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Video games have ostensibly been known to the societal consciousness as nothing more than adolescent shooter’s and empowerment fantasies. Unfortunately, this narrow view is only accentuated by the big developer’s sadistic requirement to produce more puerile attempts at empowerment and defeatist stories, going so far as to filter down the idea to a large number of indie developers.
With games like God of War, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, Shank, I MAED A GAM3 W1TH ZOMBIES 1N IT!!!1 and even Bioshock, it becomes apparent that this caustic cross section of gaming attitudes is in need of a rethink.
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Saturation of Games Empowerment
Here’s a challenge, name a AAA game developed by a large company that hasn’t involved either shooting people, killing aliens or some sport’s slapdash necessity for empowerment?...
Too hard? OK, let’s make it a bit easier, how about games that barely involve defeating enemies and empowerment (whether by levelling or player gratification), while still using their attributes from time to time, whether needed or not?...
Hopefully you’ve encountered a few of these fence sitter’s in your time, I know I have, and can name a couple. If you can’t, here’s some from my gaming past, Portal, Dreamfall, Psychonauts, Fahrenheit, Shenmue, Silent Hill...
There is a problem with these games and all games that couldn’t be named in the previous two questions, no matter how inconsequential, they still use or draw upon the idea of empowerment and accomplishing challenges in a way that hampers other in-game characters, whether that is by NPC death or just defeat and unconsciousness.
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Games as Both Art and Empowerment
This is horrifying, that at least 90% if not more of our games concede to the idea of empowerment as the base engagement with the player. That such a huge proportion of games currently being made on big budgets and even indie games to boot, have developed such a narrow space to work within in, outputting puerile empowerment fantasy after another.
Where is the engaging experience of love, loss, regrets, contentment, dread, happiness, pleasure, absolution or ambivalence without some tacked on empowerment fantasy to hold the stringent and often shoestring like enactment of these emotions and experiences together.
Games can be so much more than going to a rally or mission point, killing a bunch of respawning enemies and conquering your own inadequacies through empowering weaponry. They can exist in a cambria between the two, as evidenced by the games I listed above, but even then the combat in those games is often either a smokescreen and illusory tactic to make a challenge out of some uninspired level design (Silent Hill) or it’s there because the developer thinks it needs to be (Dreamfall, Fahrenheit).
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Struggles of Big Budget Empowerment Fantasy
Even some of the most heralded games devolve into mostly shooting segments between the story elements. Take Half Life, or Bioshock, for all intents and purposes, the story is marvellous and encapsulates something most games can’t offer. Then the actual gameplay is mainly forcing the player to wantonly execute people, zombies, head crabs or splicers which satiates some limitless desire for players to empower themselves while playing the games through.
Worse still is that a game like Braid, for all it’s superb setting, aesthetics and mechanics, still has you facing a repeating (albeit different in the manner of gameplay) boss that you encounter throughout, not to mention forcing you (at certain points) to jump on the little goomba enemies, much like any decent 2D side-scroller.
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Disempowerment; The Next Step?
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with shooting people in a localised and contextual thematic vacuum (I’m all for Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell context to my actions, despite my vitriol, I still play and enjoy these games in moderation), but this abusive saturation of violence is turning the gaming vista itself into nothing more than a poorly imagined imitation of the current big-budget film industry.
One pertinent example of how to get around these problems, at least from a big-budget standpoint, is the flip side to empowerment. Metal Gear Solid 4 has a sequence near the end of the game that captures tension, heartfelt emotion and actual investment beyond mere puerility.
This occurs when, gasping for air, Snake is slowly being disempowered as he begins to walk, crawl and clasp towards the exit of a threateningly heated corridor. This disempowerment is of merit because its taking away what we come to expect from an action game or most games and making the player privy to this heart-wrenching and perhaps final sequence that Snake may be part of.
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Mimesis in Gaming
With this said, MGS4 isn’t the prime example for my reasoning, it comes from the ostensible collection of art games or even independent games that neglect the requirement for a hurdle or challenge and strive for more a complete marriage between theme and mechanics. Games like Noby Noby Boy, Passage, Flower, Axel & Pixel, Time Flows But Does Not Return, Machinarium and Gravitation all provide profundity enough to satiate something other than bloodlust or unnecessary quota’s for destruction.
The old adage “art imitates life” has never been so underutilised in the argument for games as art. Truly imitating life will not produce something with basic philosophical principals and protracted shooting elements. I would argue that Noby Noby Boy and Passage especially, tell us more about life than anything companies like Activision, EA or Ubisoft have published in their vaunted catalogue of games.
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The Future of The Empowerment Fantasy
I think to move away from escapism in an empowering sense and strive towards representing real emotional conflicts, interests and desires without resorting to this gaming empowerment would provide a better platform for future games and the industry itself. Even when game’s like Braid are heralded by critics and even a fair proportion of gamers, too many are stuck whiling away contemplating whether their “enemy” is around the corner and when they get to shoot at them.
That is a damning insight into this negative escapism and why something needs to change, because life is so much more and could be represented in an artful or even meaningful way without resorting to killing a games AI enemies. I look forward to the day when I don’t have to kill any goomba’s in a Mario game...