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休閑化趨勢下的力量剝奪&高難度游戲的魅力

發布時間:2021-10-20 14:49:50 Tags:,

開發者談休閑化趨勢下的力量剝奪&高難度游戲的魅力

原作者:Yeray Pachon 譯者:Willow Wu

1. 電子游戲中的力量剝奪幻想

隨著新一代游戲主機的發售,索尼決定將《惡魔之魂》重制版(初代發行于2009年,在PS3平臺)設定為PS5最主要的護航產品之一。熟知這類游戲的人都知道,從易上手性來說,魂系游戲可能不是休閑玩家的最佳選擇。

硬核的游戲玩法十分考驗玩家的反應能力和耐心,想要推進這段神秘歷史的進程,反復的死亡是必經之路,再加上復雜的情節——這就是《惡魔之魂》的主要配方,它的難度可以說是聞名于世界的。從什么時候開始,殘酷和晦澀難懂成為了游戲的獨特賣點?什么樣的玩家會被這些特質所吸引?

近年來,由于電子游戲變得越來越流行,玩家的數量也在成倍增長,因此,開發商的多數作品都是面向于廣泛玩家群體的游戲體驗,這個現象就是所謂的“休閑化” (Sarazin, 2011),由于玩家之間的差異愈發明顯,難度偏好有所不同,休閑化趨勢就愈演愈烈了。最典型的例子之一就是《古惑狼4:時機已到》 (Toys for Bob, 2020)的難度選擇分成了Modern和Retro,讓玩家選擇適合他們的模式——Modern是針對新玩家和休閑玩家設計的,Retro則保留了之前的生命系統,讓人回想起街機時代。

當玩家意識到越來越多的開發者在迎合大眾提供上手門檻更低的游戲體驗時,他們便開始尋找不同的東西。這時獨立游戲才開始在關鍵平臺上銷售,于是新的潛在用戶在這里找到了他們想要的東西——不是為普通玩家制作的游戲。這些游戲的內容或機制通常都會涉及到“力量剝奪”(disempowerment)。

荷蘭哲學家和歷史學家Johan Huizinga在他的著作《游戲的人》(Homo Ludens ,1938)中將力量剝奪的幻想定義為游戲幻想(game fantasies)。在這種幻想中,用戶自愿將自己的能力以一種安全的方式限制起來,目的就是獲得娛樂。

你能在很多獨立游戲和3A游戲中看到這些限制。力量剝奪通常會出現在恐怖游戲中,尤其是生存恐怖游戲,但這并不是它們的專屬。很多備受贊譽的電子游戲,比如《死亡擱淺》(Kojima Productions,2019)《異形:隔離》(世嘉,2014)或者《暗黑地牢》(Red Hook, 2015)都把玩家置于劣勢境地,要跟強大的游戲世界對抗。這些游戲使用了各種不同設計方法來實現力量剝奪,例如限制玩家的生存資源、讓他們看到自身角色與敵人之間的力量差距,或者面對惡劣的情況所帶來的糟糕結果。

很多時候,這類游戲會讓玩家處于壓力之下,很多行為在道德上是灰色的,所以我們自己所決定的結果源于我們的良知。就比如說,《冰汽時代》(游戲邦注11 Bit Studios, 2018)的玩家需要在極寒環境下管理一座城市,他們要做出很多選擇,涉及到如何處理市民的尸體、雇傭童工、食物藥物等其它資源的分配……

現在我們了解了市場是如何調整適應提供這種類型的體驗,并且有足夠多的玩家能確保不會虧本,那么,我們想知道的是這些游戲究竟為什么能讓玩家享受其中——即使它們的設計本意就是讓我們“受難”?

2. 玩家的同理心和影響力

當我們在談論游戲為什么是一種藝術時,我們會將這些體驗的交互性和沉浸感視為區別于其他文化產品的界定性元素。Nicole Lazzaro在她的學術論文《為什么我們玩游戲——無敘事條件下增加情感的四個關鍵元素》(Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story)中分析道:電子游戲的沉浸感是由其內部的即刻體驗創造的,只有當玩家理解了可執行的行動(機制)、目標、能力和限制才能達到沉浸狀態。

Lineage 2: Revolution(from pocket gamer.biz)

Lineage 2: Revolution(from pocket gamer.biz)

此時就輪到電子游戲設計師發揮作用了,因為他們的職責就是探索、創造所謂的“有意義的玩法”。David Kirschner和J.Patrick Williams在論文《通過游戲視頻錄制評估玩家沉浸度》(Measuring Video Game Engagement Through Gameplay Review)中定義了這一技術,解釋了它是如何以盡可能逼真的方式幫助玩家化身為他們的角色。為了創造出這種理想的體驗,游戲必須具備以下五個元素:

