Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wallrunning out of Death's reach.

I was going to do a big breakdown on the details of the average gamer, but in December we got a huge statistics and research dump on this anyway and now the whole project feels a bit passe/pointless. I might still drop in a column showing the notes and stats that I had collected though.

But for this column I wanted to quickly compare and contrast two games with a similar design but different motivations. These are Mirror's Edge from Dice by way of EA and Prince of Persia from Ubisoft. Both of these games have a focus on running, jumping, sliding and acrobatically puzzling your way through an environment with a very distinctive art style. Both have received their fair share of positive and negative reactions. And to be honest, I'm not sure which I've enjoyed more than the other.

A disclaimer first - I'm playing both on PC, using the 360 gamepad for Prince of Persia and mouse and keyboard for Mirror's Edge. I had tried the Mirror's Edge demo on the 360 and just felt a bit let down by the controls. The game seems to require amazingly tight control - especially when jumping for pipes, ladders and the like and I just could not get it happening on the 360 controller so I decided to wait for PC so I could use the mouse and keyboard.

I've heard on a lot of podcasts and read on a lot of sites that Prince of Persia has very forgiving controls - I must be some kind of freakishly untalented player then, because I just am yet to get the hang of them - perhaps I'm yet to learn the rhythm of the game as I am very early on still.

Again, contrary to the touted opinions, the control's of Mirror's Edge have been wonderful - very tight and intuitive and it is probably my many years of playing FPS games with arbitrary platforming sequences on PC which has made me much, much better at such a thing than those gamers who have never had such an experience. There have been the occasional irritation (such as trying to time an up-wall-run to sideways leap to grab), but for the majority of the game the movement and controls mesh perfectly.

The main point I wanted to reach on this however is the accusation that Prince of Persia is too easy. Which I first want to point out is a stupid opinion to hold. These people say that the removal of death means that there is no challenge. Death hasn't been a challenge in games since quick-saving was introduced and before that - when limited lives went out the window. In fact, thus far in both Mirror's Edge and Prince of Persia I'm yet to be hindered by death. In both, when you fuck up, you die. Prince of Persia then quickloads you back to the last checkpoint with a graphic of Elika grabbing your hand. Mirror's Edge quickloads you back to the last checkpoint courtesy of a loadscreen.

There is no fundamental difference here aside from the fact that some people must think that having a load screen means that there is in fact a penalty for death. Actually - I've only seen the Elika animation a few times and already the music and animation is getting old. I think that's a going to be a bigger punishment in the long run than a white loadscreen.

Using the logic implied in the "not being able to die makes it easy" argument I can make any game as easy or as hard as I want now because the death mechanic has been negated by saving. I could go through a game saving only every 2 hours and thus have a big punishment for dying, in the form of being forced to replay a significant chunk of the game again. Does that make a game better? No. Does that make a game fun? No. Does that actually make the game longer? No. This is one of the reasons why I hate Ninja Gaiden.

People need to understand that the inherent nature of the death mechanics in gaming has been undercut by saving. If I wanted to I could play through the whole of HL2 and both episodes and never "die", because I can quicksave and quickload at will. It's a puerile argument to say that just because you can't die means a game is simple. If you want to stick with that argument then Planescape Torment would like to say: "Hello and fuck you buddy."

And even if it is "easy", does that make it bad? No. No it doesn't. Not every game needs to be ruthlessly hard and with a decade between checkpoints - no matter how emotionally repressed, dateless and with hours and hours to waste you might be - you should be able to recognise this as simply bad game design. Sure artificial inflation of gameplay length is probably my greatest pet peeve, but even looking at this objectively you are kidding yourself if you think that such inflation actually makes a game better.

Personally I'd like to see more games pick up on the negation of the traditional death mechanic that Prince of Persia has introduced. Sure, the setting of Prince of Persia makes it a perfect contender for the implementation of such a device, but there's no reason it couldn't be adapted to other settings or genres with a bit of work. Just look at what Far Cry 2 with it's death mechanic - it removed the traditional punishment for death and introduced a "rescue" mechanic which I've already found useful for expanding my contacts and knowledge.

If within the next few years we can see the elimination of my need to compulsively quicksave and quickload (thanks Halflife) and replace the traditional punishment of "You Died. Game Over. . . . Press space to load your last save." (how FUCK is that "Game Over" then? Stupid fucking 1980s gameplay hangover!) then myself and my HDD will be happier for it as I won't have to worry about accumulating literally thousands of quicksave files over the course of games.