Vulnerability in games...
December 22, 2009

Though he takes awhile to get around to it, NGai Croal raises an interesting point at as he writes about vulnerability in games:

If you haven't already, I encourage you to read that article. Feel free to respond to it here, on this blog post. I'd like to hear what some of you think!

Most recent blog posts from Jason Venter...

zigfried zigfried - December 22, 2009 (05:24 AM)
When a hero's attributes match the game's atmosphere, the clever writer will find a fitting word to summarize that congruence. The people who praise vulnerability in one hero will praise unwavering strength in a different hero under different circumstances.

The concept of vulnerability is something that long-running anime series wrestle with... how can we introduce a villain who will believably challenge the hero who has trounced all other villains? This is what has happened to Master Chief.

Croal's mixes the character-based trait of vulnerability and the player-based sensation of danger in a way that doesn't really fit, kind of like when you happen to unlock a door using the wrong key.

The points about the importance of penalties are pretty obvious; without appropriate penalties, a game feels too easy. That doesn't mean the character feels overpowered or invulnerable. 2D shooters are a prime example. Also, look at Prey; Tommy felt like an immortal wimp. These games have characters who feel vulnerable, but the player doesn't feel challenged.

From the other side, if I truly feel "vulnerable" when playing as Kratos, then something is wrong. But if Sony makes me replay a tough section of the game until I get it right, I'm fine with that. Kratos feels strong, but the game is challenging.

At one point, Croal used the word "endangered". I think that's a much better word than "vulnerable", because endangerment is associated with high-pressure situations, as opposed to being associated with character weakness.

For some games, the feeling of player endangerment does make the character seem vulnerable. I just think he links the player and character too liberally. I have not read the article that inspired this column... but I too believe that Master Chief has become "too invulnerable", and Croal's article misses the point behind my belief.

Regarding time loss penalties in gaming... I don't derive entertainment from losing time. I derive entertainment from incremental improvement. "Cheap" games are really good at wasting time, but "challenging" games force me to improve. It's the difference between focusing on the result or on the method.

zippdementia zippdementia - December 24, 2009 (12:25 PM)
I read both the blog and Zig's response and I agree that "time lost" isn't really the big pay off here.

This is an interesting time to bring up such a blog post, Jason, because I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the concept of vulnerability ever since my review of Fatal Frame in which I felt vulnerable to the point where I could no longer play the game. A problem I came up against in reviewing that game was balancing my desire for a vulnerable character (which is what makes a survival horror game work) to wanting a character I felt comfortable playing (and that meant someone who had some ability to fight back).

What I came to realize is that vulnerability is nothing in a game if that vulnerability is not bundled with functionality.

Zigfried brought up God of War, which is a great example of this. Kratos is not what you would call a "vulnerable" character. However, we are shown early on in the game that, no matter how bad-ass he is, Kratos can and will die if we don't stay on our toes. That makes foes like the Cyclops frightening when they show up, because we know what's at stake. However, never do we feel unequipped to deal with the situation. The controls are simple and the moves strong. It's just a matter of rising to the task and keeping at it, much like Kratos is doing. The only exception to this is the part where you have to protect his family and, notably, that part is widely considered the worst part of the game by many fans.

An example brought up in the blog is Ico, which also fits this description. In Ico, the only thing holding the player back is their ability to think their way through their situation (same as in the prequel, Shadow of the Colossus, though notably again, the people who didn't like that game mention the controls as not working for them).

Since the days of Donkey Kong and Mario, the games that perform best are those which present a problem and then give the players tools to solve that problem. Or rather, the games which give players a set of tools and then proceed to lay down problems which can be solved by the proper and skilled use of those tools. In Mario, we were given the ability to jump and then handed a bunch of levels which required us to time those jumps. The tool-sets and situations may be more complex nowadays, but it really comes down to the same concept.

See, that's why Fatal Frame bothers me. The situation is a well designed one, but the tools are broken. When you die in that game it's not because you feel like you performed poorly or messed up, it's generally because you didn't have any good options available to you. I played a bunch of RE5 with a friend tonight and every time we died we knew exactly what we had done wrong and we did better the next time. That's what makes a game fun. Finding the strategy is what a game should be about. The strategy shouldn't have a one in a million chance of success.

What they need to do is mix the smooth controls of a game like Resident Evil 5 or Dead Space with the lesser health bars and tougher enemies of Fatal Frame.
honestgamer honestgamer - December 24, 2009 (01:38 PM)
Demon's Souls seems like it would be a great point of reference for this discussion. You should both play it. That game made me feel vulnerable pretty much every minute I played, but at the same time--even if a part of me didn't want to admit it--I knew that any challenge I faced was a challenge I could overcome with the proper approach and skill.
zigfried zigfried - December 24, 2009 (06:10 PM)
Was the feeling of vulnerability in DS due to a time penalty? That seems to be the article's ultimate point.

honestgamer honestgamer - December 24, 2009 (07:21 PM)
If you messed up deep inside of a dungeon in Demon's Souls, you were returned to the hub area. You lost your experience points gained. However, you could return to that point in the stage where you died. If you managed to make it that far (by no means a guarantee), you could pick up that experience plus you'd also have any that you gained while working back through the stage. You had to be careful, though, because dying along the way meant that you would lose whatever experience you were carrying when previously dying. It's actually an incredibly clever system. If you rush, you're screwed. If you take your time and remember what you learned, you can reclaim what you lost and more. Then you can die a little while later when you screw up again. The game is brutally demanding but in all the right ways, and you'll lose a LOT of time with nothing to show for it (except perhaps a few items, which you always retain once you gather them) if you aren't willing to take the game seriously. In that sense, the game demands that you invest a lot of time into it. Time is in some ways like a currency when you're playing Demon's Souls. Some of it you spend well and you get a good return. Some of it you blow on french fries that do nothing but go to your hips. ;-)
zigfried zigfried - December 24, 2009 (07:45 PM)
But is all of that the reason why you felt vulnerable? Or was it something else about the game that made you feel vulnerable?

The part in your entire description that caught my attention -- from a vulnerability sense -- was the implication buried in the middle that players will die over and over.

The death/reclamation system sounds cool, but it doesn't speak to vulnerability so much as the concept of forced improvement. Using the example of Golden Axe: Beast Rider, I felt vulnerable for a while but by the end of the game, I was accomplishing unbelievable feats. The game did that without adding any new abilities (aside from some magic spells, but I'm talking about the physical combat). The game simply forced me to improve. If anything, that's the opposite of vulnerability -- because as you learn and improve, you start to feel more confident, like you really can take on the big bad boss when the final showdown comes.

If a game leaves me feeling weak and vulnerable the whole way through, then I really don't want to play it, unless it's Silent Hill or something where I know upfront that my guy is a weakling in over his head (and for a game like that, there really shouldn't be any bosses).

Constant vulnerability means there's probably no player improvement going on -- just a lot of disconnected obstacles that surprise (and kill) players the first time they're encountered.

zippdementia zippdementia - December 25, 2009 (05:27 AM)
Even in Silent Hill, though, he comes equipped to deal with the situation. You get plenty of ammo in that game, and most enemies on the streets are easily avoided. Once you go in a building, you tend to have to kill everything, but that just makes the whole environment creepier.

I think what makes players feel the most vulnerable in Silent hill is the fact that you have to rely on your ears for most of your information, because the environments are too dark or fogged up to see much of anything.

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