The Fantasy of Competence

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?


  1. I don’t recall the bridge you are having problems with (but the next time I redo that first battle at Ostagar I’ll keep an eye out for it), so my moment of “no longer kicking butt” felt a bit more of a ragequit inducing moment. I made it all the way past the first suggested location on the big world map (Lothering) feeling like I was kicking some sort of butt (and I’m playing easy and I like that feeling of kicking butt all the way through a game) and made my first choice as to the next place I would visit on the world map, and it turns out that it was a poor choice. Eventually I had to drop back to my last Lothering save and undo hours of play to correct that “mistake”. I typically don’t appreciate games that require me to load saves from hours/days ago (hence my eternal preference to classic LucasArts games over classic Sierra games).

    It seems frustrating that the game gives you such a choice that unless you’ve played before you have no idea what you are getting into (and how well that challenge scales to your character at that point). The game is teaching me over and over that I need to keep a FAQ or the wiki handy at most big choices. (For instance, in this particular respect the FAQs make it clear that you should probably visit the Circle of Magi and/or Warden’s Keep (if you own it) first out of Lothering, and yet the game itself doesn’t make that clear at all…)

    1. The bridge is the one in the wilds, right before you get to the cache itself. The game saves itself as you walk up to it, even. There’s a caster on the bridge, a few rogues and an archer on your side. Behind it are more fighters and archers, and about 7 traps set up on the far side of the bridge, which you hit if your melee characters follow the caster.

      I don’t want a high price of failure either. Just let me keep moving forward from where I am, even if forward is really back. Don’t make me go all the way to the beginning. You’re lucky you had a save that far back, I probably wouldn’t have. Well, now I will.

  2. I was having the same problem with my Rogue character. It was even more problematic with my side characters, who just didn’t have the AI/tactics slots to take care of themselves. (Playing on the PS3). I felt utterly incompetent and was not enjoying myself at all. Then I put the game on easy, and have enjoyed it ever since.

    1. Maybe I should just do this then. I mainly want to get through the game at this point. I’m not sure I’m robbing myself of some sort of discovery, though. I do think a restart on Easy with a different set of characters might be interesting.

      Right now my main interest is in playing all the origins, but I doubt that’ll get me the character I want to play (I really like mages, after all, and they all have a single origin.)

      I’m actually okay with AI/tactics type slots. FF XII did that really well for me, and it kept me interested in FF, as I was getting tired of that combat style.

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