- 挑戰:實現目標所需的知識和能力
- 控制:不同階段的決策以及對我們周圍環境的影響
- 沉浸:玩家被活動所吸引的程度
- 興趣:玩家對做某事的渴望程度
- 動機:活動(需要付出努力)的感知價值。

在這5個元素中,挑戰和控制是最重要的,因為這兩個元素會催生沉浸感、興趣和動機。關于挑戰是如何運作的,我們可以參考Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi著名的心流(flow)理論,它的適用對象不僅限于電子游戲。心流的定義是一種將精神完全投入在某種活動上的狀態。引發心流的最有效方法是引入一個挑戰,讓它的難度隨著玩家技能的進步一同增長。

接著,當玩家和游戲之間的聯系是積極狀態時,由于已經完全沉浸在游戲玩法中,他們就會愿意花時間、有動力去理解剩余的游戲元素。進入了心流狀態,游戲化身的行為和關系對我們來說就像是真實的一樣。正如Harrison Pink在他的GDC 2017演講“通過敘事建立牢固的玩家情感紐帶”(Snap to Character: Building Strong Player Attachment Through Narrative)中所談到的:隨著玩家和他們的化身一同進步,與同一游戲世界的其他角色共度時光,用戶就會開始跟他們建立情感紐帶。

你不能把這些情感紐帶強加給玩家,因為他們需要時間來發展關系,還要適應游戲世界,跟所有其他出現的角色打交道。用戶可能感受到的同理心和其它情緒會影響他們面對不同游戲情況的反應,因為人性會促使我們在涉及到朋友/親人的事件中采取不同的行動。這種現象被稱為情緒慣性(Emotional Inertia),它是高度沉浸最有價值的表現跡象之一。

與此同時,如果玩家對其他角色感同身受,關于他們的未來或安好狀態的所有行動就會轉化成為道德決定。然后玩家會看到游戲世界和情節因自己的行動和能力而改變,從而產生影響力的感覺。

3. 對虛構的世界產生影響

Karen和Simon Tanenbaum在他們的論文《意義的詮釋:對游戲中影響力的重新思考》(Commitment to Meaning: A Reframing of Agency in Games)把玩家影響力(Player Agency)定義為能夠做出重要決定并看到行動結果的滿足感。

正如我們之前說過的,利用玩家情感來實現沉浸狀態是一個很典型的例子,說明這種體驗對他們而言是有意義的,所以情感慣性是設計師們所期望看到的現象。為了強化這些情感紐帶,我們知道玩家需要一段適應時間,但正如Meg Jayanath在GDC 2016演講“忘記主角——以80 days等為例談創造有影響力的NPC”(Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond)中所解釋的那樣,玩家的同理心不僅會在角色擁有與我們相同目標時產生,當他們表現出人類的特征、讓我們感覺到真實時也會產生。這是通過共同經歷,讓我們看到這些角色是如何受到游戲積極、消極部分的影響、促使我們去留意糟糕的部分而實現的。這些角色的努力和所受的苦難讓我們把他們視為真正的伙伴。

這種行為就是情感參與(emotional engagement),Kiel Mark Gilleade和Jen Allanson在學術論文《電子游戲和它的情感影響模式:協助、挑戰&情感表達》(Videogames and Modes of Affective Gaming:Assist Me, Challenge Me, Emote Me,2005)中提到這種設計方法就是將玩家的情感視為一個可以影響行動的元素,而沉浸、影響力和同理心是設計情感參與的基本構成。

使用此設計方法的典型例子就是那些玩法、進階是基于玩家與游戲世界中的角色(他們將幫助玩家進階、升級城鎮)如何發展關系的游戲。這些游戲的自由度一般都非常高。比如《集合啦!動物森友會》(任天堂,2020)《模擬人生》(Maxis, 2000)《星露谷物語》(Eric Barone, 2016),這些游戲都具備上述提到的特征,也就是游戲中的目標會受玩家跟其他角色關系狀況的影響。

因此,當一個電子游戲滿足了創造有意義體驗的基本要求(挑戰、控制、沉浸、興趣和動機),玩家將更有可能與游戲世界和他們的角色產生情感紐帶。然后,設計師利用情感參與來創造能引發共鳴的游戲體驗。

我們知道,情感玩法設計集通常是在積極的氛圍下發揮作用,玩家希望他們的同伴幸福安好并完成他們的任務,希望他們的敵人沒有好下場。但是……如果我們的伙伴互相攻擊呢?如果我們的敵人總是比我們強大?那些導致玩家無法獲得任何積極結果的設計決策,其背后的主要動機是什么?

