Warning, this blog entry contains Major Spoilers for the following Games: Assassins creed 1-3, Deus Ex Human Revolution, Mass Effect 2, Dark Souls, Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3. Do not read further if you`re planning to play these Games.
It would be interesting to do a recherche which game designer came up first with the ultimate Ponzi Scheme of Video Games: how about, we are crippling the Player during a specific moment in our story to make things interesting? In every RPG nowadays you can bet there is a moment where your avatar will be captured, stripped of his gear and thrown into a prison, which not much left besides his wits to escape and reclaim his belongings. It`s very tempting do that in the beginning of a story, especially if it is a sequel to a franchise with an iconic hero/heroine, that you remember as being near almighty at the end of the last game. But more and more –obviously to spice things up- game designers feel the need to employ these tricks in the middle or near the end of a story. Game companies have gone as far as thinking, why the hell should we not carry this to the extremes? Let`s cripple our players during the climax of a story, at the very end when it comes to the showdown with his Nemesis. The most notorious examples in late Game history would be: Mass Effect 3 and Assassins Creed 3.
I will look at some Games and try to figure out, why in some rare cases “The Imprisoned Players Dilemma”, short IPD, can have a positive payoff and why in most cases... not so much.
I will start with the games that profit from the Dilemma and end with the games that are severly hurt by a wrong implementation of this trick, namely with a game that I just finished today and which has the worst implementation of the IPD I have seen yet: Assassins Creed 3.
1. The Good
The most creative application of the IPD I have come across was done in Mass Effect 2. It was the direct result of a catch-22 design problem Bioware had created for themselves, by allowing players to import the character they created in the first Mass Effect.
If they would balance the game against these experienced players, then they would alienate players that were new to the franchise. If they would disregard the veteran players by only targeting the new ones, the gameplay would have become trivial for the group that imported a full evolved character and you would effectively be punished for your achivements in the last game. Instead, Bioware did the only right thing with this design knot, they cut it in half by killing off the protagonist.
Now in every other case I can remember, when bringing your character back to life after he has passed away you are really jumping the shark and insulting the intelligence of your players (Force Unleashed 2 comes to mind), but the way Bioware did it wasn`t cheap at all. It was brilliant, you have to play it to believe the care that went into this resurrection.
When your character awakes from the coma after weeks of surgery it is absolutely clear, that even if you imported a fully grown character he can`t be at the top of his game, and even the tutorials you get fed along the first introductory level feel not forced, but are embedded in the context that you suffer from clinical memory loss. The only slight advantage you get from importing your character is that you have some free skill points to spent, but instead of feeling robbed you feel grateful in the context of the brilliant twist the writers came up with.
There are other good examples to convey a feeling of deserved progress/regress and satisfying IPD-applications. Fallout 3 starts its story with the birth of the main character, guiding him through his childhood and only opening the story to the free-roaming wasteland, when he reaches early adulthood. You really get a natural feeling for the growth of your character, while living through a birthday ceremony or attending class, and when your father at the end of the Prolog abandons you, you feel a really strong motivation to undertake the quest of rejoining with him.
Rockstar even pulled the stunt off to completely make the Player oblivious to the fact that he suffers from IPD. This is even harder to achieve in an open-world game where your players are accustomed to the fact, that they have full control at any time. At the end of the main story of Red Dead Redemption after the main character has done all the dirty work the officials demanded and tracked down and eliminated his old Gang there is a cut (“Months later”). The officials are back and the next 5 minutes that lead to the main characters death are happening pretty much “on rails”. The brillance of the developers lies really in the fact, that the player never gets the chance to realize, that he is being manipulated. Rockstar achieves this by weaving an intricate web of cutscenes, (limited) free-roaming and a famous shootout sequence that is not much more than an elaborate quicktime event. If there is something like an ultimate stage-illusion, a Prestige, here you have it. Its IPD is completely overwritten by Immersion, which only functions at this specific moment, where you get to experience the death of your character first hand, because you know –like him- that with the way his life was spent (as an Outlaw) Redemption (freedom of choice) is not an option any more. You accept your fate because it is what the character would do.
Fromsoft took things even further. Instead of using IPD as part of their game they constructed the whole gameplay around it.
In the first 5 Minutes of “Dark Souls” you learn several facts: you woke up in a very hostile world, you die a lot and if you fail, the game doesn`t pat your shoulder but slaps you in the face, because you respawn with all the enemies you couldn`t beat earlier on minus all the souls you managed to collect up to this moment. The often cruel difficulty in this game and the popularity it has gained in some gamer circles is astonishingly, because in most games, when enemies are overpowered and can instakill your character, gamers are quick to accuse developers of “cheap” tactics.
