Lord Acton, the bearded Brit historian who probably would have bored us all to tears with his intellect, is the gent whom history credits with coming up with the famous “absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely” bon mot everyone’s reached for at some point. It took only a century for Ronald Reagan’s naval secretary to turn Acton’s quote into a dorky Tonight Show-style joke: “Power corrupts,” an unbearded, un-British John Lehman reportedly said. “Absolute power is kind of neat.”
Setting aside for the moment the megalomaniac Iran-Contra vibe, Lehman had what you’d have to call a powerful point. We’ve always been obsessed with power, and still are. Republicans and Democrats have spent the last two weeks arguing in big sports arenas about who’s going to grab it in November, as residents in hurricane-plagued places like New Orleans and Chucktown wonder whether it’ll still be on when they get home at night.
For gamers, the equation’s far less contentious and complex. Playing with power is the most basic reason most of us park our asses in front of our consoles and computers in the first place — the opportunity to end a day in which the most powerful thing you may have done is text an underling or shred a document by wielding virtual superpowers and superweapons to total a building or shred a big-ass mythical beast. It’s vicarious. It’s visceral. And, like Lehman said, it’s kinda neat.
But it’s also calculated, and the ways in which games parse out power can tell you a lot about both the philosophies that went into making them and the people who are drawn to them. It can be a stark dichotomy: Are you simply handed power immediately, like all those government entitlements Republicans are so fond of dissing during the election cycle, or is it a delayed-gratification thing, something you have to earn by hard work and the sweat of your thumbs — or, more specifically, by slogging through level upon level with a standard-issue sword until you earn enough experience points to finally shoot a few sparks from your hands?
If you’ve ever stepped into the shoes of the game-cliché farmboy who gets swept into the Ultimate Conflict Between Good and Evil — see almost any RPG released in the last 15 years for an example — you’ve probably experienced the latter … and the frustration that often accompanies it. Sure, the payoff at level 52 is large, but it takes a late-career-Marlon-Brando-sized investment of hours and patience to get there. And the risk is you’ll surrender to the dark side of boredom and frustration well before you arrive, thereby missing out on some of the game’s most powerful stuff.
Conversely, a title like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed treats power like the gaming equivalent of $57 million in pure Palin Alaskan pork barrel — an unexpectedly generous switch for a developer like LucasArts, which has typically handled gamers’ access to Force powers the way Yoda treats Luke Skywalker the first time they meet: Patience, young padawan. Now lift that damn X-Wing again, and make me a turkey sandwich while you’re at it.
But not this time. There’s a reason lead developer Haden Blackman told Vanity Fair back in March that the Force Unleashed was basically a game about “kicking somone’s ass with the Force.” You’re an absolute beast from the get-go: The first mission sets you briefly into the black, nigh-unstoppable boots of the nastiest mouth-breathing Sith lord of them all. Even after you’ve traded Vader’s saber for that of his budding dark apprentice, the power you’re tossing around borders on the ridiculous. Dropping Tie fighters on people’s unsuspecting heads. Bowling giant crates into crowds of enemies or flipping them into laser-containment fields. Hurling lightning from your hands to turn everything into so much scorched toast. (It’s worth noting that you could also do some of this stuff as a Jedi in Lego Star Wars, but the difference in vibe is the difference between a Saturday-morning cartoon and a John Woo flick.).
Being a bad Jedi is addictive and liberating — or at least until you come up, impossibly, against other Jedi and Sith and discover that that there’s always someone cooler — and more powerful — than you. Absolute power may be kinda neat, but it’s never quite as absolute as you think it is. •
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