4. 痛苦的藝術和力量剝奪

設計師Valentina Tamer在她的書《力量剝奪幻想:單人游戲中自愿喪失力量的誘惑和價值》(Fantasies of Disempowerment: The Lure and Value of Voluntary Power Loss in Single-Player Video Games,Bhatty, 2016)中說道,在游戲語境中,力量剝奪就是玩家自愿加上限制,目的就是為了娛樂或者其它精神上的享受。這種現象并不限于電子游戲,其他娛樂活動也有——比如恐怖片、主題游樂設施、密室逃脫或BDSM(綁縛與調教、支配與臣服、施虐與受虐)這樣的性活動。

力量剝奪體驗是通過讓角色受難,促使玩家了解在這些世界中存活或進階所需付出的努力和代價。比如小島秀夫為《死亡擱淺》(Kojima Productions,2019)設計的體驗:玩家角色是一個孤獨的快遞員,在運送包裹的同時要連接剩余的人類文明,從而緩解末世中的孤立感。在《瘟疫2》(Ice-Pick Lodge, 2019)中,開發者提供的是時間的挑戰,玩家在一開始的時候就知道他們無法治愈所有人,只能在有限的時間內把盡可能多人從黑死病的地獄中拉回來。

由于市場增長、越來越多的觀眾尋求新鮮、令人興奮的體驗,類似的幻想作品現在更加常見了。于是,世界各地的開發者就可以不用去迎合大眾玩家,創造出一些特別的游戲。

5. 體驗的價值

為了理解玩家內心渴望感到脆弱或無能為力的動機,Valentina Tamer在她書中解釋了這種體驗為什么會被歸屬到“痛苦藝術”的類別中。根據Tamer的說法,痛苦藝術就是那些會讓用戶感受到快樂和痛苦兩種情緒的藝術作品。

關于我們為什么喜歡會這種現象,有幾種理論可以解釋:

- 控制理論:用戶能夠忍受力量剝奪體驗中不愉快的內容,因為我們意識到自己是可以控制它們的,所以我們想要結束的時候自然就可以擺脫。
- 補償理論:人類的思維是這樣的——如果知道負面情緒之后會有正面情緒產生,就會允許自己感受負面情緒。這種宣泄是我們人類想要從體驗中得到的補償。此外,痛苦藝術能對保持平衡頭腦中的健康情緒狀態起到關鍵作用。
- 轉化理論:體驗不單單是痛苦,由于其它更重要的動機的影響,不愉快的感覺變成了愉快。
- 豐富經驗理論:渴望的情緒會造成對無聊的易感性。根據哲學家René Dubos的科學研究,人們傾向于喜歡可以產生任何情緒的體驗,無聊是人們所排斥的——即使它意味著忍受痛苦。
- 情緒控制理論:不同的用戶會使用不同的方法來影響和改變他們的情緒。這個概念解釋了為什么人們喜歡看喜劇來讓自己開心或聽悲傷的音樂沉浸在痛苦中。
- 元體驗理論:人們可以同時感受到多種情緒,包括對我們自己情緒的情緒(元情緒)??謶?、同理心、失落或擔憂的感覺讓我們感到人性化,而痛苦藝術很容易就能促使我們對這些情況做出反應。
- 力量理論:控制并不會改變體驗的情感影響,反而是活動的主要吸引力。玩家喜歡看到和測試他們能夠忍受多少痛苦,這給他們帶來了掌控、強大和驕傲的感覺。

痛苦藝術創造了豐富的情感體驗來對抗無聊,但它也可以用來控制我們自己的情緒。觀眾對這些藝術作品和產生的感受的元反應是好奇、滿意和自豪。但我們人類為什么在娛樂中尋求這些幻想,并沒有確切的動機。因為并不是所有人都會以同樣的方式享受恐怖或悲劇故事。

6. 力量剝奪元素

為了更好地理解力量剝奪是如何運作的,我們應該了解游戲現實(game reality)的3個基本層, Valentina Tamer定義了3個不同的層面:

- 游戲世界(core diagesis):游戲的互動空間,有限制和機制,我們能夠基于它與世界互動。
- 游戲化身(avatar diagesis):對自己角色的感知。
- 玩家(player diagesis):對玩家的感知,通過控制和輸入具象化游戲角色。
當這些不同層次之間的信息傳輸發生變化、扭曲或受到限制時,玩家就會產生力量被剝奪的感覺。根據Tamer的研究,造成這種現象的機制變化或其它游戲元素的變化有:

