When designers try to bring out a theme through play, the focus is usually on the high-action moments. However, those moments are often fraught with danger and difficulty, with the result that the theme players experience is sometimes “you suck.” Ironically, it can therefore be useful to pack themes of empowerment into the quiet, calm situations. It’s when the game is at a low ebb that “you are powerful” is easiest to convey.
I noticed this dynamic for the first time when I played Warframe. Warframe casts the player as a futuristic super-space-ninja. My expectation was that, as a super-space-ninja, I would feel like an unstoppable warrior.
However, I’m strictly mediocre at action games. I therefore spent most of my time playing Warframe dying and respawning. It was a lot of fun, and even pretty ninja-y; I got to run on walls, sneak up on people, and generally behave like a shadowy infiltrator equipped with the best bow-and-dagger set around. I just didn’t feel as unstoppable, as remarkable, as I’d expected.
Yet, there was one time when I felt the super-ninja theme come through: back on my spaceship. Hiding in the void, watching alien vessels fly by without detecting me and flipping through my arsenal, I could imagine myself as not just a ninja-who-dies-a lot but as the super-space-ninja I aimed to be. In the safe zone, there was no evidence to the contrary.
Thus, an important thematic moment for Warframe was contained in what was, in essence, the menu system. By seeding the spaceship with little touches indicating power and competence–the enemy ships unwittingly passing me by, the consoles coming to life as I walked–the game’s designers let me in on the excitement of being skilled. Warframe draws on the lure of Real Ultimate Power, and on my spaceship I felt I had it.
Admittedly, this was thin gruel compared to being actually good at the game! There was no escaping the knowledge that outside the walled garden another round of ignominious ends awaited.
That’s probably as it should be, however, and on the way up the learning curve it was nice to have a place where I could get a little bit of the feeling that had drawn me to the game. I had come to be powerful, after all, and it was great that Warframe found a way to meet that desire when I couldn’t attain it otherwise. Warframe thus demonstrated to me that while some players may not have the skill to fully access a theme, it’s still possible to put the idea across in parts of the game where skill isn’t a factor. I’ll remember the lesson in games where the theme is about the player’s strength and power.