Searching for Ways to Emotionally Traumatize Superman
July 7, 2015 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Marsh Davies talks about how games distribute power to players and how power fantasies often fail to work as parables about bigotry through the window of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with side discussions of how violent combat became so common in video games, how stealthy paths can be less interesting than combat-heavy paths, the tension between player power and narrative, and how these narratives can encourage people who already have power to feel sorry for themselves.

The video is part of a new series of videos for Rock Paper Shotgun exploring interesting failures in video games. The other episodes posted so far discuss Dark Souls 2 and Life is Strange.
posted by Copronymus (22 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

A nice essay, though I don't completely agree with all of it. For myself, in this game as in many similar ones, I find stealth inherently thrilling and engaging whereas combat feels rote and tedious; it's also a game where the non-combat path tends to lead you to areas/content that you wouldn't have seen with the combat option (as in System Shock 2, Planescape Torment...). I don't feel like I'm 'missing out' on the combat-related mechanics, I feel like I'm not being distracted by them from the actual interesting content.

Also, to borrow someone else's point, at least in the first game the discrimination against cyborgs is not that they're inferior, but that they're superior and present a risk of causing inequality by surpassing non-augmented people. It's still reactionary and still presented as having a lot of parallels to the kinds of bigotry we're familiar with -- it probably would have been more effective if the rich and powerful had been the subject of the riots by the powerless proletariat - but it's not as inconsistent with the augmented abilities of the cyborgs as Davies says.
posted by Drexen at 10:01 AM on July 7, 2015

This was good! I'd been meaning to check the video series out but have a hard time sitting still for fifteen minutes of video sometimes, but I like DE:HR enough that it sucked me right in.

I think both points Davies makes are good, and a bit tricky.

Making stealthiness in a stealth-with-optional-combat world the satisfying choice is hard when combat is comparatively more dynamic and forward-moving. If you're like me and you actually just really, really like pulling off the whole hold your breath and climb the rafters and wait wait wait RUN routine, it's still a good time, and I really dug making a squeaky-clean stealth run through DE:HR, but it's a very specific and dry and slow way to play a game.

And it's interesting that he compares DE:HR to Dishonored (another game that I too loved) on that front; he notes that Dishonored actively discourages lethality in some ways while also facilitating it with a bunch of rad abilities, but what's interesting to me is more how little DE:HR does to incentivize a pure stealth approach. You get some passing dialogue feedback a few times if you do something lethally vs. non-lethally, but...that's about it. There's no larger consequences, no real feedback in the game for killing.

The extent to which DE:HR responds to killing by the player is absurdly limited, to either essentially "you have never killed anyone" (response: verbal support from NPC 1, verbal mockery from NPC 2, plus a cheevo) or "you have ever killed anyone (verbal derision form NPC 1, verbal support from NPC 2). Once you've crossed that line, there is no further you can go, in the world's moral universe, to merit a greater narrative response.

I tested this a few months ago, on a weird whim: I played through DE:HR again with the explicit goal of killing literally everyone. Not just dealing with the bad guys lethally instead of avoiding them or knocking them out, but killing everybody in the game. Baddies, security guards, coworkers, civilians. And the thing is, the game just doesn't blink for the most part. No one calls you a monster, no one says, "hey, you shouldn't shoot everyone in Montreal." The cops in any given section of a map will respond with force if you start shooting at them or at civilians, but they won't apparently call that in to anyone, so your reputation as an insane mass murderer never precedes you as you play through the game.

And there's a sort of reasonable reply to this, that it's a bizarre way to try and play the game and so why would they build in support just to react to it? But the Deus Ex series is famous for facilitating multiple play approaches and trying to respond somewhat dynamically to that. And, notably, they put you in a world that they've stocked with cops and civilians who you are then allowed to harm. The game does nothing to incentivize shooting civilians, yes, but it also makes a point of allowing you to do so, and goes as far as having police respond appropriately to violence in public. But then, nothing further.

