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Editor’s Note: I’m promoting this story not because Omar refers to me as some sort of voice of God in it, but because he brings up some great points on the subject of death in videogames. Check it out. -Greg.
It was July 1. It was a Wednesday. It was 2 p.m., and as I had come to expect, I faced some early-afternoon downtime at work. Fighting boredom, I glanced over the usual gauntlet of websites and updated my Facebook status. By the time Episode 21 of The Geekbox had completed its download, my stomach’s groaning couldn’t be ignored any longer. I got up, threw on my jacket, grabbed my wallet, and headed out.
I found myself instinctively walking toward the food court at the mall, so I stopped myself. I turned and walked in the other direction, toward the grocery store, figuring I had indulged in enough milkshakes for one week. Walking awkwardly through the crowded sidewalks, I had my headphones wrapped around my head, with the comforting tones of Jake Jensen’s opening Geekbox theme playing at the highest volume.
World of WarCraft is noticeably intelligent in the way it deals with death. It is impermanent and fair, yet the punishment is severe enought to constitute a "learning experience."
Trying to follow a heated conversation usually means the rest of your actions are an afterthought, and so, when I crossed the street, I didn’t notice the steady stream of cars coming in my direction. I was about halfway across the four-laned street when I heard the first car horn. My stomach turned into a tight knot and my body froze as I turned my head to reveal an enormous truck aimed directly at me. The driver tried, fruitlessly, to bring the truck to a halt. Petrified, my mind raced and I was stricken by a sense of futility.
I was about to die.
And yet, my life didn’t flash before my eyes, time didn’t slow down, and nothing magical happened. Confused, I thought I heard the voice of God.
I quickly came to my senses, realizing that the (no offense) lispy, whiney, West Coast accent didn’t belong to God, but instead, belonged to Greg Ford. I was going to die, and my only comfort was the thought of Greg Ford soliciting the women of the Bay Area in the name of Andrew Fitch. What the hell…
For those of you worried that I may have died last week, I didn’t. I’m very much alive. The truck nudged me at about 2 km/h — I hit the ground and began laughing hysterically. After avoiding the terrible possibility of death, I felt like a kid who had stepped off a rollercoaster. Looking back, a part of me wishes I could communicate the sheer intensity of that experience in some form to someone else. A book wouldn’t do it, and I know that the deaths in films rarely do the job of expressing the jarring fear associated with it.
Counter-Strike, like many popular online first-person shooters, employs a spectator system. You’re given a period of time (usually until the end of the round) to sit out as punishment. Spectating also provides you the opportunity to review and learn from the players who are still in the game.
Upon reflection, I’m quickly reminded of how often I’ve thrown controllers, slammed on my keyboard, and cursed loudly after an untimely death in a videogame. Maybe games have the capacity to articulate what I felt as the 10-ton truck was barreling toward me. But before we get to that, we have to ask ourselves a few important questions, and we have to look at how videogames have dealt with death in the past.
Should videogames punish failure to such an extreme standard or should failure be a learning experience? As a player, would you want a high cost associated with dying, or would you like to be treated with leniency?
The cost of dying varies from game to game, and from genre to genre. Some games force you to return to the title screen after dying, and some let you continue from that very same spot. Most games have a checkpoint system or a save system. In some cases these two mechanics make death merely a nuissance, but if the designer hasn’t placed enough checkpoints or if you forget to hit that "quick save" button, death can become a really big deal.
When I mentioned the word "cost," I didn’t mean to refer the quantity of gold you need to pay to repair your gear in WOW. The word "cost" refers to time investment, emotional attachment, and opportunity cost. How much time do you waste and how much effort do you throw away by dying?
Steel Battalion was especially unforgiving. Permanent death. That’s right. If you fail to eject from your cockpit in time, you die. Your character is gone. Your saved files are gone. And all you’re left with is a "Don’t qq, gl next time."
The science-fiction shooter Prey sends you to a spirit world upon death. You have to complete a short minigame before you’re allowed to return to the living world and continue killing aliens.
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway allows the player to choose his or her own cost. When a squadmate catches a bullet, you are prompted with the option of either keeping him dead or reviving him (the unrealistic alternative).
Some games ignore the entire notion of death. PlayStation 3 exclusive Flower throws the notion of failure and objectivization out of the window. The game does away with stress-inducing mechanics, allowing the player to manage things in his or her own rhythm.
How do magnanimity and callousness in a game effect the fun you have? Contra, with its three lives, is absolutely different from Sonic & Knuckles, which allows the player to collect more lives and offers unlimited continues. And yet, both games are unbearably entertaining.
Certainly, the heavier the penalty, the more the game feels like actual death. But is that what you want? Reading Matthew Erazo’s article on the "10 hardest games," it’s clear that although a harsh death penalty doesn’t necessarily make a game less appealing, it makes the appeal especially more difficult to find. It seems as though developers have a very fine line to draw if they intend to make death realistic.
Those rings are all that stand between you and death. Better hold onto them!
I used to play in the Intermediate League of the Cyberathletes League for Counter-Strike 1.6. I was still only 16, and at that age, keeping your ego in check can be difficult. While I thought I was invincible, I reconciled with the inevitability of death. So every time I entered a ranked or supervised game, I knew that I would be killed eventually. Yet every time I died I still became wildly frustrated. I remember becoming worn down eventually after bereaving my own death for the 20th time. So maybe death should be a little more lighthearted?
Many of us don’t want to be so perturbed by death in videogames, and we would rather save the "intensity" for the actual thing.
Most gamers simply want to jump on one or two Goombas, pick up a mushroom, and grab the flagpole at the end of the level, which is fine. I don’t expect all videogames to be lifelike emulations. But for games that have a genuine message or story about human life, perhaps it is important to highlight the gravity of death.
Reviving your teammate shouldn’t necessarily be as easy as screaming, "Fight through the pain." Death in a game like Fallout 3 should be fill the player with a sense of fear and anger, especially after you’ve sunk so many hours into improving and leveling your character. After being crushed in Red Faction, you ought to be made felt small and stupid before you’re given a second chance.
It seems like videogames are struggling with the notion of death and how to impliment the mechanic into the game intelligently. Most games treat death as a speed bump, a short pit stop on the road to victory. Maybe it’s the fact that we know so little about death that makes it difficult to convey in a videogame. Realistically, death is the ultimate unknown.
At any rate, I certainly hope that games developers strike a creative balance in designing "death" before I die!
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