Disclaimer: there’s a pretty big and popular Final Fantasy VII spoiler below, although EVERYBODY IN THE WHOLE WORLD knows this by now.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
--William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
, Act II, Sc.2
I know the moment's near
And there's nothing we can do
Look through a faithless eye
Are you afraid to die?
--Muse, Thoughts of a Dying Atheist
The things you pwn end up pwning you.
--Anonymous Internet User
You’re rushing across a cold platform. The tension is through the roof. All sorts of strange creatures zoom past you as you dodge their deadly touch with uncanny agility and timing. You hold your breath as you leap over a large gap – perhaps a split-second too soon – and exhale once you land safely on the other side. Sweat from the strain and pressure patches your clothes, all the way to your plumber’s overalls. Your knuckles carry unsightly bruises from all the bricks you smashed with your bare hands. No time to waste. The final goal can’t be far away; the next castle MUST be the right one. You can see it now – the flagpole appears on the horizon. So close you can almost touch it from there. Just jump – careful now, that winged turtle thing’s leaping over you – now it’s in your face –
Zoom out to a very different world, one that may or may not include a plastic controller flying through the room. Death has been a pivotal component of most games for a while now, so much that the term itself has taken on its own game-related meaning – one that’s about as seminal as “lives”, “level” and not much else. But while those other two examples have become somewhat synonymous with an old-schoolish outlook, dying has always been, more than anything else, a sort of common denominator in games. Like in the real world, death often plays the part of the ultimate enemy, much more so than any final boss. To ease the player’s torment, extra lives were granted, continues became mostly unlimited, energy bars were made longer, and checkpoints were introduced. A few lucky bastards even gained peculiar Wolverine-ish healing powers. But death remained a staple. What else could offer such a poignant representation of extreme failure?
I think it’s safe to say that Gaming Death reaps more but is significantly less grim than its real-world counterpart. Of course, I’m not referring to those instances where a digital life is ended forever – those still make us cry
– but rather those when the player hits a premature bump in the road, temporarily halting his advance, causing him to lose at least part of the progress he’d made.
What’s often overlooked is that in games, death itself is rarely “the worst that can happen to you”. That particular honour would go to another mainstay of single-player endeavours: repetition.
Pictured: not the worst that can happen to you.
I find it interesting, at least, to acknowledge how little things have changed over the years in this respect. The biggest difference between two randomly picked games would be the size of the part to be replayed through upon death. Some take you back to the latest save, some to the room entrance, some have checkpoints scattered around. Some, even in this day and age, remain old-school-oriented and leave you with a “Game over, try again” (Ikaruga
comes to mind). That’s acceptable; some games are about the challenge more than anything else. Others, however, present a peculiar idiosyncrasy – they claim to offer “immersive experiences”, achieve variable degrees of success, and inevitably proceed to yank the player out of said experiences multiple times during a single playthrough.
Besides the enforced repetition, that’s perhaps my biggest gripe with the trial-and-error system most games implement: game over screens. Many
will agree with me that immersion is a fundamental component in most single-player experiences. To have it broken up abruptly by something as cold and uninspiring as a simple game over screen is, to me, one of the most elementary pitfalls that game developers stumble upon. It basically equates to reminding you that you’re playing a game, which in many cases can be rather upsetting. Imagine engaging in some slow, sweet lovin’ with Megan Fox or Eva Mendez. Now google a picture of Maggie Thatcher. That’s pretty much what game over in Metal Gear Solid 4
Here, I'll save you the trouble...Snake? Snake!! SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!!!
2008’s Prince of Persia
offered an interesting alternative to the formula: many summarized it as “you can’t die”, although it was a little more complex and less radical than that. Basically, whenever you fell into a pit (or were forced down one by an enemy), your magically-endowed companion would teleport you back to safety. This was done by means of a brief, distinctive shot featuring the character’s hands grasping each other’s. The game received a lot of criticism (mostly from fans) for this choice, coupled with the fact that it was generally very easy to complete. I think it was a step in the right direction. In the end it was mostly cosmetic, but it did effectively eliminate the game over screen; you were still brought back to a previous point (you had to repeat the jumping puzzle from the start, and enemies would regenerate part of their health), so repetition was still a part of the picture. The game had its share of flaws, but the “You can’t die!” line of criticism was the most unfair of the bunch – you can’t really die in Braid
either now, can you?
Ironically enough, Prince of Persia
’s last-gen predecessors had a much more groundbreaking mechanic. The Sands of Time
trilogy provided the player with various powers to manipulate time, the most popular of the bunch being the “rewind” power. By using it, the player could literally rewind the action to a previous point, thus gaining an opportunity to correct the mistake that had caused his or her untimely death. It was exhilarating: get sliced in half by an enemy’s blade, die, rewind time, rise back up, let go, block the attack that was supposed to kill you, play on. Unfortunately, striking a balance between immersion and challenge is a very difficult endeavour, and even the Sands of Time
games ended up with the occasional game over screen – there was a limit to the number of times said power could be used.