- 視聽上的扭曲和限制,在這種情況下,游戲化身的感知是扭曲的,這反映在游戲的表現方式上。一般來說,我們看到這些變化是因為我們的化身遭受了神經、身體或超自然的變化(外傷、藥物、心智喪失……)。通過改變游戲世界,玩家可以緩解角色扭曲的現實。最常見的應用實例之一就是固定位置鏡頭角度的改變,比如《生化危機》(Capcom, 1996)中的視角,它不僅能夠營造氛圍,還很好地限制玩家所能看到的內容。
- 空間扭曲和限制是指游戲世界在的機制互動和能力上所做的那些修改??臻g限制剝奪了游戲角色在這個地方的移動自由。在《寂靜嶺2》(Konami, 2001)中,玩家探索的地方會不斷發生變化,可行走的道路和限制都不是固定的,導致玩家很容易在游戲中迷失。
- 限制資源,設計師意在通過限制可用的重要物品,阻礙玩家的進階。這些資源可能是對玩家極為關鍵的,如健康或耐力,或其他物體——如彈藥或工具。在World of Horror(Pawel Kozminski,2019)中,玩家必須得注意化身角色的健康和理智數值不要低于0,要恢復其中任何一項數值是非常困難的,因為能夠起到幫助作用的物品或行動屈指可數。
- 游戲角色和敵人之間的實力不平衡將我們的角色置于明顯的劣勢中,這拔高了玩家所感知的挑戰的難度。這些遭遇戰的特點是敵人更厲害、防御力更強,或者數量更多。在某些游戲中,我們的角色無法避免死亡,因為TA已經到達了冒險的終點,或者游戲想要讓玩家看到死亡之后有什么。例如,在《血源詛咒》(From Software, 2016)中,當玩家第一次操控游戲化身時,因為沒有任何武器,你肯定會被首次遇到的敵人殺死。這將把我們傳送到獵人的夢境中,這是游戲的中心樞紐,也是一個安全的地方,我們的角色可以在這里升級、購買東西。
- 不完整的敘事或錯誤的信息,知識的缺乏促使我們更難理解我們在做什么或我們將要面對什么。與此相關的是,如果化身角色對游戲世界情節沒有任何影響,也會讓我們感到無助。在《心跳文學部》(Team Salvato, 2017)中,玩家角色無法避免其中一位主角的自殺結局——即使我們已經預感到了可能會有不好的事情發生并嘗試提供幫助。
- 道德決定讓玩家不得不忍受并承認他們的行為可能帶來的后果,以及他們可能對其他角色、情節或游戲世界產生的影響。盡管可以選擇自己的劇情線會讓人感到有主宰權,但當我們對自己的行為產生負罪感時,這種感覺就會反轉。在《行尸走肉》(Telltale,2012 )中,玩家的游戲角色李是一群幸存者的領導者,這個復雜人群的命運將取決于我們的行動。

7. 享受痛苦

為了了解我們享受這些體驗背后的原因,我們繼續來看Valentina Tamer在《力量剝奪幻想:單人游戲中自愿喪失力量的誘惑和價值》一書中所闡述的內容。她認為背后有幾個不同的動機。必須指出的是,即使所有這些理論并不適用于所有玩家和電子游戲,但它們可以相互支持,提供一些有關此類游戲的見解:

- 豐富體驗理論:Smuts在論文《藝術和負面影響》(Art and Negative Affect,2009)的調查研究中解釋了藝術是怎么為玩家創造有價值的體驗,讓他們擺脫無聊的?;诖?,我們可以推斷出電子游戲具有相同的效果。該理論提出,力量剝奪給一般的體驗帶來了更多價值,以至于它需要玩家付出更多努力,讓他們覺得所面對的挑戰是更棘手的,獲得的獎勵是更令人興奮的。
- 刺激理論:在Apter & Kerr所著的Adult Play(Garland Science, 1991)一書中,他們提出了逆轉理論(Reversal Theory),解釋了我們人類是如何尋找會引發我們身體和情感反應(脈搏增加,腎上腺素……)的體驗。通常,當行動中存在真正的危險時才會引發這些反應,但電子游戲能夠讓我們在一個安全的環境中體驗這些感覺。
- 弱者理論:Tamer解釋說,電子游戲中的力量剝奪往往被視為對玩家有吸引力的東西,因為它迫使玩家面對各種困境,讓他們處于劣勢,克服這些挑戰所需的努力會促成一種個人認可。這個理論是建立在論文“Contrast and the Justification of Effort”(Klein, Bhatt & Zentall,2005)中所定義“正當性”(justification)概念基礎上,用戶在克服障礙方面付出的努力越多,在他們看來勝利就越重要、意義深刻。
- 退行理論(Regression theory):在精神分析研究中,弗洛伊德將退行定義為一種防御機制,讓玩家回到較早年齡階段的活動水平,沒有任何責任或必須被視為成年人。由于允許玩家失敗且不會產生任何不良后果,電子游戲就可以成為一種抗壓力劑。退行可以讓我們產生一種愉快的感覺,因為它可以把我們從試圖控制一切的持續壓力中解放出來。
- 重構理論:基于Tamer的研究,它解釋了電子游戲中的力量剝奪迫使玩家尋找創造性的解決方案來應對這些艱巨的挑戰,這會促使他們察覺到其它與情景和目標相關的線索。根據Csikszentmihalyi的說法——限制越嚴格,就越需要創造力和決心。

