel incredibly ineffective, or like an active detriment to your team, and not feel that you’re given enough feedback on what it takes to improve.” or “Have you been playing an RPG where a boss battle feels winnable, when in reality, you’re just going to blow through your healing items before it wipes your team and the story continues?” That’s not what this article is about.
The immediate example people will want to bring up would be Dark Souls. Dark Souls is supposed to be super difficult and players must “git gud” to beat it. The problem is that Dark Souls built itself a huge community that are all willing to discuss builds, create tips and tricks videos, and actively encourage other players to try new and interesting things. This, while in contrast with the main concept of Dark Soul’s story, that is, that “hollows” are just people who have given up and gone mad, is actually a game where instead of helplessness, one generally feels like they have a chance, they just… well, need to “git gud”.
Another, currently less popular example would probably be the base defense missions in a Real-Time Strategy, such as Starcraft. “Protect the base from the Zerg for 6 minutes.” and what have you. Again, there is a level of hope there, as, holding out for 6 minutes MUST be possible, otherwise they wouldn’t have put you in that position.
But, how do we put someone in that position, where they can feel a level of helplessness without removing their agency? Without quitting the game?
We know players with agency cannot be held hostage in the same way that an audience watching a movie can. We can create a situation where, through the use of a cutscene, we can create tension, uncertainty, or otherwise put the character or characters into a situation of helplessness, but, the player always feels there must be a solution. If a player stops playing the game, the game usually stops.
Helplessness is a factor in building suspense. You have an ideal outcome, a “bad” outcome, and an uncertainty between each outcome. Your desired outcome may (and generally does) have a lower chance of succeeding in story, such as the ever popular, “Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!” In gameplay however, designers tend to want players to feel successful, so the reverse is necessary. Suspense, or, the moments between determining which outcome is ideal, your likelihood of succeeding, and the end result, is difficult to obtain without wresting control from the player, even momentarily.
Consider the genre of stealth. A game such as Hitman creates tense moments through the use of helplessness, but, only momentary helplessness. You perform an action that creates a fail-state if you are caught, then move to hide in a way that makes you immobile. In hiding, you create tension that, while you are not directly controlling the fate of your character, (due to the AI now determining if you’ve succeeded in hiding from it or not) create a moment of suspense. This could not be done without you sacrificing momentary control. This sense of helplessness, where, you cannot currently determine your fate is where all of the positive feelings of success come from.
Another example, the jumping mechanics in Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts. You have control over your initial jump, but, once you’re in mid-jump, you cannot change your trajectory. This puts you into a situation where you are forced into helplessness, creating tension.
Now, you’re probably going to ask what this has to do with a robbery. Being robbed was SUPER not fun. But, in a video game, that same emotional state of being afraid of something I have invested in ending up with the “bad” outcome, is the only reason that the positive outcome feels so good. You don’t ever have to have seen the bad outcome to know that you’re trying to avoid it. In fact, sometimes, if the bad outcome, or fail state, is not bad enough, sometimes it lessens the tension and creates a different barrier I might discuss in a future article. But, both of the examples I listed above are such short windows of losing control that even if you just put the controller down, your fate is determined already. There is no, “If I don’t play, I can’t lose” when you’ve already invested up to that point.
I could argue that in neither situation are you truly helpless, because you have control over the camera (and, actually could just hop out of the box) in Hitman, or you can still throw javelins in Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts, but, the truth is, your fate’s sealed the moment you hide, or the moment you jump. That temporary helplessness creates tension.
Tension helps create positive feelings, by anticipation of both positive and negative outcomes. In games, these outcomes are relatively small and lighthearted against a comparison of the robbery. I suppose anything with a price tag is relatively small when there’s a chance I could have been killed, I actually feel REALLY GOOD about not being dead right now, but at the same time actually feel pretty shitty about the whole thing.
In a game, I’m (hopefully) less invested in whatever is going on, so, the price of failure is ultimately lower. And, as we’ve surmised, to build tension, you can increase the uncertainty that something will succeed or not. While a little helplessness is interesting, or maybe exciting, something with stakes too high, and with such a lack of control cause us to have trouble processing the events as they occurred. Even still, days later, my memory of the events is cloudy, like it was just a weird, terrible dream. I suppose in discussing it in depth and placing it on the internet for all of 4-5 people to read might make me feel better about it, but, anyway, my answer to my earlier question.
“Helplessness is easily created in games where it is acceptable to remove the ability to change their chances of succeeding through removing interactivity, but only momentarily.” and “the reason I feel good about tension or helplessness in gaming is that without the chance of a negative reinforcement, there is no actual victory or achievement. However, there is a level of helplessness that is no longer beneficial, and actually just causes damage.”
What do you think? Leave comments below.