It's not entirely the same thing as the basic "give you weapons and then suggest you don't use them" conundrum that Davies talks about, but it's part of that same spectrum. If you're going to build a world in which the player is offered choices to do different things, it's a problem both if (a) you don't give them interesting incentives to do all of those things and (b) you don't thoughtfully design a response to the things you allow them to do.
posted by cortex at 10:06 AM on July 7, 2015 [10 favorites]

On the "stealth" aspect, I'm a big fan of stealth games, and my theory is stealth can be its own power fantasy, in terms of "I can see you but you can't see me."

I've been playing a lot of Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine lately, and I think it does a good job making the stealth interesting. Oddly enough, it may be doing the opposite of what they're criticizing about Deus Ex, because there are some weapons, but you can run out of ammo very quickly, and it feels a lot less satisfying than sneaking past undetected.
posted by RobotHero at 10:10 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

(For all of the above, though, I also agree with Drexen—DE:HR does let you find things, see places, discover bits via stealth that act as an incentive in their own right, and you get ongoing incremental positive feedback in terms of XP for poking around as well. I like DE:HR as a stealth game a great deal, and sneaking in it is more fun by far than going on the warpath in my eyes, at least in the long run. But the tension Davies notes is a real thing and I think will always be a design challenge, especially if you're building a game for a mainstream audience that is conditioned to expect satisfying gunplay as part of the mix.)
posted by cortex at 10:14 AM on July 7, 2015

interesting to me is more how little DE:HR does to incentivize a pure stealth approach. You get some passing dialogue feedback a few times if you do something lethally vs. non-lethally, but...that's about it. There's no larger consequences, no real feedback in the game for killing.

That's not totally true. The big thing is Praxis points. You get more points toward your next upgrade by doing a non-lethal take down. In fact, 2.5x as much if you get the stealth bonus, too. By the endgame, that adds up to an extra 5-6 praxis upgrades if you get the full bonus - it's fairly substantial. In fact, it's so substantial, that it inverts the point, and incentivizes doing take downs on NPCs you don't even need to deal with.

I agree that it is a really good essay. I think games suffer from the same problem other media do - that they have to provide a "happy ending" - because few people would play a game that you can have no effect in. One of the things I liked about Deus Ex and DE:HR was that despite your efforts, the world was gonna do what the world was gonna do, and you could only do so much. It felt grittier as a result.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:15 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

The thing that is great about Dishonoured is that the powers most useful to an avoidance playthrough, like the teleport, are also powers that speed up the environmental traversal, and so the avoidance playthrough requires much less patience for waiting. Also, the non-lethal mission completion objectives are the exact opposite of HR's dumb boss battles. Instead of suddenly being forced to kill someone, you are given a non-lethal "kill" option that is in most cases more interesting and fun.

One of the things I've figured out about myself is that I most enjoy games that allow me to interact with the spatial possibilities of my environment in the most possible ways. So stealth games are perfect, but it's a bummer to spend most of them waiting for something to happen. This is why I love Dishonoured and also, say, Gunpoint.

BTW if you enjoyed this article the author is on a UK games podcast called Crate and Crowbar which I think (the somewhat underwhelming audio quality aside) is one of the most consistently interesting games podcasts around. Tom Francis, the creator of the aforementioned Gunpoint, is also on the podcast.
posted by selfnoise at 10:18 AM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

By the endgame, that adds up to an extra 5-6 praxis upgrades if you get the full bonus - it's fairly substantial.

True, but that's not something the game communicates particularly well; you only know you end up with a bunch of extra XP and praxis if you play through stealthy and then play through unstealthy and do the math.

Besides which, it's also the 5 or 6 extra praxis upgrades that you end up either not spending, or spending just to spend them. DE:HR wasn't balanced super well in that respect; "I finished with way too many praxis points" was a pretty common refrain.

Now, had they made it so that pulling off a true stealth playthrough had actively required investing more praxis points in some stealth-centric abilities than they player would normally need to, and so made the abundance match up well with an extreme need, that would have been pretty slick.

