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How can game requirements (loading screens, save points, deaths...) improve the experience; PART 1

How can you improve the game experience by using the media's requirements. Today in PART 1: Dying and trying again

Adam Rebika, Blogger

July 20, 2012

7 Min Read

Many game designers seek immersion as a holy grail. Immersion means everything, and anything can be sacrified to it.
Except, just like the holy grail, total and perfect immersion can not be achieved. Of course, you can, in games maybe much more than in any other media, achieve high levels of partial immersion, especially horror games, but at every moment, the player knows it's only fictionnal and he's just pushing buttons to have his character move around. There isn't a single second when he forgets he's playing a game.

So, let's not try to fight this. Maybe we can use it to our advantage ? Actually, we can, and some skilled designers already have. How, you'd ask ? Well, here are some examples.

Round 1 : Failing and trying again

  • The mechanic

This is the most basic thing in a game. You try, you fail, you try again. Except, this mechanic actually stabs immersion, then laughs at its funeral and does obscene things to its grave.
Especially since the player remembers why he died the last time and will act accordingly to it. Imagine you're in the middle of a fight, when ennemy reinforcements come from behind and kill you. And you know what happens next ? We've all been through there (especially the Fire Emblem fans). After one or two unsuccessful tries, you get to know exactly when will the new ennemies come, and this time you're ready for them. You've won at the cost of immersion.

  • Those who flee

There are some who try to avoid this. Here are some examples :


    • Permadeath. No, just kidding. What ? Some games do it for real ? The problem is that it can bring a lot of frustration to the player (losing your character that you have spent hours playing with), which is never ever a good thing. It can still be a fine mechanic for shorter games, such as The Binding of Isaac, or the recent Arma II mod Day Z. This mechanic can be widened to include games that can be finished in one single session, such as many strategy games (yeah, losing at Civilization is a form of permadeath since you'll usually start a new game from scratch after that).

    • Randomization. If when you try again, things happen differently this time, then you won't be ready for what happens next. I, for one, am not a big fan of randomization, since it takes away the control from the designers and gives it to a bunch of algorithms. Now again, it can work well in some cases, such as The Binding of Isaac again. Actually, in short games, those two previous mechanics work very well together.

    • More developped AI and world interaction. If the ennemies react to what you do, then trying to predict their behaviour according to what they did last time is pointless. One example is Deus Ex : Human Revolution. I actually was playing this game (who had been staying on my desk gathering dusk for a bit too long) ten minutes ago. I was in an office, with two guard patrolling around. Playing a stealth build, I tried to knock both of them out with my tranquilizer rifle. The first time, I failed since the second guard saw the first one down and rushed toward the alarm. The second time I succeeded because, instead of turning on the alarm, he tried to wake up his friend.

    • Trying to implement it in the story. If you remember playing Prince of Persia : The Sands of Time, the game was actually the main character telling his story to another character. So, whenever you died, he just pretended that he got the story wrong. I respect the fact that they tried, but obviously, it did not work at all (who would make a mistake by telling "I fell down that bottomless pit" instead of "I jumped over it" while telling a story?).

  • Those who use it

Batman Arkham Asylum

Batman Arkham Asylum

Batman Arkham Asylum. Well, not during most of the game, but there is one particuliar scene I want to get back to. At one point in the game, Batman gets heavily drugged by the Scarecrow, and starts seeing and feeling things : hallucinations, distorded memories, loss of control and eventually his own death, that he overcomes to fight the Scarecrow in one final battle. Here is the scene:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9NQw4U_JyY&feature=related
Now, the idea behing all this is that the designers decided not to show what Batman saw, but how he felt. The hallucinations are when the player sees the game glitching.
The distorded memories come from the fact that this is a new version of the game's opening (where it is the Joker who is Batman's prisonner), which is the oldest memory Batman and the player actually share. Death comes as a game over screen, which, despite the player knowing that this is a cutscene, instinctively reminds him of every time he failed. Loss of control comes from the fact that the player has to walk a straight path, in the sight of everyone while the game is pretty open worlded where you keep on hiding, running and jumping your way through the asylum. This last point is reinforced by the fact that the player loses all his abilities and equipment during that scene, which makes him kinda frustrated (especially since you have to walk, gamers hate walking in games) and by another element that can't be seen in this video: usually, as you die, you get some tips the help you avoid this failure, and the tip given here is "avoid bullets with the middle stick".
 The designers used video game conventions to convey feelings, not images. To a player, death looks like a game over screen. If they had shown Batman lying on the ground, then it would only have felt like a cinematic where Batman is supposed to feel dead. And to continue the game, you even need to select "retry", which pretty much means that Batman got controlled by the drugs once, then tried again to resist them and succeeded: him getting back to his senses is translated by the player getting back in control of his character.



 Limbo. In this game, death is a central element. Everything is in black and white, faces are reduced to their most basic features, and everything in the environment is either : dead, trying to kill you or trying to kill you in the most violent way possible. Which means that you die a lot in this game, and have to retry every action two, threee or more times on your first playthrough. In most games, this would only lead to frustration and immersion breach - such games where the challenge and the race for high scores become the best motivation to keep on playing. But Limbo isn't that challenging, and has no score system except for basic achievments that can be unlocked. How does Limbo manage to walk its way around the death trap? By making each death unique. In this game you can be impaled, thrown into the void, electrocuted, dismembered, eaten, drowned,... And every death has an animation of its own, which means that almost every time you die, you discover something new and kinda painful actually. Just watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7z60YyuJsk. Here is a perfect example of how the most basic gameplay mechanic can brillantly serve the design.

Super Meat Boy

Super Meat Boy

  Super Meat Boy. Of course, one can't talk about trying again and again in a video game without talking about Super Meat Boy. I believe that here, the designers have found a very basic truth: people take pleasure from trying again and again until succeeding, but hate waiting between each try. I think we've all been through there, stuck in a boss fight where the previous save point in right before an unskippable cutscene. The solution here is to minimize the waiting time (well, to pretty much delete it) so that dying is in no way a gameplay breach. The player is so focused on the action that he takes no time to let his mind wander away from the game. Team meat has even pushed the concept far enough to make reflect this idea of repeated death in the main character's design, something that cannot be afforded by every game, but that is still very apprecied.

So, this is the  end of part I. See you soon for the next round of this battle: Save points!

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