Sunday, July 12, 2009

Defying the Odds: Power Fantasies of the Single Player in the Current Generation

We've all done it at some point, whether it was as children or last Tuesday while on the drive to work. We've all had those little moments where the mind begins to walk its own path, separate from both reality and logic. In those moments, we envision scenarios for ourselves in which we become a larger than life persona, a sort of superhero . We become powerful, confident, and content. We leap from the roof tops, win miraculous court cases, fend off armies, or win the love of that model on that particular billboard we always pass. But all too soon, logic breaks through to our little safe haven and pulls us back to life, leaving a part of us that feels silly that we allowed ourselves to get so taken in by our delusions of grandeur. And yet, there is another part, the part that holds onto our childhood dreams like they were fragile, ceramic Legos, that already misses the fun and the rush of the imagined world.

That little vestige of our childhood is what the single player mode in video games reaches out to. The single player, or story mode, does not target the same emotions that a multiplayer mode would, nor the same that can be found by playing board games or card games. That is not because there is some inherent difference in how each one is a game, but rather, it is due to a difference in the stakes.

The prime reason for this is competition. In games where the main mode of play is that which pits a person against against a varying number of others, all the combinations of skill and luck that can exist between come into play. In a game like Go Fish, it is hard to know who will be asked for a card or what that card may be. Likewise, one never fully knows what word someone may play next in Scrabble, or if an opponent will rise over the hill in Halo to interrupt ones ambush. As a result, though winning does feel good and accomplishing something difficult feels great, it is rare to have those moments where one gains and maintains that feeling of absolute dominance over one's surroundings that are required in a power fantasy.

Story mode though, in many cases, is custom tailored to create that feeling. Often, the player controls either the sole person capable of saving the world or a small group of heroes capable of defying the odds. So, while playing, one becomes the sole deciding factor between not only the player's own life and death, but also almost everyone else on the planet's. And through the characters, the player becomes so central that the weight of a world is on their shoulders. It does not mater that others have experienced the same victory. At that time and in that place, it is all on that particular player.

Over time, the core group of players that stuck with the hobby have improved, which makes games seem to have gotten easier. There are a combination of factors at play here besides just increased player skill, but for the experienced player there is only one important thing. The weight on their shoulders is little more than than the weight of a a baseball.

It's a pressure so minor that one could dance underneath it, take risks, and reap huge rewards. And yet, it is a weight that is still constantly present. The difficulty reminds the player that it exists, but it never actually impedes ones progress. It's a carefully crafted and balanced experience designed to never frustrate. As a result, the player begins to feel super human, as enemies capable of destroying armies during a cinematic collapse easily under the weight of the player's onslaught.

In Gears of War, the player takes the role of Marcus Fenix, a man freshly freed from jail. As it turns out, the war against the Locust that has been raging while he was inside is not going well. Luckily, Marcus is just the sort of hero that is required in a situation like this. Under his leadership, a squad of four are able to punch through enemy lines and deliver, what the player and Marcus believe at the time, to be crippling a defeat to the Locust. Of course, the need for a sequel negates the force of the ending a bit, but the point still remains. The player does what millions of men could not, when he or she drives back the enemy. Hope springs again in the hearts of man because of the actions of the player and his or her squad.

It is the kind of situation that would seem ridiculous in life, but on the screen and in the game, that very ridiculousness only increases the effect. We can easily turn off the brain as we pick up the controller, and become the kind of hero that we've always dreamed of. And when we put the controller down and turn the system off, we can return to reality without the feeling that we might be a bit too silly, because not only have we saved the world, but we've also driven back the boredom in our lives.

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