Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 | Maximally Powerful Protagonist Dilemma

It’s been months since the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. With an overall Metascore of 63, clearly it has its share of problems. Some reviewers argue the game lacks interesting characters and a compelling story, while others knock it for its slower-paced stealth sections and occasionally drab settings. Its harshest critics claim CLoS2 lacks focus, direction, and polish.

What happened? Did developer MercurySteam completely drop the ball? Or is there a deeper, more fundamental problem here that merits discussion?

The purpose of this article is not to debate the accuracy of the aforementioned reviews. It suffices to say I agree with some but not all aspects of these reviews. (Clearly CLoS2’s plot cannot simultaneously be both gripping and uninteresting.) This article aims to point out a more fundamental problem with CLoS2—one not discussed in any of the above articles. The game runs into, what I call, the Maximally Powerful Protagonist Dilemma (MPPD).


I. What is the Maximally Powerful Protagonist Dilemma?

Imagine you are a game developer creating a videogame in which the protagonist is Jehovah, the Christian god. Due to Jehovah’s nature, the protagonist must be omnipotent. If not, he fails to be Jehovah. But if the protagonist truly is omnipotent, any challenge thrown at the player is no real challenge at all. Being maximally powerful, the protagonist ought to have an easy time conquering any challenge. We then have a dilemma: Either (i) we create a game lacking challenge or (ii) we fail to create a videogame in which the protagonist is truly Jehovah. Since our original task was to create a game in which Jehovah is the protagonist, disjunct (ii) means we’ve failed to create what we set out to create. Keeping this in mind I’ll rewrite the dilemma as the following: Either (i) we create a game lacking challenge or (ii*) we fail to create what we set out to create.

The previous paragraph lays out the archetype of the MPPD—an essentially omnipotent protagonist leads to the disjunction of (i) and (ii*). But the example above is of course an extreme case. Rarely, if ever, have I run across an absolutely omnipotent protagonist such as Jehovah. This is likely because developers avoid cases of the MPPD right from the earliest stages of a game’s conception; creating a game in which Jehovah is the protagonist should clearly be seen as nonviable once his essential omnipotence is considered. After creating/conceptualizing Jehovah as a videogame character, game development comes to a halt. How can developers hope to maintain a player’s interest past initial curiosity if they create such a powerful protagonist? How does one make the game compelling?

II. Does a protagonist need to be omnipotent simpliciter for the MPPD to arise?

Clearly Dracula is not nearly as powerful as Jehovah. Unlike Jehovah, Dracula is not unconditionally, maximally powerful; he has limits. For example, Dracula can’t step into daylight without suffering terrible consequences. But this doesn’t rule out the MPPD as a possibility. This is because, for the MPPD to arise, the protagonist  only needs to be maximally powerful with respect to the relevant aspects of the game. If the protagonist is maximally powerful with respect to the relevant aspects of the game, any challenge in the game can be easily solved.

Consider the game Doom II. Playing Doom II on God Mode removes any challenge the game has to offer. This is because Doom II is an fps built upon the concept of surviving an onslaught of antagonists. Because God Mode prevents one’s health from depleting, the antagonists pose absolutely no threat. The player can literally walk through the game. She can even walk away from her computer without pausing, make a sandwich, and come back to see the protagonist unscathed. Notice, however, that God Mode does not make the protagonist omnipotent. It does not, for example, let the protagonist fly. But the MPPD arises nonetheless. Thus the MPPD can arise in a game even if the protagonist cannot do absolutely anything.


III. So how does Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 encounter the MPPD?

Interestingly, CLoS2 encounters the MPPD by virtue of the conclusion to the first installment of the Lords of Shadow series; the protagonist at the end of CLoS is simply too powerful. To illustrate this, let’s recall the final events of CLoS and its DLC. Gabriel (aka Dracula) bested the three Dark Lords and absorbed their powers—those of the werewolf, vampire, and necromancer. At this point, Gabriel was powerful enough to defeat Satan. (Keep in mind he accomplished all this while human.) In the DLC Gabriel further enhanced his abilities by becoming a vampire and stealing the power of the Forgotten One, a beast claiming to have “infinite power.” Gabriel may not be omnipotent, but at this rate it’s probably safe to say he’s maximally powerful relative to anything or anyone else, barring God.