More of this please
I’ve been playing Metroid Prime 2
for a quite a bit now. It’s a good game. The controls are a bit iffy and awkward for a first-person game (it’s the original Gamecube version), but that’s about as badly as I can criticize it. The atmosphere is top-notch and it really makes you feel like you’re stranded on a deserted alien planet, something which is often cited as one of the series’ strengths. Despite all of this, I’ve been moving at a snail's pace through that game. It’s been in my “now playing” list for a few months; I sometimes play it for a bit on Saturday morning, fall in love with its aesthetics and flow, meet a boss, die, repeat, die again and give up. Dying brings you back to the last save room; in some cases this means you have to replay a long exploration segment before the boss. In the days after that, when I’m deciding what to play, I tend to brush Metroid
aside – I don’t want to get up a couple of hours later and realize that I’ve just wasted time. Time is pretty much the most precious thing I have, despite what my choice of spending a significant part of it on videogames may indicate. If you want to create a boss that will abuse me, that’s fine. I will die multiple times, hopefully learn something new every time, and eventually overcome the obstacle. Just don’t force me to replay the same arbitrary, linear chunk of exploration before the boss every single time. I really don’t see the point in that, besides forcefully pulling me out of the beautifully crafted environment you’ve so meticulously immersed me into.
I don’t like games that force you to save, threatening you with loss of progress. Saving, like game over screens, is another extra-game aspect; I believe it should be made as inconspicuous as possible. Being able to save only at specific locations
is a perplexing act of cruelty upon the gamer. Samus shouldn’t have to backtrack through hordes of enemies just to “save the game” – especially not now that she has high-capacity storage mediums at her disposal. The game should take care of that for her, and leave her and the player to just enjoy the adventure. I may be off here, but I greatly prefer the GTA/Metal Gear Solid
approach of making saving the game during
a session irrelevant – saving is only something you do to record your progress once you decide you want out for the time being. And while I’m on the “saving the game” tangent here, let me stress that save rooms also have another annoying implication: it’s the game that decides when you should stop playing, and not vice versa. Is it really just me or is that a blatant absurdity?
Such a clever, groundbreaking idea...and already stale by 1997.
So where do we go from here? Let me take an excerpt from the definition of the word “game”, courtesy of Messrs. Merriam and Webster:
1.activity engaged in for diversion or amusement
2.a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other
3.any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle
The first definition is way too broad, so I'll just conveniently ignore it. The other two reference the basic idea of a competition of some sort between two opposing parties. I’m fine with competitive multiplayer games such as Street Fighter
or Pro Evolution Soccer
following such a definition; the whole point is that they’re games, with rules, between two or more players, with a clear winner to be defined. A single-player endeavour like the aforementioned Ikaruga
also falls into this category: the battle is between the player and the game, but it’s still as pure a test of skill as they come. I’m a bit more on the fence about the likes of Uncharted
. Sure, these are about the player going against a pre-written set of obstacles. The question is: should
they be? This is not some pet peeve of mine about semantics; by their own claim, these products rarely refer to themselves as “games”, preferring terms like “immersive adventure”, “realistic experience” and “endless feast”. Both of these examples, like countless others, use death as the same old tired gameplay device to provide a little challenge through trial and error. It’s OK; not everybody has to innovate. It’d be nice if someone
did though, every now and then. Haven’t we grown tired of this yet? Maybe it’s time to reconsider the whole basic concept of what we generically call “games”; maybe we don’t really want these experiences to have
Yeah yeah, I know, MGS4 joke. Go on, say it. It'll make you feel better. Oh, do I have to? Ok then...LONG CUTSCENES!! LOLOLOLOLOL
In case you didn’t know, I played and loved every LucasArts point’n’click adventure from the ‘80s-‘90s. With a few exceptions (early ones like Maniac Mansion
and Zak McKracken
, as well as the Indiana Jones
games) these games featured a fairly staunch no-death policy. In the Monkey Island
series, death is either a joke or an Easter egg, possibly both. They even had a cute little disclaimer describing this in their manuals, something along the lines of “we don’t believe in punishing you at every mistake, take your time and enjoy the ride”. They may have been helped in this by the genre’s uniqueness, and it may have been conceived as a not-so-veiled jab at their rivals, Sierra (dying was VERY easy in Sierra adventures). But the fact remained that exploring those imaginative environments without the chronic fear of making mistakes was incredibly enjoyable and refreshing. And all those games were still challenging, and still very, very good. They actually encouraged you to look around and try new ideas out, as crazy as they might’ve felt. I feel such an attitude has been progressively fading from the gaming world: the average single-player adventure today is more about teaching the player a set of rules and controls to get from A to B, rather than trying to spark the mind and the imagination with clever puzzles.
Let me just leave you with the last bit of the Merriam-Webster definition:
synonyms: see fun
There’s a simpler answer: the ultimate acid test. Perhaps it is a fitting term after all. Don’t include a mechanic in your game just because everybody else does. Even if it’s the oldest, most hallowed trick in the book.