現在你已經了解了情感參與的作用以及為什么玩家會渴望力量剝奪的幻想體驗,我推薦你閱讀另一篇關于《暗黑地牢》的完整分析(https://yipidev.com/articles/emotional-engagement-and-darkest-dungeon),看看這些設計方法是如何幫助游戲通過玩法機制講述一段殘酷而又偉大的歷史故事。

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Disempowering fantasies in videogames

With the launch of the new console generation, Sony has decided to make Demon Souls (remake of an original title of the same name made in 2009 for the PS3) one of the most important releases for the PS5. For any veteran to the medium, the soulslike genre may not be the best decision in terms of accessibility for casual players.

Convoluted plot, rough gameplay demanding of reflexes and patience, and many deaths ensured to those who try to progress on enigmatic history are the main ingredients of Demon Souls, a game globally known for its difficulty. In which moment have the harshness and difficult comprehension of a game turn into unique selling points? What kind of player is attracted to titles with these characteristics?

The number of players has exponentially grown in recent times thanks to the uprising popularity of videogames, so developers have been preparing themselves to create a broad number of experiences enjoyable for the bast majority of players. This phenomenon known as casualization (Sarazin, 2011), has been enhanced due to the increasing division between players and how they choose the difficulty of their experiences. One clear example of this trend is the difficulty options Modern and Retro in the new Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time (Toys for Bob, 2020) (Fig.1), that let the player choose between two gameplay configurations: Modern, a more casual approach to the game made for new and casual players; and Retro, which maintains the old life system reminiscent from the arcade era.

Fig 1. The different playstyles available to choose in the last entry of the Crash Bandicoot franchise are one of the latest examples of how games are adapted to different audiences.

When players perceived how the medium was changing towards the game experiences more accessible demanded by the masses, they began searching for different approaches to games. Indie games had just recently begun selling in the most important platforms, so the new potential buyers got there what they wanted, games not made for the typical player. Titles in which the metaphor or the mechanics are usually related to the phenomenon known as disempowerment.
Johan Huizinga, Dutch philosopher and historian, defines disempowering fantasies in his book Homo Ludens (1938) as game fantasies in which, voluntarily, the user has his power restricted in a safe and limited place with the objective of being entertained.

These restrictions are typical components found in a lot of indie and AAA titles. Disempowerment elements are usually seen in horror games, particularly in the Survival Horror genre, though it isn’t exclusive for them. Different videogames acclaimed for the critics such as Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019), Alien Isolation (Sega, 2014) or Darkest Dungeon (Red Hook, 2015) have all in common their try to make the player feel vulnerable or weak against the game world that defies the user. These titles use various design tools in order to create the disempowerment, such as having limited survival resources for the player, making him or her see the power disbalance between their avatar and the enemies, or face harsh situations with bad outcomes.
Many times, game metaphors from this type of titles put the player under pressure in situations where our acts are morally grey, so the outcome of our own decisions falls under our own conscience. For example, Frostpunk (11 Bit Studios, 2018) (Fig.2) is a videogame where the player has to manage a small village in extreme winter conditions, having to choose many times about the disposal of villager’s corpses, child labor, food rationing, medicine and other resources.

Fig 2. Frostpunk faces the player with different extreme situations where the survival of the group is more important that the morality of our acts.

Now that we understand how the market has adapted to offer this type of experiences, and that there is a audience large enough to maintain them we should ask, What is about these games that make them enjoyable for the player, even if they are defined by design to make us feel bad?

Defining the player: empathy and agency

When we talk about how games are an art form, we defend the interactivity and immersion of these experiences as the defining element that distinguish themselves from other cultural products. Nicole Lazzaro explains in her academic paper Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story that the immersion component seen in videogames is created by the moment-to-moment experiences inside them, only when the player comprehends the available actions (mechanics), objectives, capacities and limitations of the title.