The best part is this: Not only disobeys Dark Souls unwritten RPG-rules like having clearly distinct starting-,mid- and endgame areas through which the difficulty scales with the players ability to overcome obstacles, but it intentionally draws the player in an endgame quest from the very beginning. There is an endgame-area in the game, you can theoretically access in the first 15 minutes of the game. Some gamers are heard of, which wasted hours of hours of gameplay with making absolutely no progress because they simply couldn`t believe developers would make such a “terrible” design decision.
Getting better in Dark Souls means simply dying less frequently, and when the player has maybe experienced the first hour in the game without dying constantly and is starting to believe things get actually manageable, he enters the “Sewers” (an area in DS) and encounters the only cute enemies in this game, the Basiliks. They curse him, and now things really turn to shit (It happened to me at least). Not only will the player die from the curse but he will respawn with everything lost minus his gathered souls minus half of his healthbar. He got officially castrated. Depending on where your last savepoint was, it could very well be that at this point it means “Game over”. If you have no antidote in your inventory (which is extremely expensive to get) already, you are neither in a shape to battle your way through the fresh spawned enemy hordes nor having a good chance to make it to the next savepoint at all.
How comes that Fromsoft can get away with this, when other RPG developers would be burned to ashes for this “shortcomings”. How did they make a virtue of necessity?
By “imprisoning” the player constantly in the game world`s claustrophobic hostility they create a virtual “Stockholm Syndrome”, also known as “capture-bonding”. You get to a point where you “sympathize” with the hostility of the game mechanics, you really feel “captured”/”taken hostage” by this world, you enjoy this “living on the edge”.
Sidenote:These players got really offended, when in an interview the game director of “Dark Souls” thought about making an “easy” more accessible mode for the sequel. A petition was launched, but it turned out, that it was a faulty translation from the Japanese that created the misunderstanding. “Dark Souls” not only functions with “IPD”, but it thrives on that. By removing “IPD” and catering to the Mainstream, it would literally loose the core of its right to exist, it would only be another average RPG under thousands of others.
Deus Ex Human Revolution is a special case. It shows both sides of the coin: In the beginning your character is head of security and a capable combat specialist. Severly injured by a terrorist attack most of your bodyparts are getting replaced by artificial ones and you slowly have to adapt to the changes your body went through, thus an implementation of all available “Augmentations” would overload your capacity.
It`s perfectly fine to explain it that way and the player feels like a Rehab patient that is getting better as he progresses in his capabilities, again: he doesn`t feel frustratingly robbed of his abilities, but rewarded when he gets to choose his augmentations.
Another problem that obviously came up in the design process was instead handled badly and it shows the other side of the IPD-coin. Deus Ex Human Revolution is not only known for one of the best/interesting stories in Games of this decade, but sadly also for maybe the worst implementation of boss fights (for a good read see: link ). To counter the overpowered Augmentation “Typhoon” which effectively proved to be an instawin-ability against all the bosses, Square Enix tricks the player in making him believe his augmentations are infested with a virus. If the player decides to “repair” his augmentations they are in fact “sabotaged” and he can`t employ any of his augmentations in the final boss battle, thus turning the tide and making a battle that would be trivial with the “Typhoon” augmentation frustratingly hard.
Obviously it doesn`t help to paint a corpse that is rotting from the inside with clever twist paint. This IPD obviously didn`t sit so well with players. You had to be really masochistic to fall for that trap.
Now that we have taken a look how IPD can serve the quality of the players experience, enrichen it, we must take a look where IPD can go wrong. And while there are plenty of other games that have made bad use of this strategy (Here`s looking at you, CoD), I will take the Assassins Creed franchise and especially the last installment as a best worst case.
At Assassins Creed core, there is this huge problem that most “Superhero” franchises suffer from: Everybody wants to play Superman, but Clark Kent…not so much. Clark Kent is the ultimate metaphor for the Imprisoned Identity, the IPD incarnated. Since Assasins Creed (1) Ubisoft was obviously clear about one thing: Desmond Miles (the main character of the game) was only a means to an end, a tool to relive the memories of his ancestors. In the first Installment this was made clear by the fact that over the course of the whole game his only task was to get quickly into the “Animus” (the machine that triggers the memories) and he principally never left the Room where he was incarcerated by the “Templars” for the whole game, whereas Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, his Superhero-Bad-Ass-Assassin-Ancestor-Alter-Ego got to free-roam an enormous medieval world, filled with Knights, Palaces, Intrigues and Supernatural devices.
