Video games are notorious for attempting to fulfill power fantasies, reputable to the point of widespread (and rightful) criticism. You have to save the world, you have to win the Super Bowl, you have to rescue the princess. It’s all about empowering you in some fashion that you can’t achieve in your real life. There aren’t many ways, after all, for you to thwart a nuclear terrorist attack from aliens on Mars if there aren’t any to begin with.
Of course, to question that established order is to also shine a light on the entire concept of games, which to say anything that revels in victory. Your skill, luck, strength, or smarts or whatever determines if you can call yourself a winner or a loser, and that is the base level of the aforementioned fantasy: succeeding. It’s just a matter of finding what you want to succeed most in, be it space marines or Italian plumbers or blue hedgehogs.
Then we have to ask ourselves: what is the smallest form of victory achievable by a game? It seems to be a question asked rather often of late by smaller game designers. By virtue of besting the nuances and inanities of a system within a video game, you become the winner over the instituted mechanics. There are overt obstacles, usually, but the enmeshed obstacles of simply navigating the problem before you are the greater challenge.
It’s a concept most likely seeded by QWOP, the seminal, nonsensical game from Bennett Foddy back in 2008. In it, you attempt to run a 100-meter hurdle race. It sounds quite simple until you hear how you’re supposed to do it. Instead of pushing right on a stick and pressing A to jump, you have to use the letters Q, W, O, and P on your keyboard to individually (and respectively) control your athlete’s left and right thighs and left and right calves. It’s a nightmare.
That, however, is pretty much the point. It introduces a unique challenge to something we take for granted on a daily basis both in real life and in video games. You say video game and you say run and you picture something very clearly: hold a stick and maybe a button to boost. The reality is that so much goes into the simple act of coordinating your leg movements to make you ambulatory that it’s almost impossible to totally conceive within your mind.
QWOP set the table for the idea of simple ideas with complex execution as a game. And then games like Receiver sat down and ate the dinner. You are supposed to go around and collect 11 audio tapes while using your gun to eliminate threats. Cool. Easy. 2EZ. The problem is that—oops—every single part of your interaction with your firearm has been moved into a discrete control. From setting the safety to pulling back and releasing the slide to reloading each individual bullet, you have to be cognizant of how the parts of your gun work in concert with the other bits.
When you shoot a gun in Call of Duty or Gears of War, all you do is pull a trigger. It’s so simple. All the interim animations are just dressing. But in Receiver, they become challenges that will lead to your inevitable doom. Dropped rounds on the ground. Forgetting to chamber the first round. Not realizing you can’t do anything else with your flashlight out. (You only have two hands, after all.) It reminds you that, hey, even the simplest action is actually egregiously complex when you break it down.
Thrown under the umbrella of absurdism, these types of games make an important statement. The success of the improbable Surgeon Simulator 2013 isn’t just about how funny it is to watch your friends try to pick up something with a digital hand, but it’s about how incredibly insane it is that we never realized how intricate the simple act of manipulating your extremities is.
The latest in this string of ridiculous games is Octodad: Dadliest Catch (review forthcoming), wherein you play an octopus who also happens to be the father to two children and must care for them while going about your daily life, which is extraordinarily ordinary despite you being an, you know, octopus.
All you have to do is make this fellow be a normal dad. How hard is normalcy? You’ve killed Elites and you’ve ridden dinosaurs with a proclivity for fruit and laying eggs. You can handle being a father. But when you start accidentally throwing furniture and destroying your hovel, a revelation lands hard in your tentacled hands.
The triumphs depicted in games can be anything. The scale of it doesn’t matter. The power fantasy is truly just being capable, not specifically able to stop a rival spy from undoing your work or preventing a Templars from throwing the world into utter chaos. At the basest level, you seek to be able. In a daily life where you are told you can’t do this or that, a video game abstracts and manifests those challenges and makes them beatable.
That is the fantasy. That is the dream. The chance to prove they can do it, the ability to show they can follow through, and the boast-worthy accomplishment of doing it. At the base level of humanity, we just want to achieve. And these silly, strange, inscrutable games show that. So let’s not forget it, huh?