Feeling Helpless In The Grand Scheme Of Things

Ever played that moment in the game where you are in total control, however despite it seeming like you are treading to your doom and there is nothing you can do about it? Well I have, many times, and often these are some of my favourite moments in video games because they are able to convey key and emotional parts of a games story through your actions and events being experience or happening to you, instead of relying on a cinematic cut scene to relay the story telling.

Before going further, I’d suggest to check out Athena Veta’s great article about playable characters control you. It touches on a few aspects that I consider important for these moments to be as special as they are.

Upon my searches around the internet, this is something that may or may not officially be referred to as something called “Controllable Helplessness”. Yes a very word term indeed, but it makes perfect sense regardless. The whole point or technique behind this in story telling is to drive home the point of being helpless. For my purposes, the end result of such an encounter can be positive or negative, but the way you get there is the key. By providing the player full control of a character in such intense or emotional story sequences, the game is able to impose the feeling of being helpless not just on the in game character, but on the player itself. Yet despite this, as the player, we seem convinced we must play on and not think all is lost and hit the reset button.

In this post, I’m going to go over my top 3 moments like this in gaming and why I think they stand out.

Note, this contains spoilers for all their respective games, so be wary as you proceed

Mega Man X: You Are No Match For Vile


When you first battle Vile in Mega Man X, you are put up against a foe who is miles out of your league. Not only does Vile seem very intimidating because he is aboard a huge battle mech, but the music building up his entry and the tense boss music also help to drive this point forward. Once the battle begins, Vile does not have a health bar, so your attacks although they appear like they are doing damage, are not made visible to how much you are doing and how much health he has left. Usually, in Mega Man boss fights prior to this we have always been accustomed to seeing the bosses health. This is also not different from the encounter with the giant Bee mini bosses in the intro stage. They also do not contain a life bar, and those are not cut scenes, so you are left to assume this is just normal game play. Combine that with the fact the Vile in his mech is blazing fast and can dash across the entire screen at ease, and punch you with those big fists of his, it’s hard to not frantically try and get out of his way. With Mega Man’s limited health, speed and attack power, winning this battle seems impossible. As you approach low health, Vile unleashes energy balls from his shoulder cannon which stun Mega Man. At this point Vile grabs you and a cut scene players itself out where Zero save’s the day and Vile is forced to retreat.

That battle served a big point. Mega Man is NOT strong enough at this point to take on Vile. This is made clear not only by Vile’s trash talk as he grabs Mega Man, but Mega Man after the loss is discouraged and admits he’s not strong enough to defeat Vile. He is reconciled by Zero who says he should not expect to defeat Vile, as Vile is designed to be a war machine. Zero also hints that Mega Man has not yet reached his full potential and may even some day become as powerful as Zero. This great sequence not only drives to point home that you are not strong enough yet, but also sets up the premise that you need to become stronger. The moment Zero appears, he’s mad cool and you love everything about him. His red suit, he long here’s, he’s just so rad! The thought that you can be like him is one of the best goals the game sets for you early on. It also pits Vile as your rival who at this point you want your rematch against to hopefully take him down. All this sets up the great journey that is Mega Man X and how he becomes stronger.

What I love about this sequence? It makes you the player feel helpless as Mega Man by assuming full control of him. During the Vile with battle, sure it could show a cut scene where Vile obliterates Mega Man, but instead we are forced to play through the agony, and feel Mega Man’s helplessness as he can’t do virtually anything to fight back.

To see a very good explanation of this, I’d recommend watching this video by Egoraptor on why Mega Man X is the greatest game ever. He talks about Mega Man in general and touches a bit on this sequence. Fast forward to 12:12 if you want to see the bit about Vile.

and of course, the intro stage including the fight with Vile, fast forward to 3:13 for the fight.

The Witcher 3 – Don’t Hurt Triss!