In fact, it's so substantial, that it inverts the point, and incentivizes doing take downs on NPCs you don't even need to deal with.

That's definitely an issue with the game, yeah. You get some end-of-section bonuses for avoiding engagement, but I don't think it actually offsets the raw XP you get for quality stealth takedowns. But, then, if you're doing a no-contact run, you end up not needing the XP anyway.
posted by cortex at 10:22 AM on July 7, 2015

it probably would have been more effective if the rich and powerful had been the subject of the riots by the powerless proletariat
Except then the very rich would just pay a premium to get human (or human passing) parts grafted on, and loudly tsk tsk those people with tacky robot parts, I mean have some respect for yourself.

(I haven't played Deus Ex, but I'll bet 99% odds there will be someone who has been loudly denouncing the cyborgs and then it turns out he's had secret cyborg parts this whole time.)
posted by RobotHero at 10:24 AM on July 7, 2015

There's plenty of prejudice in the world against the empowered, e.g. of the "Jews control the media/banks" or "CDC/NASA is hiding the truth" variety. I think it's safe to say that non-modified people would be suspicious and frightened of cyborgs, and there would be a lot of votes in appealing to the fears of the non-modified.
posted by musofire at 10:33 AM on July 7, 2015

One of the other main sources of XP in DE:HR is hacking computers, locks, and alarm panels. You get XP for successfully completing the hacking minigame, and sometimes you can get bonus XP (among other rewards) for making optional moves within the minigame itself. Often a password can be found to completely bypass the minigame, but you get no XP for using a password, and you miss the opportunity to get the bonus XP. So the game rewards you for doing things that are completely anti-stealth: Hacking everything in sight, even if you know the password, even if you have no reason to do so, will get you tons of XP over the course of the game.
posted by clorox at 10:38 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

True, but that's not something the game communicates particularly well; you only know you end up with a bunch of extra XP and praxis if you play through stealthy and then play through unstealthy and do the math.

Maybe on the console version. The PC version tells you what your points are as it occurs :
Man Down: neutralize an enemy (10 XP)
Marksman: perform a headshot (10 XP)
Merciful Soul: neutralize an enemy using non-lethal methods (20 XP)
Expedient: use a takedown (20 XP)
Two Against One: use a takedown to incapacitate two enemies (45 XP)
Stealthy (10XP)

And they stack, so a headshot is 20XP, but a non-lethal takedown from stealth is worth 50. The tranq gun is only worth 30.

Not to be all nit-pick. It's that the game tells you straight up that it is best to chokehold everyone to sleep - and that is is so much more of a bonus than the exploration (100-400XP), that if you really want to maximize points, don't explore - knock out. It really makes no sense in the game to leave guards alone - you have to take them out if you want the most points.

I think that if they made pure stealth (i.e. non-interacting) as rewarding as takedowns that would be an interesting change. I take your point on having excess praxis, but more praxis sooner is more sooner, even if you run out of useful upgrades well before the endgame.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:38 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I feel like the author skipped over the real narrative flaw with Deus Ex.

One of the main plots of the game is that the Cybernetic implant company uses the implant's auto-update functionality to send out a malware update to every cyborg. In response, Adam goes to their office, wrecks their shit, and murders a bunch of their employees and executives.

In real life, Square Enix, the company that makes the Cybernetic game, uses Steam's auto-update functionality to send out a malware update to every installation of the cyborg-game that adds advertisements to all of the loading screens. In response, the player is supposed to...?

I can't tell if their writers hate their monetization people or vice-versa.
posted by Balna Watya at 10:40 AM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

That was a pretty good essay, and it's a good basic point of modern game design. Games are power fantasies for a reason, and outside of games that play with that intentionally (some of the GamesForChange stuff, like where you're role playing a Haitian family struggling to survive) nobody wants to play a fantasy of powerlessness. Combat is also one of the easiest ways to frame interaction, and culturally we expect AAA games to be about combat, so much so that it's currently difficult to understand other frameworks.