Ubisoft, obviously surprised by their own success tried in AC 2, AC:Brotherhood and AC:Revelations to further develop a storyline that unfolds parallel to the past in the present, the goal was obviously to merge the relatively Incompatible formula-ingredients of on the one side Desmond Miles search for Artefacts in the Present by gathering Informations about their whereabouts through the Animus, by remembering where his ancestors had hidden them. What a promising plot device, and with the Apple of Eden they seemed to have a perfect MacGuffin to melt down dozens of virulent conspiracy theories and spice up their own universe.
All seemed to be setup so well, when Ubisoft introduced the Bleeding effect in Assassins Creed 2, a kind of mental disorder, where Desmonds real-time and Ancestor-memories where beginning to overlap, there was a real chance that they would get their character out of his gameplay-prison cell.
But, alas, history proved my hopes were in vain. Ubisoft is no Rockstar and no Naughty Dog, they have no understanding that simply widening the prison walls (like they did it for Desmond up until AC3) doesn`t free a character that suffers from IPD.
Desmond Miles will go down in gaming history as one of the most underused characters of a huge Franchise. He will forever be remembered as the Clark Kent of Games. As if that would not be enough, Ubisoft also manages to drag one of their most promising newcomers down into the abyss of the IPD. I´m speaking of Ratohnhaké:ton (Connor Kenway) the protagonist of the latest AC-Installment. Would you believe it: there is this huge open world, where you can tarzan through trees, climb cliffs, hunt animals, steer ships on a cleverly designed, seeminly infinite ocean, and then in some of the crucial moments of the game the developer feels the need to grab in the Quicktime-Event-Bag? The IPD-gamemechanics par excellence?
One could argue, that I am really looking at a different Syndrom of IPD, when it comes to Quicktime-Events, but in my opinion what motivates the developer to retreat to Quicktime-Events is the exact same on a microscopic level, what the plot-derived IPD is on a macroscopic one.
Sometimes these nights I wake up, bathed in sweat, hoping that the last encounter between Connor and his Father was only a bad dream, but then I remember how Ubisoft managed to mess up the Assassination of the main villain even further, and I cry myself to sleep. It would not hurt so much if the developers hadn`t build up the character of Connors Father so well, by giving the player the opportunity to play him in the beginning of the game, by making him sympathetic enough that the twist (revealing him as head of the Templars) really came as a shock.
So after the reunion of Father & Son and getting to know each other it eventually becomes clear that their different world views are not compatible. A fight starts and during the fight the game instructs you to “use the environment” to your advantage.
Okay we have learned this during the game: press x near a bottle, character uses bottle, press x near a table, character smashes enemy against the table. Finally, when Connors Father has pinned him down a big fat “X” signals what to do, and the father dies. This all happens while the camera is distorted and we are not fully in charge of our body.
It`s a Perfect Example why employing IPD-tricks (making your player artificially weak, falsely implying it would make the scene somehow more dramatic) at such a crucial moment (confrontation with the character`s father) is destined to go south. You have to play it, to believe how “bad” it really feels, and I mean that not in a “emotional depressing” way (like the red ded redemption showdown scene). It `s if Pixar would have decided to change to 2D-Animation during the reunion of Nemo and his father or if Hitchcock had decided to go for technicolor during the Psycho-shower-scene. It`s a sign of bad taste to rob their players of their freedom of choice in such moments. It`s dumb and Ubisoft should feel dumb.
Soon after you quicktime-event-disposed of your father, you get the chance to hunt down your Nemesis Charles Lee, the Guy that was responsible for the dead of your mother and your main target for the last 10 years of your life. You think, now at last you will get your revenge properly, Assassins style? Think again. Instead when you confront him on the cemetery where he holds a speech at the coffin of your father you severly suffer from IPD again (distorted, blured vision, most controls useless, you can barely walk) and are easily captured by Lee`s Minions. Of course, once Lee is gone your IPD magically vanishes and you continue the hunt. Finally you catch him at the harbor, but again he manages to escape, not without giving you the opportunity to shoot him in the chest, while you yourself are injured from a big splinter in your belly. Die hard, anyone?
OK, here is the best part, finally, finally you catch him at a house in the middle of nowhere, he is still bleeding, so are you. He only sits at the table, you barely manage to crawl in his direction because your controls are now on Super-IPD-Mode, (You watch the snail on the ground, that manages to outrun you). You sit down at his table. You kill him with a QE. End of story. What an anticlimactic finale, the credits that start rolling feel like a thriller, compared to that.
To be fair, the messed up climaxes only come across as lazy design decisions because AC3 pretty much had the underlying theme of “Freedom” written in its DNA. Connor`s always talking about freedom, we get to experience the Birth of a nation that calls itself “Land of the Free”, there are moments, especially in the frontier, where the amount of “Detail” that has been put into enabling the player to really experience freedom in gameplay is breath-taking. AC3 is still a good game, that deserves its praise, but it missed the status of a masterpiece by a misguided application of the IPD.