This was one of the toughest segments I had to play in my recent memory of any video game. This one is special because the gameplay is not direct control, but dialogue control that will eventually shape the outcome of the scene. It’s a nice mix of cinematics and I guess you could loosely say “gameplay”. So it does require player interaction. What makes this scene special for me is prior to this, I already love the relationship and dynamic between Geralt and Triss. I think they are a perfect match, and the two genuinely care for each other. What’s amazing is the length Triss is willing to go so Geralt can find where Ciri is. Triss voluntarily puts herself in harms way to ultimately be tortured by Meng’s thugs. They go as far as ripping out her finger nails 😦

Why this was a tough scene to play is because, as Geralt, you are in total control of the dialogue that is taking place. You at any time can say “FUCK THIS!” and bolt out of your chair and murder everyone in sight who dares to bring harm to Triss. Or you can play along which leads to Geralt hearing the agonizing screams of Triss as the guard taunt Triss and rips our her nails one by one. It’s excruciating to not only watch, but hear. Combined with the amazing facial animations of Geralt, his emotion and anguish is captured beautifully. It’s hard as the player to not feel directly responsible for the outcome here since you can end it at any moment. What makes matters worse, this being a game where your actions can have huge consequences, you are always in fear of taking it too far. Never do you want to bring harm to Triss that could cost her life.

Check out the sequence below and the hard choices you need to make as Geralt, it’s one of my favourite moments in Witcher 3 in my play through so far.

Super Metroid: I Beg You Mother Brain… No More!


Super Metroid is easily by favourite game of all time. I loved everything about it, from it’s graphics, to it’s music to it’s super tight controls and the upgrades you obtain as Samus. It’s brilliant. Samus’s suit herself is one of the coolest pieces of tech I ever saw in my early video game days. I was instantly involve with everything Metroid when I first played this game.

What makes Super Metroid very special is it’s ability to tell a story in game that virtually has none through silent narratives, excluding the intro sequence of course. The premise is setup where a baby Metroid is stolen by Ridley. As you play the game, you see several points and hints where the Metroid has escaped and has grown into a obscenely large Metroid which you encounter just before your fight with Mother Brain. This is where things take a turn.

Everything about your battle with Mother Brain is about deception. When you first encounter her, she’s encased in the glass shell. Upon breaking is, you are able to damage it and eventually appears like you destroy her. Her head falls to the ground and appears like this off brown colour implying she’s dead… or is she?! Well things go really quiet and there’s this long awkward pause. You think she’s dead but something wrong. The room is completely enclosed as well so you have no where to go. Fast forward a few seconds, some of the scariest boss music starts playing and Mother Brain literally rises from the ashes with her entire body appearing on screen and her colour comes back to imply, she’s recharged and ready to fight. She let’s loose a menacing roar and gook and guk drops from her disgusting jaws and the battle is underway. Mother Brain is unlike anything you’ve faced, she has strong attacks that take away tons of health.

Deeper into the fight, Mother Brain closes her eyes and starts charging something. Once charged, she unleashes the full force of her hyper beam on Samus. This move is devastating, it not only is impossible to dodge, but it drives Samus up on the wall in the air as she is taking damage fast. Combined with the obnoxious sound that comes with the Hyper beam, all this leads to a very unpleasant experience while this is happening. The Hyper beam ends and Samus is left kneeling showing how much of a toll that attack did on her. You can manage to get up by button mashing, but Mother brain unleashes, another Hyper beam, and another… At this point, Samus is left with only 2 bars of health, and she cannot get up, she is literally helpless. She can’t even move.

The game is still playing out. You are in total control but are left incapacitated by the hyper beam. To add insult to injury, Mother Brain uses some of her other attacks and roars at you, as if to taunt you. It’s clear if another attack is let loose, you are done for. Mother brain starts charging another Hyper beam, but BAM! The Metroid out of nowhere saves the day clinging onto Mother Brain’s disgusting face and drains the life out of her before she can unleash the Hyper Beam on you. The Metroid then starts hovering over you, and given your last encounter, you are unsure what will happen next. She nearly killed you last time you saw it. As the Metroid descends oddly gently on you, it starts regenerating your health.