One aspect that I think contributes to this, but wasn't touched on, is marketability. Mirror's Edge is an example. It was originally supposed to be a non-violent games of strategic fast-paced movement. It had combat sections grafted in in an effort to appeal to what their publishers saw as a necessity to a AAA title: gunplay. The gunplay was in fact quite bad, and is one of the major recurring critiques of the game. However, from the risk adverse publisher's perspective, creating a game without gunplay wasn't desirable (although their E3 presentation indicates that the sequel will eliminate that altogether due to customer reaction).

Mass market game design requires the player to be able to kill stuff to advance because that's what the imagined average player desires. You then have to design around this aspect of the game regardless, which leads to strange, watered down narrative aspects that don't mesh very well with what the player is literally doing in the game. There are some exceptions, but in my experience this is largely the case.
posted by codacorolla at 10:48 AM on July 7, 2015

Also, just an addendum on my comment about my kill-everybody run in DE:HR. It was (and I more or less expected this) a dull and harrowing experience, all else aside. Partly because the game doesn't offer any interesting narrative feedback, but largely because it's just a lot of tromping around shooting crouching, scared people once each. The biggest challenge in the whole thing was appropriately mixing up weapons to use the least valuable, least effective ammo to take out the unarmored civilians.

I took notes during that playthrough, with the thought that I'd turn it into a blog post, but in the end I wasn't sure the exercise or the results were interesting enough to bother. Maybe I'll revisit them and write up something short. But there are weird playthrough ideas for games that I'd recommend people try just for the challenge or the new experience; this isn't one of them.

Maybe on the console version. The PC version tells you what your points are as it occurs

Sorry, I don't disagree with this and I'm a PC person as well. I mean that the game doesn't clearly communicate an arc of major differentials in XP earning rates, or the general payoff in praxis at end game, to the player. You can infer, you can do the math, and figure out whether stealth killing and exploring beats run-and-gun, but the game doesn't much help set expectations beyond that. And, again, the end result for pretty much everybody seems to end up being "I have useless leftover praxis points", which is kind of the worst possible outcome when in theory (and in practice, early on), those upgrade points are the most exciting feedback the game can give you.

Weird balancing thing, is all.
posted by cortex at 10:52 AM on July 7, 2015

A good example of a game about powerlessness is System Shock 2. (That's not too surprising, since at its core it is a horror game.) The first couple of hours are spent running away from literally everything, because a wrenches and monkeys are both capable a destroy tissue paper, and it turns out that's what you're made of. Maybe you can kill things one at a time if you're super careful. Your only recourse in most situations is stealth and hacking. After you pick up the assault rifle and level up your powers, things tip a little bit, but you never get around to feeling safe. Even the conclusion is about how you are a tiny (if pivotal) element caught between two forces that are too big to fully comprehend.

The plot of Human Revolution fell down for me because the anti-augmentation talk felt really forced. It's the theme of powerlessness barely executed at all, and with complete lack of grace or coherence. Who even gets all that angry about prosthetic limbs?

Mechanically, the game worked reasonably well, enough that I remember it fondly. The environments were tactically varied and interesting, so I mostly played stealth and didn't feel bored very often. I did go in guns blazing once in a while, when it felt thematically appropriate, a desperate measure for a character who was unfit for the task. That was fun specifically because it was so difficult and frantic and unrewarding; the more run-down Jensen was at the end of the encounter, the more I felt the narrative was successful.

I think the much-maligned Invisible War did a lot of the same things better, for its time. I still love that the unified ammo made all gunplay a trade-off; sniping an important target now meant having to forgo the use of your pistol later. Much like the original Deus Ex, there were many situations in which I had to asses my goals in terms of the tools I had available. Maybe there's something to be said for offering the player a choice of several vectors of power from a larger set and then explicitly restricting them as they become overused. Deus Ex 1 and 2 and System Shock 2 (and pretty much all older games, to an extent) pull this off through resource constraints.

