(See below for a correction)
Maybe you haven't heard the term "Mary Sue"; I hadn't until a few years ago when fan fiction writers briefed me on what the hell they were talking about. The Mary Sue, loosely defined, is a relatively flawless extension of the writer, whose mere presence seems to conquer those around him or her (not bothering to keep it gendered here, it applies to any character as far as I'm concerned), whether that conquering is through battle or just general charisma. The world revolves around the character, and the character can do no wrong.
Sound familiar? Many, many games have us play the role of a Mary Sue, often creepily so. While I haven't played Dragon Age 2, I felt upon reading that you could make any or all companions your sexual playthings to be disturbing, not because I'm opposed to the old in-out in-out, but that it seemed like the characters had no wills of their own. Other Bioware games tend toward this, but it's not unique to Bioware of course. Many, many games have us somehow being better than the rest by default, and sometimes they contrive reasons for us to be so because otherwise it would feel ludicrous in a world where everyone else seems relatively fragile. You probably have a few in mind right now.
Perhaps it's down to taste, but I tend not to feel very fulfilled if these sorts of accomplishments feel preordained. Maybe that's why I like it if the game is tougher; the challenge forces ME to be better, rather than the game simply rewarding me for following the training it gave me. It's also an argument in favor of emergent situations I think, because it prevents the designers from anticipating that we want a predictable ladder of empowerment as our only reward.
There is a bit of empowerment in just about everything. I probably can't shoot as straight in real life as I do in Borderlands, and I certainly can't get shot then take a bit of a breather and be OK again. This is fairly common in games that don't instakill, and they let us experience stuff that would easily wipe us out if we tried it for real. It's that point that many game critics miss; we do it because we KNOW it's bad to do in real life, yet don't mind trying it out, rather than we're training ourselves to do it later.
Yet taking that empowerment too far seems to bring a falsity to it all. Part of the pleasure of games is the unique stamp we can put on it, and I think that's why some degree of character customization is frequently the standard, even in games where the protagonist is already defined. But we're smart enough, usually, to see how this advancement can often lead to a monotonic-feeling game experience if we're bound to win regardless. The stamp, then, doesn't matter, so we're taken for a bit of a ride, then dumped off at the end. That initial feeling can be great, but it's likely to be forgotten.
Another part is challenge, or at least uncertainty. Going into a situation with the feeling that things may go wrong is sorta bothersome, but it helps make the payoff more thrilling. This holds true for losing as well as winning, strangely, because seeing that things can go wrong, while a bummer, can often show us that there's no safety net. Even if we wind up loading again, we learn from our mistakes and, in a way, customize the experience by improving our approach. Too much death can suck, too, but too little not only leads to short playing times, but a sense that we weren't really playing a game.
Even games with little customizability and challenge can still be worth it if the story is decent. A game that lets you try all sorts of different options, or at least tells one strongly narrated story, can make up for the lack in these other aspects, even if it winds up feeling less of an actual *game* in the bargain. Part of what makes a good story, though, is challenging the idea that the character's destiny has to be taken for granted, that there's some sort of conflict involved, either with themselves or with their environment, or at the very least a conflict with our real world expectations (though the latter has diminishing returns if the world DOES change; it's why a film that was revolutionary for its time, for example, may feel dated and overly cautious to us now. That, or if the world's attitudes are exaggerated, like often happens in Mary Sue tales).
A tangent to a strong story is strong characters. Not all games have characters, really, but some of the most memorable aspects of any game are often the characters, because they're things we're very likely to relate to (or hate). I think the essence as to why the DA2 Universal Seduction Initiative bothers me is that the characters lack any sort of center. They exist as extensions of the player character to what seems to be an excessive degree. Maybe this all works for some people, maybe it makes total sense in-game somehow, but to me it's the social equivalent of managing to hold all offices in the land simultaneously, like you can in Oblivion. Characters aren't human, per se, but they're proxies for humanness, and violating their fictional agency takes us in some weird directions.
Remove all of these elements and the work becomes a mindless march toward an inevitable conclusion. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing if you happen to get off on it, this is the internet after all, but too much of the same is withering, and making a game bereft of interesting conflicts and three dimensional characters or cool, unexpected ways to interact with the environment feels like the exact opposite of true empowerment to me: having everything handed to us, narratively or through gameplay, makes the game, and more specifically the main character, and by extension us, weaker.
Any games you tried that managed to subvert that Mary Sue tendency at all? There are entire categories that do, I suppose, like racing games and competitive strategy. It does seem to lean more toward single player experiences, so I guess that's more what I'm thinking.
I've been told that, at least as far as some players know, it's not possible to get into bed with EVERYONE AT ONCE. Apparently my half-remembered picture of all the characters on the bed together, their personalities forgotten because the player wanted to [whatever euphamism is in vogue nowadays] with no regard for what happened before or what their individual tastes might be, was false. If it's not possible, then the DA2 example no longer fits, since, despite what some people seem to have gleaned from the above, I wasn't talking about the whole game merely because I mentioned that specific aspect of the game.
As someone told me, at the very least it'll be an excuse to play Dragon Age 2.
Not that I'm eager to do that since I haven't even completed the first one yet. Should have taken the Dwarves telling me I wasn't ready for the caves more seriously.