It’s here where the role of the videogame designer comes in place, being his duty to search and create the phenomenon known as meaningful play. Defined by David Kirschner y J. Patrick Williams in Measuring Video Game Engagement Through Gameplay Reviews, the research explains how this technic helps the player incarnate their avatar with the most fidelity possible. To help create the desired experience, a game has to offer these 5 components:

- Challenge: knowledge and abilities necessary to accomplish our objectives.
- Control: different stages of decision making and impact over our surroundings
- Immersion: different grades in which the player is absorbed by the activity
- Interest: level of desire that the player has in order to do something
- Motive: perceived value of the activity, which requires effort.

Among these 5 elements, challenge and control are the most important of the list, because those two generate the immersion, interest, and motive in the player. About how challenge works, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes his famous flow theory, which not only applies to videogames. Flow is defined as a state of concentration or complete abstraction produced by the activity that is taking place. The most efficient way of creating this effect on the player is introducing a challenge that grows in difficulty at the same time as the player skills do.

Fig 3. This chart from “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” shows how the Flow channel works. If the challenge is much bigger for the player, we will generate anxiety on him/her. But if it is perceived as simple for the user skills, he/her will get bored.

Then, when the connection between player and game is positive, the subject will have the time and motivation needed to understand the remaining game elements, thanks to him/her being fully immersed in the gameplay. When we are in the flow channel, the actions and relations of our avatars feel like if they were real to us. As Harrison Pink says in his GDC 2017 talk called Snap to Character: Building Strong Player Attachment Through Narrative: as the player and his/her avatar progress together and spend time with other characters of the same game world, the user will start to create emotional bonds with them.

Those emotional bonds can’t be imposed to the player, because they require time and adaptation to the game universe, including all the presented characters. Empathy and other emotions that the user may feel can affect how him/her faces different game situations, because the human factor can make us act different towards situations where our friends/foes are involved. This phenomenon is called Emotional Inertia, and it is one of the most valuable signs that show a high level of immersion.

At the same time, a player that feels empathy for the other characters trigger’s that all our actions regarding their future or wellness are transformed into moral decisions, due to the moral implications that they have on the user. We feel then that our actions and abilities have consequences that can influence the game world and plot, creating the sense of agency.

Making an impact in a fictitious world

The Player Agency, defined by Karen and Simon Tanenbaum in their paper Commitment to Meaning: A Reframing of Agency in Games as the satisfactory sensation of being able to take important decisions and see the results of their actions.

As we commented before, immersion through the use of player emotions is a clear example of how significative this experience is for him/her, so emotional inertia is a phenomenon that designers look forward to. In order to improve those emotional bindings we know that the player needs an adaption time, but as Meg Jayanath explains in her GDC 2016 talk Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond, that empathy flourishes in the player not only when the characters have the same objectives as we do, but when they show human traits that makes them feel real. It is accomplished by letting us share moments with them where we see how these characters are affected by the positive and negative parts of the adventure, remarking the bad side of it. That’s because the effort and loss suffered from those characters makes us see them as our true companions.

Immersion, agency and empathy are fundamental components for the design tool responsible for this behaviour, known as emotional engagement, defined by Kiel Mark Gilleade and Jen Allanson in their academic paper Affective Videogames and Modes of Affective Gaming: Assist Me, Challenge Me, Emote Me (2005) as using player emotions as an element that is going to influence his/her actions.

A clear example of the use of this design tool can be seen in titles that build their gameplay and progress around how the player connects with characters from the game world, who will help us progress and upgrade our town. Those kinds of games offer almost complete freedom to the player. Animal crossing: New horizons (Nintendo, 2020), The Sims (Maxis, 2000) or Stardew Valley (Eric Barone, 2016) are examples that have the mentioned characteristics in which the objectives in our gameplay are influenced by the relations with other characters (Fig.4).

Fig 4. In Animal crossing: New Horizons, our relations with our neighbors will be upgraded if we accomplish some missions or tasks for them, such as bringing them gifts based on their likes, asking them about their day, or bringing them their lost objects.

So, when a videogame fulfills all the basic requisites (challenge, control, immersion, interest, and motive) needed for it to create a significant experience in the player, he/her will be more inclined to generate emotional bonds with the game world and their characters. Then, designers use the emotional engagement created in the users to create significative experiences that resonates with them.

We know that the affective gaming toolset usually works in a positive context where players want their companions to be happy and accomplish their missions, while their enemies to suffer and fail. But… What about if our friendly characters attack each other? And if our enemies always have advantage? What is the main motive behind those design decisions that provoke situations where the player doesn’t have any positive outcomes?

