Rilla and I have started playing the remarkably weird Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders over the last couple of days. Any game that opens on the protagonist’s dream sequence and mentions a “mile-long face on Mars” is a winner, in my book, so it’s been pretty fun (though of course subject to many, many WTF?! moments with regards to the puzzles).
One particularly great moment, though, was just this evening when we (spoilers, I guess, though it’s a 1990 game) pried up the floorboards of the bedroom and fell into a room with an alien machine designed to make humans stupid (stupider tha the aliens). An alien dude accosted us and put us in a chamber, at which point the avatar, Zak, started losing his mind. This was reflected in the gradual disappearance of all the available “actions” at the bottom of the screen (e.g. “Read”, “Pick up”, “Turn on” and so on). One by one they vanished until only “Walk to” was left.
We were totally horrified by the sequence, having just been talking about how it didn’t seem to be a game that ever meanly killed you or screwed you over. Yet here came the alien dude, who let us go back into the world with only our “Walk to” action. Disconsolate, we walked back to Zak’s house. Disconsolate, but also deeply impressed. I mean, how cool is it to get brainwashed and lose your actual actions? In fact, they then slowly came came back, one by one, but the greatness of the sequence was really in this idea that the game would strip you of your actions, the things that literally make an avatar who they are, and then send you on your way.
Another LucasArts game, The Secret of Monkey Island did something related during the sequence in the governor’s mansion, where Guybrush vanishes into a hole in the wall and the player is treated to an uncontrolled sequence of delightfully absurd actions that still use the syntax and available options the game normally has when you’re in control. Ridiculous inventory items come and go as they are used on ridiculous, unseen characters. It’s really a terrific sequence, again playing with the very basic idea of an avatar’s capabilities.
I feel that this sort of thing doesn’t happen as much as it could any more, and rarely for comedic purposes (though games are often just less funny these days, it sometimes seems). GTA IV does it briefly in one of the later missions involving a kidnapping where the kidnapped woman occasionally wrests control of the car from Niko, the avatar, and makes you swerve and have to counter-steer. I really felt my agency in the game at that moment.
And perhaps that’s at the heart of it, rather than dry chuckling. When games temporarily shift the balance of control over our avatar or help us to re-see what it is we’re able to do in the game, it can be a very powerful experience. Whether it’s the loss of action used to comic effect in Zak McCracken or the more realistic steering wheel grab of GTA IV, these moments make us want to hold our agency tight in a way that all the freedom in the world simply cannot do.