Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

The Fantasy of Competence

January 21, 2010

I’ve done some thinking since I wrote yesterday’s post about frustration in Dragon Age.   I think my analysis was wrong, actually.  It’s not really about play style.  I like run in and bash them on the head games, I like sneaky games. I like tactical games (and the Mage in WoW is a tactical class, for all her firepower).  It’s not even about dying repeatedly.  I had to return Demons’ Souls as it was a daily rental, but it’s in my GameFly queue.  And I never got out of the first dungeon, there.

The truth (and I think I’ve written about this before, on the long gone site) is that I like games that make me feel competent.  Player frustration is the exact opposite of this feeling for me.  I only played Demons’ Souls for a few hours, but in those same few hours with Dragon Age (which I’ve subsequently spent more time with) I was frustrated with it.  With Demons’ Souls, I felt like I learned something every time I died, or knew what my mistake was.  I was running a gauntlet, getting better at it each try.  I would succeed each time, and always knew why I failed.

While I’m talking about being competent, I’m not really talking about a power fantasy.  I don’t have to be super strong or in charge. I just want to be good at something, and have that something be what I’m doing in the game.  Mirror’s Edge was good at this, and would have been much better if it were built like a racing game instead of some absurd conspiracy plot.  Sure, you have a little tutorial at the beginning, but Faith is already competent, she doesn’t gain any abilities throughout the game, just more elaborate and difficult maze-races to work through.  I’m not becoming more powerful, but I am getting better, and I mostly feel competent while I do it.

There are some problems with Mirror’s Edge, times where i’m not really sure where Faith’s feet are, and if I’m really at the edge or not.  It could learn a bit from AC’s parkour style jumping, and it’d be nice if she’d reach a bit to the left to hold on sometimes.  It’s one of the games I got in the Steam sale, as well, as I’ve heard the PC controls are somewhat improved over the ones on the Xbox.

I’m not sure why I can’t get across that bridge in Dragon Age.  There’s a guy who fireballs my party, and when I try to attack him, he runs away, leading my group through traps and into a killing field of archers that kills me off. If I don’t attack him he just pounds on me until we die.  I’d probably do better with a ranged party  member, but I don’t have one — my character isn’t ranged, and none of the others seem built that way, either.  At any rate, these are just guesses.  At this point, I don’t know enough about how the game works to navigate my choices, whatever they may be.

I was kick-butt back in the homestead, clearing out all those invaders, even if Mom and Dad died, and Big Brother is probably going to die too.  But now I’m just Darkspawn bait.  I played the Dwarven Noble origin after I finished yesterday’s post, and it did me the nice favor (meant totally un-ironically) of stripping me of my gear so that I could fight on my own, without strong aid or gear.  It was definitely harder than what had come before, and reset my expectations of what my character is capable of.

Garrett, in Thief is another example.  He’s great until the guards see him, and then he’s toast. Fight in a sword battle? Maybe once and win, but not more than that.  Stay undetected and he’s in his area of competence, much better than the guards, and much more capable. There’s some definite trial and error there — particularly in the early game — but it’s a great feeling to know what you are doing, and to be able to do it.

As a player, we can envision what to do, but we don’t have the training or the appropriately created universe to do it.  I’m not jumping off any buildings here, I don’t care what color the pipes are.  But I have the ability to plan and guide, and my avatar has the ability to take my commands, my button presses, and turn them into competent actions.  It invests me in the fantasy, limiting the space between me and my on-screen avatar, pulling me into that magic circle that much more surely.

Perhaps confusion and uncertainty (and the frustration they cause) are enemies of liminal space?