Painful art and disempowering fantasies

According to the work of the designer Valentina Tamer in her book Fantasies of Disempowerment: The Lure and Value of Voluntary Power Loss in Single-Player Video Games (Bhatty, 2016), she says that, in game context, disempowerment is the voluntary restriction of the player with the objective of entertainment or other psychological gains. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to videogames, and can be seen in other entertainment activities such as horror films, thematic fun rides, scape rooms or sexual activities such as BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism)

Disempowering experiences aim to make the player understand, through suffering or pain that afflicts our avatars, the effort and price needed to live or progress on those worlds. For example, Hideo Kojima designs for Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019) an experience in which the players relieves the isolation of a decimated world through the eyes of a lonely carrier in his way to connect the remaining human civilization while delivering packages. In Pathologic 2 (Ice-Pick Lodge, 2019) (Fig. 5), the developers challenge the player with limited time for him/her to save few people from the Black Death, knowing from the beginning that you are not going to be able to cure everyone.

Fig 5. With only 12 days of real time, in Pathologic 2 the player incarnates the only doctor in a town destinated to be destroyed by a near war and the Black Death. It’s in your hands who are you going to cure and which methods are you going to use, because usually saving a life means ending others.

These types of fantasies are now more common, thanks both the market growth and the audience search for new and exciting experiences. Those have allowed developers from around the world to design titles with metaphors not aimed to the general public

Value of the experience

In order to understand the motives behind this desire within the players to feel vulnerable or powerless, Valentina Tamer in her book Fantasies of Disempowerment: The Lure and Value of Voluntary Power Loss in Single-Player Video Games (Bhatty, 2016) explains how this experiences fall into the artistic category known as Painful Art. According to Tamer, we define Painful Art as those artistic works that generate pleasure and pain in the user.

There are several theories regarding why we enjoy this phenomenon:

- Control theory: users are able to endure content that is not pleasant in disempowering experiences because we are aware of having the control over them, so they can be finished whenever we want.
- Compensation theory: our human mind allows itself to feel negative emotions if it knows that they can be followed by positive emotions. That catharsis is the compensation that we humans want from the experience. Furthermore, Painful Art is a crucial element for maintaining a healthy emotional state in a balanced mind.
- Conversion theory: the experience isn’t only of pain, Unpleasant sensations turn into pleasant ones thanks to the influence of other motivations more prominent.
- Rich experience theory: the idea of the susceptibility towards boredom can be produced by craving emotions. Based on the scientific investigation of the philosopher René Dubos, he explains that people tend to prefer experiences that produce any emotions rather than feeling boredom, even if it means enduring pain.
- Mood control theory: all users use different kinds of methods in order to influence and change their mood. This concept explains why people enjoy comedy to raise their spirits or listen to sad music to collect in pain.
- Meta experience theory: people can feel various emotions at the same time, including emotions towards our own emotions (meta-emotions). Feelings of fear, empathy, loss or concern make us feel human, and Painful Art is a simple answer that can make us react to those situations.
- Power Theory: control doesn’t influence the emotional impact of the experience, rather is the main attraction of the activity. Players enjoy seeing and testing how much pain are they able to endure, which brings them feelings of power, strength, and pride.
Painful Art creates a rich experience full of emotions to fight against boredom, but it can be also used to control our own mood. The meta-response of the audience towards these art works and feelings produced are answered with feelings of curiosity, satisfaction and pride.

All these theories can be merged between them as motives to test this kind of experiences, but there isn’t for sure an exact motive about why we as humans search for these fantasies in our entertainment. This is because not all people enjoy horror or tragedy stories in the same way.

Disempowering elements

Due to the described disempowering experiences, and also though the fact that we can’t help making a subjective interpretation of the game, comparing the previous experiences the player has met, we question our powers and abilities.

To better understand how disempowerment works, we should know about the 3 basic layers of the Game reality, for which information flows and is transmitted between the user and the videogame. (Fig.6) Valentina Tamer defines 3 different layers:

- Game World (core diagesis): the interactive space of the game, with its limits and mechanics, that let us interact with the world.
- Avatar (avatar diagesis): the perception of our own avatar.
- Player (player diagesis): the perception of the player, with the controls and inputs that let us incarnate the avatar.