In Human Revolution I think I ran out of ammo in one gun or another maybe a couple of times. The point about having to forage for food is fair, but I think that comes down to a failure of resource balance in level design. If you want to see resource distribution done right, replay Half Life 2; none of this silly automatically recharging health stuff. (Instant-healing is also silly thematically, of course, but hiding in a hole for 10 seconds is mechanically silly and pretty boring most of the time.)

I think the X-Men are actually a pretty good example of powerlessness, even though he uses them as a quintessential example of a power fantasy. Jensen whines because someone saved his life, while Wolverine was literally turned into a science experiment and tortured, because of a genetic condition he was born with. Mutants in the X-Men universe are credibly attacked physically and socially because they didn't earn their power through privilege (and many of them really are quite dangerous, whether accidentally or intentionally). I'd love to see a game about mutants mostly running for their lives.
posted by WCWedin at 10:55 AM on July 7, 2015

Ironically, I played SS2 way, way late, and I was already so familiar with that type of game that I spotted obviously newb traps (meaning skills that look cool but don't do anything worthwhile) and power skills pretty quickly and specced into them. It sort of broke the difficulty curve of the game, unfortunately.

Dead Money in New Vegas attempts to do something similar by taking away all of your items and weapons, and giving you mainly junk to fend off a horde of very aggressive monsters. It's one of the few open world first person games where I've ever felt remotely threatened and like I might not be able to make it out (although, if you spec repair, survival and melee weapons then it's not very hard at all).

In both cases a meta-game skill at designing effective characters definitely takes away the tension of surviving against odds, but that's not easy to design for since power gamers tend to be edge cases, even in AAA core games.
posted by codacorolla at 2:18 PM on July 7, 2015

I love DE:HR and Dishonored, but I miss the variety of takedowns from the Arkham games. I will never get tired of bungee jumping from a gargoyle to grab a thug.
posted by zompist at 3:24 PM on July 7, 2015

codacorolla - I agree with what you said about Dead Money. I was packing some pretty sweet armour, a couple of guns that shoot through schools and stuff and then POOF - nothing. Only some rags and foul language. I think it was only near the end of the episode I was feeling close-ish to my previous self, but a walking target up to that point with only the skills that I'd put points in to give any sort of edge.
I almost resented the "no weapons for you!" approach, but the story and the challenge made it worth it, and it was pulled off pretty nicely. The difficulty of the whole level seemed to be just *that* much higher than me to make me feel like you're back at level 1 again, strength-wise, but no totally crippled. More games should explore that feeling.
posted by Zack_Replica at 3:51 PM on July 7, 2015

Yeah, it's easily my favorite thing that's been done with the last generation of Fallouts. I don't even like survival horror (mostly because of the ubiquitous tank controls) that much, but Dead Money is fantastic. I do understand that a lot of people don't like it (and honestly, some sections are very irritating on your first playthrough, like the speakers that set off your neck bomb), but it's a high point of what's already one of my favorite games.

Speaking of survival horror, I wonder if that's a genre that's more inclined to delivering experiences that convey feelings of helplessness?
posted by codacorolla at 3:56 PM on July 7, 2015

I really enjoyed the newest episode of this that went up over the weekend. It's nominally about Tomb Raider, which I haven't played, but the most interesting stuff to me was about how open-world games, by forcing the player to manage a wide variety of systems and make complicated choices about how they'll interact with the game, are helping video games to move past cribbing from movies and TV and into creating their own medium.
posted by Copronymus at 12:52 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Maybe more related to the power fantasies & bigotry element, there's a Wolfenstein episode and he notes that the occult and technological powers of the Nazis are revealed to be stolen from Jews, rather than things Nazis created on their own. Which nicely undermines the wehraboo connotation of Nazis conquering the world, but then almost justifies them seeing the Jews as a genuine threat.
posted by RobotHero at 12:14 PM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

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