Power Underwhelming

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Is it a prerequisite for a video game that you have to be super strong, super fast, or (my favorite) super observant? No. You, the player, don’t have to possess these qualities. But just about every game on the shelf has an avatar that does things much better than you.

It’s escapism obviously. The same reason why the Avengers movie was such a big summer movie draw. Everyone wants to bust heads like the Hulk. Or rather, everyone wants to bust heads like Commander Shepard, have infinite second chances like Nathan Drake, and immediately spot the Templars like Ezio.

That’s all good fun. In fact, that’s what we’re here for.

But when you’re a little too powerful or just a little too super in some way, it kind of gets boring. There’s too much give and not enough take. Convenient checkpoints and autosaves take away any sense of urgency and danger from points of conflict. Gunfire has this magic way of chinking your health away or avoiding you altogether.

StarcraftGames that go this way remind me of the invulnerability cheats in other games. I remember typing “power overwhelming” into Starcraft in order to have my small battalion of elite units smash through everything that the AI could muster.

The feeling of power was immediate:

“DIE SUCKAS, ARCHONS ON YOUR FACE!”

But with great power came great boredom:

“No more suckas? No more fun.”

These same feelings came over me when playing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. The way Starkiller (worst name ever) effortlessly dispatched footsoldiers was boring. Oh look, another wave of plinky laser guys. I guess I’ll throw my lightsaber at them. Forget it, I’ll just flick them off the edge of the building.

Games that fall under this umbrella tend to be of the third person variety. Maybe it’s because looking at your dude’s back for the entirety of the game evokes feelings of badassery. That and the simple fact that a top-down or first person perspective won’t show off enough of the cool animations that you’re likely doing as you hurl electricity at that mutant in the distance.

Games that do it wrong tend to have a highly exaggerated super-powerful protagonist that’s in little danger except when confronted by an absolutely overpowered antagonist. Think of the Dynasty Warriors series where 99.99% of the enemies are just living on borrowed time. Your defenses are impenetrable until you nonchalantly challenge Lu Bu.

Dynasty Warriors 7

There’s so much killing in those games.

Games that do it right make you feel incredible throughout the journey but throw enough challenges your way to keep you honest. inFAMOUS 2 gets this right when it gives you a whole slew of dangerous beasts to fight leading up to the inevitable throwdown with The Beast.

It feels great riding those power lines but you’re still worried during every fight. Especially the ones that take place away from electric lines.

Mentioning everything I did, how can all these other games reach the high point that they’re gunning for? Time. These third-person-parkour-fests will have to evolve in new and creative ways once it’s realized that they pack only a Loki-sized punch as opposed to a Hulk-sized one. More to the point, it starts with a sequel that improved upon everything that preceded it. From there, maybe we can tone down on the amount of slow-motion used in games. I know that it’s in order to exaggerate reflexes but surely there must be another way to do it?

Maybe I’m wrong and everyone else simply loves games that make them feel powerful without recourse. Perhaps the crowded third-person action-adventure genre just isn’t for me anymore. I hope that’s not the case.

Gaming’s shock and awe tactics have simply atrophied. I’ll finish by saying that a few moments after this post is published I’ll be running through Just Cause 2 for the first time. And I don’t expect to reverse my feelings after tonight’s playthrough.

Obviously.