Fig 6. Scheme of the 3 layers of Game Reality and how they relate. Valentina Tamer 2016

When the communication between all those different layers change, distort or is restricted, we generate in the player feelings of disempowerment. According to Tamer’s investigation, changes in mechanics or other game elements that create this phenomenon are:

- Audio-visual distortions and restrictions, in which the perception of our avatar is distorted, and this is reflected in how the game shows it. Generally, we see those shifts because our avatar has suffered neurological, physical or supernatural changes (wounds, drugs, sanity loss…). Through these modifications on the core diegesis, the player relieves the distorted reality of our avatar. An example of this phenomenon is easy to see in games that change camera perspective for a fixed position, such as the one in Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) which not only gives ambience, but also restricts very well what the player can see and what not.
- Spatial distortions and restrictions are those modifications in which the Game World generate changes on the interaction of mechanics and abilities between the game and the player. Within the same type of distortions, spatial restrictions takes away the avatar’s freedom to move through the place. In Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) the place which the player explores is constantly changing its limits and available roads in order to make us loose ourselves in the town.
- Restricted resources, managed by designers that intent to limit the available important items, to hindering the player progress. Those resources can be vital components for our character, such as health or stamina, or other objects such as ammo or tools. In Word of Horror (Pawel Kozminski, 2019) the player has to worry not to let his/her avatar health and sanity doesn’t drop below 0, but trying to restore any of those values is very hard because items or actions that help us are rare.
- Power imbalance between our avatar and our enemies gives our playable character a clear disadvantage, which increases the perceived challenge. Those encounters distinguish themselves of having stronger foes, invulnerable, or in more numbers. In some titles our avatar can’t scape from his death, due to have reached the end of the adventure or cause the game wants to let the player see what is beyond death. For example, in Bloodborne (From Software, 2016), when the user gets the control of his/her avatar for the first time, because we don’t have any weapons, the first enemy is going to kill us for sure. This will send us to the dream of the hunter, the central HUB of the game and a safe place for out avatar to level up and buy things.
- Incomplete narrative or wrong information, which creates disempowerment in the user because the lack of knowledge makes us harder to get a grasp of what are we doing or what are we going to face. Related to this category, avatars that don’t have any impact over the plot of the game world make us feel helpless. In Doki Doki Literature Club (Team Salvato, 2017), our avatar can’t avoid the suicide of one of the main characters, even though we can foresee it and try to help.
- Moral decisions put the player in a place where he/her has to endure and acknowledge the weight of the possible outcomes for their actions, with the influence that they may have in other characters, plot, or the game world. Even though normally choosing our own path is something empowering, it is the reverse when we create the feeling of guilt towards our behavior. In The Walking Dead (Tell Tale, 2012), our avatar Lee is the leader of a group of survivors, represented as complex human beings which fate will depend in our actions.

Enjoying pain

In order to understand the reason behind why we enjoy these experiences, continuing with the work of Valentina Tamer in her book Fantasies of Disempowerment: The Lure and Value of Voluntary Power Loss in Single-Player Video Games (2016) she explains different motives for this. It is important to say that, even if all these theories can’t apply to all players and videogames, but they can lean on each other and give perspective about what do we see on those titles. These are:

- Rich experience theory: starting with the investigation of Smuts in his paper Art and Negative Affect (2009), where he explains how art can generate valuable experiences for the player that get him/her out of boredom, we can extrapolate the same effect on videogames. This theory proposes that disempowerment brings more value to the general experience, so much so that it requires more effort from the player, making the perceived challenge feel higher, and its reward sweeter
- Thrill theory: studying the book from Apter & Kerr Adult Play (Garland Science, 1991), they present the Reversal Theory, which explains how us humans search for experiences that generate in us physical and emotional reactions (increased pulse, adrenaline…). Usually, those reactions are born when there is a real danger in those actions, but videogames let us experience those feelings in a secure environment.
- Underdog theory: Tamer explains how disempowering in videogames is often perceived as something attractive for the player because it lets the player face difficult situations where he/her is the underdog, in a way that the effort needed to overcome those challenges produces personal recognition for them. This theory is strongly grounded in the phenomenon known as justification, defined by Klein, Bhatt y Zentall in the paper Contrast and the justification of effort. (2005). Here they explain that the more effort putted by the user in overcoming an obstacle, the more important and significative will the victory be seem by the player.
- Regression theory: in psychoanalysis studies, Freud defines Regression as a defense mechanism that lets the player go back to a more childish status, where they didn’t have any responsibilities or the necessity to be seen as adults. This makes videogames work as an anti-stressant, thanks to permitting the player fail without any bad consequences. Regression can produce in us a pleasant sensation as it liberates us from the continuous pression of trying to have always control over all situations.
- Reframing theory: following the investigation of Tamer, it explains that disempowering in videogames forces players to search for creative solutions to those hard challenges, which makes them aware of other perspectives regarding their context and objective. According to Csikszentmihalyi: the more severe the restriction, the more creativity and determination will be required.

Now that you know about how emotional engagement functions and why there are players craving for disempowering fantasies, I encourage you to read my full analysis about how Darkest Dungeon uses these tools in its favor to tell through gameplay mechanics a great history with a very harsh meaning.

(source: game career guide )


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