Mother Brain is seen to start exhaling purple mist and awakens. She starts unleashing on the Metroid and sadly destroys the Metroid who just sacrificed itself to save you, it’s “mother”. Upon it’s death it gifts you the hyper beam, which with it’s new found strength is able to make very short work of Mother Brain. The strength is made very clear as each time a shot lands, Mother Brain’s head launches back as far as it could go trying to get as far away from it as possible. Ultimately Mother Brain proves to be no match for Samus’s new found power and Samus is victorious.

This sequence is brilliant! Never does it obviously cut away to any cut scene and always appears like you keep full control of Samus the entire time. At the first Hyper Beam, although Samus is left kneeling, she can get up, but after subsequent Hyper Beam’s, she is unable to get back up. This makes you feel you are in control the entire time while death is literally staring you in the face, but in reality a silent narrative is actually taking place. Ending this sequence off with the hyper beam upgrade, through this short sequence, Samus goes from someone who is nearly wiped out by Mother Brain, to someone who Mother Brain cannot handle. When I first played this boss fight, I was literally blown away.

For your viewing pleasure, the Super Metroid Mother Brain boss fight.


There you have it. What did you think of each game? Do you have any moments like this in games that had you feel helpless even though you were in total control? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Honourable Mentions

Mass Effect 3 – Pushing To The Citadel

Although this sequence cuts to a pretty lengthy cut scenes, parts of it you are in control as Sheppard running to the Citadel. Things look very grim as the Reapers and it’s forces are wiping out your comrades right before your eyes. Why this didn’t make my top 3? It does heavily rely on cut scenes part way through the sequence. Either way still a memorable moment for me.

Journey – Freezing To Death

Near the end of Journey, you and your comrade keep pushing forward, however the cold gets the better of you as you control your way up to falling to the ground and freezing to death. Why this didn’t make my top 3? Simply because in Journey, you can’t die, these games make that very clear early on, so for me the fear of dying goes out the window. But still an emotional part of story telling for me in gaming.


15 thoughts on “Feeling Helpless In The Grand Scheme Of Things

  1. I had a suspicion Super Metroid would appear on your list as soon as I started reading! A classic moment. Loved the examples you used.

    It’s a classic movie/plot convention – have your protagonist be (momentarily) weakened and cornered before turning the tables on the enemy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ohh boy, that Super Metroid moment had me so panicked. I remember it like it was yesterday but I got the same chills re-watching the video! That whole game nailed atmosphere better than arguably any other game _ever_, and it all came together into that final boss fight. That was probably the first time I experienced “Controllable Helplessness”!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To add to this, another game where I felt completely helpless, and in return it drew me in even more, was the Penumbra series, as well as Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In those games you have no means of protecting yourself, and you go through the whole game waiting to get ripped apart because you are completely helpless. Great way to make a player panic!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yea i saw some clips of amnesia, being strapped to a table to have surgery done on you I think, if I’m thinking of the right game. Pretty scary stuff!

        Never heard of penumbra, but seems like horror games do this very well


      2. Penumbra: Black Plague is the second in the series and the biggest highlight. Far ahead of its time too as far as setting atmosphere is done. Same company that did Amnesia some years later!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very cool! I skipped the Witcher 3 part because I haven’t gotten very far in that game yet, but these are fantastic examples of how taking power away from the player can create powerful – and anxiety-producing – moments in the story, and in the players’ lives. I remember playing Journey and I was sitting on the edge of my chair, teeth clenched, going, “Come on, come on, almost there, come *on*… oh no… no we were so close…” And then when the travelers in white appeared… it was a pretty moving moment, at least for me. Excellent examples! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. yea don’t read the witcher 3 bit until you’ve done that in game, it’s an awesome quest

      Journey was amazing, that whole bit and the ending after almost brought a tear to my eyes, i’m not sure how considering there’s no direct narrative, awesome stuff

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Noted! It’s next after Andromeda and Horizon: Zero Dawn (so like three months haha). I’m looking forward to it; it looks amazing.

        Oh, Journey. Such a great game… it was such an *experience,* more than a game, wasn’t it? Hm… Maybe it deserves its own post… haha

        Liked by 1 person

      2. 3 months for those 2 games?? That sounds a bit ambitious 😉

        Journey is indeed a very special game. Would love to read your take on Journey

        Liked by 1 person

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