Hey folks. I’m still under the weather, but I was able to pull my head together enough to make a game mechanic of the (slightly delayed) week, concerning a brief but interesting little flash game: Vox Populi, Vox Dei (a Werewolf Thriller).
VPVD doesn’t have any written instructions, so I’ll sum up the appropriate rule as best I can.
Once you’ve attacked an enemy, repeatedly press or hold Space to kill it.
Simple, although if you play the game (and it’s very short; I encourage you to at least play the first few screens to see the attacks in action) you’ll quickly discover how much of an impact this rule has. The enemies are werewolves, you are some sort of ninja, you attack by leaping upon them from behind, and then you knock them to the ground, landing atop them, ready to finish the job.
And you can wait, and wait, but there’s no way around it. Once you’ve got the werewolf in your clutches, the only way to progress in the game is to finish the job, which is a fairly long and fairly brutal process. It’s three or four seconds, but they’re inescapable, and incredibly, ridiculously bloody. Pixelly red blood spatters all over the level, dripping down to lower levels and getting caught in cracks, all while your little protagonist ninja tears the werewolf apart with his bare hands.
Here’s the thing: you can’t avoid this. Some enemies need to be attacked for the game to progress, and attacked enemies need to be killed, and in this spectacularly violent way.
Why so spectacular? Why so violent? What does this accomplish?
In part, it sets the scene. These wolves are dangerous, and to allow one to notice you without following up and killing it is to ensure your own death. So there’s that.
In part, it defines the protagonist. Without dialogue or backstory, all we know is that he’s wearing a blue jumpsuit and planning to rescue someone wearing pink; even calling him a ninja is a bit of a stretch, but we no know that he’s also not afraid of getting his hands extremely bloody, and taking care of situations in the most unseemly way possible. So there’s that.
But more than anything else, it makes the players complicit in violence. If the attack animation ran automatically, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective. It would be a time sink and an annoyance. But if the player has to press buttons to make things happen, then the player is inflicting this damage. It’s the same immersive mental connection that lets a player control characters at all, that lets them press the jump button and think “I am jumping” and not “I am causing my avatar to jump”. The player is the one tearing this werewolf apart as it struggles in vain to escape. And of course some of these enemies are unavoidable, there is no way to play the game without attacking at least one werewolf and going through this process at least once, during which the player has no choice but to press on the attack.
Taking control away from players can be a powerful emotive tool, but it can also be misused. There are many, many games out there which pull the player out of the action for cutscenes, in which the game’s protagonist does something that the player cannot or wouldn’t want to do. Usually this is to push the narrative along, sometimes it effectively delivers an emotional beat, but often it has a distancing effect; the player isn’t actually doing anything, and so the emotional resonance with the character is lost. Here, the player is still in control, but that control can only be used for one thing. The emotional resonance is still there and still strong, whether the player likes it or not. Its an interesting object lesson.