If, from start to finish, we play CLoS2 as the overpowered protagonist described above, given the game’s primary focus on action/fighting, we would most certainly run into the first disjunct of the MPPD. Dracula has already defeated Satan and three enemies whose powers were allegedly second only to God’s. Who’s left to challenge him?

castlevania-lords-of-shadow-2MercurySteam, however, anticipated this potential problem (or something like it). So instead of the overpowered Prince of Darkness we saw at the end of the first installment, we start CLoS2 with a weakened, vulnerable vampire. This strategy seems reasonable, and it isn’t without precedent. God of War games, for example, deal with the first disjunct of the MPPD similarly, allowing the protagonist to eventually become maximally powerful with respect to the relevant aspects of the game. The problem for CLoS2, however, is that we never quite regain that level of power realized in CLoS. By the end of the game we must still hide from enemies, skulk in the shadows, and remain undetected to survive. And if we are spotted, we instantly meet our demise.Metal-Gear-Solid-HDNow don’t get me wrong, I love a good stealth game. In fact, Metal Gear Solid ranks as one of my all-time favorite games. Elements of stealth, however, belong in MGS—specifically because Snake is trying to infiltrate Shadow Moses’s weapons development complex undetected. Snake cannot single-handedly neutralize every soldier within the complex, especially if they know his location and simultaneously attack. Thus stealth is a necessary aspect of MGS. Of course, this isn’t necessary for its successful inclusion. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for example, successfully uses stealth as merely one of several play-style options. The player can choose whether to sneak through dungeons or haphazardly charge in guns-a-blazing. Elements of stealth, in this case, greatly increase replay value. After completing the game, players can try different character-builds or even set interesting in-game, personal goals (i.e. a pacifist option).

CLoS2‘s late-game stealth sections, however, lack purpose. The player must hide simply because the game tells her to hide. Nothing about the story necessitates it. And this results in an inappropriate feeling of powerlessness. Surely, something has gone wrong here. Why is that at our most powerful state we can defeat Satan but can’t touch an armored guard? Thus it is not the first disjunct of the MPPD to which CLoS2 falls, but the second—MercurySteam failed to create a game in which the protagonist is the fear-instilling Prince of Darkness, Dracula. That is, they failed to create what they set out to create.

IV. Am I just splitting hairs?

At this point you might think I’m just splitting hairs. Maybe you’re thinking something along these lines: “Why does it even matter if CLoS2’s protagonist pales in comparison to the CLoS protagonist? These occasional moments of powerlessness don’t mean MercurySteam failed to create the protagonist they set out to create—namely, Dracula.”

V. My Response

I take it that if MercurySteam’s failure to create the protagonist they set out to create does not follow from CLoS2‘s late-game moments of powerlessness, then Dracula’s combat prowess is inessential to his personal identity. This is because such moments of powerlessness entail a lack of combat prowess. That is, given Dracula must hide, he doesn’t have the ability to do otherwisespecifically, fight his way out. So if the protagonist at the end of CLoS2 is in fact Dracula, combat prowess must not be essential to his personal identity.

Whether combat prowess is inessential to Dracula’s personal identity, however, is debatable. When we consider fictional characters with a pre-established history, issues regarding essential properties are tricky and unclear. Take, for example, Sherlock Holmes. I highly doubt anyone would argue Holmes’s intellectual prowess is inessential to his identity. Why? This is because Holmes’s whole character is based on his deductive reasoning. But we can parallel this argument for Dracula and his combat prowess: Dracula’s whole character is based on his past as a great knight who now lives as king of the undead, thus combat prowess is essential to his personal identity. So why would we think Holmes’s intellectual prowess is essential to his identity but Dracula’s combat prowess is inessential to his?

holmes silhouetteThe point here is I’m not so sure Dracula’s combat prowess is inessential to his identity, but debating such a big issue is beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, worth noting that if it turns out combat prowess is essential to Dracula’s identity then CLoS2 undoubtedly falls to the second disjunct of the MPPD.

VI. Conclusion

Whether you agree with my assessment of CLoS2, I hope I have at least shed some light on a dilemma in game design worthy of discussion. The MPPD is a genuine obstacle to quality game design which does indeed influence the decisions made during game development, and one which developers ought to be aware. For example, as shown above, ignorance of the disjuncts of the MPPD may result in failure to create one’s desired project.

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