Fuck Yeah, Power Fantasies!
Sitting on the kitchen floor eating some nighttime cup noodles, the conversation fell to story in video games. I used to swear that story was essential for games, and slowly came to write it off, while at the same time becoming completely engrossed if a game featured a story AND good gameplay.
I started thinking less of narrative in games, when I began to feel like some creators simply did games to contain their stories, that to them, gameplay was simply a nuisance.
Stories are fantastic design tools to point the players in the right mind-set, to make us feel important and powerful.
Bioware’s two best games are Baldur’s Gate 2 and Mass Effect 2. They are great gamepaly refinements of their predecessors and they both tell much better stories than them as well. What they do better too, and I don’t think this is as realized, is that they let us become really, insanely, fucking powerful, and the story reflects this.
Baldur’s Gate 2 most clearly reflects this when the player gets the ability to transform into the Slayer, a giant spike-covered ant-like monstrosity, that can shred apart even the toughest opponent in seconds. This is tied to the story as it reflects your origins, being the spawn of the fucking god of murder. (so fucking metal)
The Mass Effect series put you in the position of being Space Jack Bauer from the get-go, and the Seven Samurai structure of Mass Effect 2, lets you act out this role in so many good scenarios like no-nonsense conversations, and fantastic shoot-outs.
Even Doom,(pick one) with its almost complete lack of story, still told the story of a single space marine (not quite) literally punching evil in its fucking shit-talker. It’s communicated through the score, the sound effects, visuals, enemy designs and your arsenal.
This is the power fantasy, a fantastic notion that games have the potential to do better than all of media. It’s an almost unavoidable concept in Japanese RPGs, as you probably, eventually, will become overlevelled, and overpowered. Yet it feels amazing to disregard all the fiends and hell-beasts of those worlds as mere vermin.
Clearly power fantasies aren’t necessarily balanced, and in some ways or instances they obviously break the game. This is why I don’t think them inherent in boardgames. Reading the ideas of boardgame designers and remembering my own play experiences, boardgames need balance. They need to keep you down, so that all players are on equal footing throughout often long play sessions. Almost the philosofically exact opposite of the power fantasy.
The trick though, is that the best realization of power fantasies, require some virtuosity. The Slayer form in Baldur’s Gate 2 is supremely unstable, and taking on the legions of hell in Doom only feels good if you have the skills to survive.
Take a look at the video I linked at the top. This is the second opening to 2014 anime series Kill la Kill. If you’ve seen this show, then that song will probably make you pretty pumped for some awesome action. The best openings to action anime series always do this to me. I believe they pretty much communicate the power fantasy, but without interaction. They can do this safely, as the viewer can’t fail. On the other hand, they never promised me that I could have a go at being this awesome. This promise is implicit in games, so for a game to give me this power fantasy, it has to (i) include meaningful interaction that can be mastered (the possibility of virtuosity) and implicit in that, it has to include (ii) the possibility of failure.
Below is a list of other realizations of the power fantasy. Note though, that they make it seem as if a power fantasy is a tangible mechanic in the game (like the super star). That is not true. It can be a mechanic, but it can also be the narrative or emotional situation the player is put in.
Other fantastic instances of the power fantasy realized, though not necessarily tied to the story
The super star in Super Mario. Look how Mario in some games will do spin in mid-air.
The piece of power in Link’s Awakening. The music change is a bit annoying, but the effect is fantastic.
Limit Breaks in Final Fantasy VII.
Trance state in Final Fantasy IX. This one is a bit sad, since its pretty tied to the story, but often feels wasted when you acquire it.