Analysis / Player Punch
To throw a good (read: painful) Player Punch
, you must write an event with three key properties:
- Suddenness. The punch must catch the player off-guard. It should be foreshadowed, but only minimally, so it does not come completely out of the blue; it can also come after the player is led to believe that the danger has already passed. The illusion of safety should be reinforced by gameplay mechanics, fooling the player to assume that nothing bad will happen to them in the story because that would unbalance the gameplay. Multiple punches in a row should be avoided, as they tend to desensitize more than to hurt.
- Cruelty. The punch must exploit an already existing emotional connection between the player and the game. It is impossible to punch a player who is not emotionally invested in the game, and specifically, in its characters. Said investment can be either empathy with the Player Character or affection for a Non-Player Character, particularly, a Non-Player Companion. Of the two, the former is more difficult to elicit, because such protagonist must feel like a living and hurting individual (i.e. be the opposite of featureless), yet allow a wide range of players to see themselves in him or her.
- Unfairness. The punch must be unjust, unprovoked, and unsportsmanlike. The way that it is delivered must feel like cheating, yet the in-story puncher must get away with it (at least, initially). The punch must violate the victim's trust and/or integrity, since letting him or her keep any kind of dignity (or even find glory) in it cushions the blow. Meanwhile, out-of-universe, the player must feel like they've jumped through all the hoops and deserve a good outcome — only to be denied one in the last moment.
Note that nowhere above is it stated that a Player Punch
must involve any Death Tropes
. A Plotline Death
is the ultimate nastiness that can be inflicted upon a video game character, but it is by far not the only way to traumatize the player. Any kind of lasting (!) physical or psychological damage should do the trick, especially if it is tailored to the victim's fears and motivations and has gameplay consequences
. Speaking of death, however, one example of how dignity and glory don't mix with Player Punch
would be a Dying Moment of Awesome