A few rejoinders to perma-death as a positive game feature…

Posted in Games, Interactive media by Keith Dowd on July 14, 2009

Just a quick follow-up to yesterday’s post: I’m not asserting that video games offer more intense, memorable, and immersive experience if they all completely removed the option to save and reload your game. Far from it. In fact, doing so would completely alienate and frustrate a significant percentage of the gaming community who are more interested in an easy-going, relaxed gaming experience. I mean, I think back to my days playing the wonderfully addictive Diablo 2 where I died over and over again, often in rapid succession, due to being overwhelmed by large forces of enemies.¬† Had each death resulted in me having to recreate my character from scratch, I would have gone crazy with rage and immediately quit playing the game. The same is true for World of Warcraft. So much investment is put into leveling, shaping, and equipping your characters in the game that permanent death is just outrageous. Furthermore, some game genres are all about experimentation and penalizing the player in this way for making a simple mistake is just foolhardy of any game developer.

But, going back to the point of my earlier post, having players incur a significant penalty upon death does increase the tension and, in some cases, the overall enjoyment of the game play experience. It makes your decisions and choices tangible. More real, in fact. The trick is not only coming up with fair but powerful penalties but also identifying the games where these penalties would serve to actually increase overall enjoyment of the game. Further, if such penalties are imposed on the player, even if they increase the immersion and connection the player makes with the game world, the general mechanics of the game must be thought out and implemented well. Can you imagine incurring some harsh debt, or even permanently dying, in a game like Tomb Raider if the collision detection programming was poor? Where, if you approached the edge of a cliff suspended high above a deep ravine, the game failed to accurately take into account how close your avatar’s feet were to this edge and concluded that you should fall to your death even if such a decision made no sense given the visual information presented on your screen? In such a case, not only is the sloppy programming no fun, but the fact that the sloppy programming caused your character to experience permanent death is just a slap in the face. A deal breaker. A precursor to the game console being powered off. So, in conclusion, I’m not advocating perma-death being a robust feature in games, but rather that the imminent feeling of death without the option of restarting from an earlier save state (or other stark penalty) can act to create powerful tension in games that pull the player more into the game world and bridge the player closer to his in-game representation.

Save game states reduce feelings of active danger…

Posted in Games, Interactive media by Keith Dowd on July 13, 2009

Several game bloggers are presently engaged in playing through Far Cry 2 in a self-imposed “Iron Man” mode, which refers to the player’s in-game death as signaling the end of the game despite having the capability to save and reload the game prior to the event that led to dying. In short, this adds an incredibly realistic dimension to the game play experience and arguably increases the emotional connection the players makes with his or her character since death permanently terminates the virtual existence of that character. Justin, over at Groping the Elephant, recently posted an experience he had in Far Cry 2 where an in-game firefight he was engaged in went south and instead of pressing F6 to reload to an early instance of the game, he instead made the quick decision to go with the flow and see what happens after “it all went horribly wrong”. He reports a series of particularly unique events that he would have been unlikely to experience had he not continued playing the game and ultimately suggests that players are often far too interested in achieving the perfect game play experience devoid of any hiccups are set backs, even though it is these very obstacles that are typically responsible for engendering a unique play experience. While I am also guilty of playing many games with this very same mindset, I do agree with his conclusion. In fact, I’m convinced that single player games that operate within the confines of narrative, such as the Call of Duty series, Fallout 3, and perhaps even Far Cry 2, are examples of games that are particularly likely to push this kind of playing strategy since the option to quickly reload and start anew (with the foresight of knowing what to now expect from the game due to already having experienced the encounter) is always only a single keystroke away.

But, what this post also led me to think about is a reason why I think MMO’s are so addictive as a game genre to some and such a powerful turn-off to others: their inherent design prevents backtracking. If you and a group of your buddies raid a dungeon populated with powerful enemies and difficult obstacles and you fail to overcome these challenges, there is no way to reload your game play experience to an earlier state wherein you can restart now having the knowledge gained from your previous defeat. Now, I am certainly aware that dungeons in most MMO’s are designed in such a way that enemy placement is always the same and the challenges that can be expected do not vary from one attempt at conquering the dungeon to another, but the chance that something can go horribly wrong during an enemy encounter without the option of jumping back to a previous save adds a crucial element of danger and intensity to all in-game encounters, which is an element that is, in general, largely missing from single player games.

In fact, when I recall my own personal favorite game play experiences  they all invariably took place while playing this or that MMO and involves an event where, as Justin so eloquently put it, everything went horribly wrong. Once, while playing World of Warcraft, for example, I linked up with a group of fellow players and we decided to raid a particularly difficult dungeon that we were honestly  ill-equipped for, both in terms of our player stats and equipment. Despite this limitation, we figured that if we progressed slowly and systematically through the different areas of the dungeon, being sure to only engage a limited number of enemies at any given time, we could theoretically arrive at its end victoriously. With this strategy as our mantra, we moved successfully from one section of the dungeon to another, dispatching foes with relative ease, until one of our magic casters pulled one too many enemies at once (due to an area-of-effect spell spilling over onto an adjacent group of enemies) causing our tactics to instantly shift from careful prodding to doing anything and everything we could to survive. Chaos inevitably ensued. Enemies were attacking us from all directions, spells were erupting from the fingers of our casters, our warriors were doing everything they could to kite incoming foes and keep them from attacking our more vulnerable allies, and our healer was struggling to keep us all alive by mass spamming his healing abilities. Despite the laughable pandemonium all around me, the thrill of this encounter, which occurred only as the result of a chance folly by one of our casters, was exhilarating chiefly because I knew the entire time that death was only a few mere moments away and there was no going back to the moment immediately prior to the action that triggered this devastating series of events.

We ultimately survived this encounter, even in the face of significant losses to our party, which only made this experience all the more epic and grand in scope. Some readers may point out that even if we had all died our only penalty would have been to incur some experience debt, loss of time necessary for recovering our corpses, and having to restart the dungeon from its very beginning, but even this relatively minimal set of penalties were powerful motivators to push us to avoid death and were able to create incredible tension when faced with the possibility of taking a dirt nap only further compounded by the fact that, when things went hairy, there was no way to avoid dealing with the situation-that is, no earlier save points to regress back to-regardless of whether its outcome was resounding triumph in the face of overwhelming odds or certain defeat at the hands of a powerful foe.

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