Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Surviving the Horror

I frequently complain that some developers seem to be stuck in a rut when it comes to game design relating to save and death mechanics. It seems that many choose to punish the player with the punitive measure of "time loss". This was supported by this Digital Unrest post and seems to be the underlying reason behind changes discussed in an interview with Alyssa Finley from the Bioshock 2 team. I believe that there are better methods out there for dealing with these mechanics - not just in theory, but ones that already exist in practice.

The core problem that I want to point out, is that such a punitive measure as "time loss" is pointless. Survival Horror games (the example cited by Digital Unrest) are tightly scripted and events happen in a very specific way in order to increase tension and ratchet up the "shock factor". The idea that the best way to implement the death mechanic in these games is to force the player to replay a segment is at it's core, stupid. The player once they have experienced a segment for the first time, on being forced to immediately replay it following their death and a load, now knows exactly when and where the enemies will come from, knows when certain audio cues are going to kick in or when scripted events will occur and because of these things there is no tension anymore. That repeated section of the game becomes nothing more than an exercise in memory retention and the feelings and reactions engendered by the initial play-through are lost. Should the player be forced to go through this process repeatedly it also becomes a serious test of patience.

The point that
Digital Unrest seem to be trying to make is that the player has no connection to or investment in the game other than their time, and thus to create any suspense or feeling of loss the threat and implementation of a punitive time penalty must exist. I find this idea repugnant in it's inherent laziness. If a developer is incapable of making you care about what happens in a game on a level greater than your time investment, then that game should be seen as the massive failure that it is. I've previously addressed why death in video games is an outdated concept and shown where some developers have moved beyond this is new and interesting ways. But I'm going to go in a slightly different direction in addressing the concept of a "penalty" for dying.

If death in a game is not going to be a permanent event, such as in the "hardcore" modes of Diablo or in all manner of Roguelikes - then it should not exist. This is not to say that your character should be invulnerable, merely that the implementation of the incapacitation and events leading to your characters untimely exit should be better controlled. Look at Monkey Island 2 back in the day, with the method of delivery of the story being used to explain why Guybrush never actually died. More recently we can look at Far Cry 2, which has in my opinion the best implemented death mechanic in gaming - where your "death" is part of the gameplay experience serves to increase NPC interaction and advance the certain sideplots. Most games (and by most I mean all but a tiny handful) assume that the character never dies during the course of the narrative. Thus, we have the "LOADING LAST SAVE" screens which you encounter to let you know: "Oops, you fucked up but it's OK, because none of that really happened. So we'll just all collectively ignore it, pretend it never happened and move on." If death was such an important event in these games, why isn't it acknowledged as such? I'd argue that death is not an important event in games as it's never addressed in anything more than a cursory "YOU DIED - GAME OVER" screen.

So if death doesn't serve a narrative or gameplay purpose, then I have to ask the obvious question - what makes death in games such a "good" idea in these people's minds? It seems to be that they feel that death is a necessary punishment, that a game where they aren't forced to waste their time in replaying segments is somehow less challenging. That the best thing to do is to take away the player's time. I feel very strongly that it's a stupid argument because, as previously stated, these games are so linear that the setback exists only as time loss and that there is no real threat to the player, nor any real engagement in the game by the player during the repeat of the segment up until the point where they were killed. From a narrative perspective it makes no sense as the story of the game continues to assume that the player never actually died. Look at movies - when was the last time that a movie had it's lead character die midway through an action sequence, then fade to black, fade back in - and we're back at the start of said action sequence and the character has to go through it all again.

This has all come to a head in the latest interview from the Bioshock 2 dev team. Alyssa Finley talks about the VitaChambers and addresses the perceived problem of them making the first game too easy. It may just be a matter of opinion, but the VitaChambers were well implemented in my opinion, they offered a way to allow gameplay to continue without resorting to a more traditional death mechanic. I ask then, just how will not having VitaChambers make this a better game? The fact that when someone is killed that they will have to go back to their last save doesn't make it better. It makes it an exercise is wasted time. Yes, you could "game" the VitaChambers if you wanted - but this is within the concept of the game. In fact, I'm fairly certain that such an obvious exploit didn't escape the attention of the original development team and perhaps allowing players to utilise such a mechanic to advance past a section where the otherwise might have failed was their intent. Finally, let's not forget either that both System Shock's also offered the "regen chamber" mechanic as part of their gameplay and neither of those ever suffered accusations of being "soft".

The idea that the only way to punish a player in a game is through the loss of time invested is outdated, stupid and counterproductive. Nothing will get people to stop playing faster than the feeling that they are wasting their time on a game. The key is for developers to find a way to integrate "death" into their games narrative and find new mechanics to nullify the thirty year old brain-bug of the "GAME OVER" screen, not to have to waste their time pandering to a vocal group of whiners who think that the industry should stay stuck in the same conceptual rut that it's been in for three decades.

It seems that this whole "issue" is just another in a long line of beat-ups and whining by people who feel that they are too hardcore for all these traitorous "casual" games of today. You're welcome to play a game of Diablo 2 on the Hardcore setting at Nightmare difficulty or bang your head against Armed Assault, where if you are really lucky you can die in a cutscene where you don't even have control of your character. These are just two of a multitude of "hardcore" options you can play if you really want to show off your e-peen, but the rest of us are happy to play games for enjoyment.