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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Death in Video Games - A Disengaging Practice

There are moments in video games that are absolutely thrilling. Usually found at the end of an epic cutscene, coupled with a big musical score, and behind the eyes of the main protagonist. These moments make you feel invincible, unstoppable.

That is of course until you die, and are forced to restart that chapter. Sometimes repeatedly depending on the situation.

It's never really been something that I noticed until Medal of Honor: Warfighter. It seemed like every time I turned around I was replaying a scene I had just gone through. Does this mean I was terrible at the game? Not really. I was just trying to run through the entire thing because it was so terrible.

Then I noticed it heavily in Halo 4. Entire sections of story set up beautifully, only to be halted by my death. Which in itself is a strange gameplay element as my character hasn't necessarily "died". My progression has simply been stopped.

Stopping the progression of a story isn't typically something that writers want to have happen. Except in video games where it happens constantly.

The easiest way to relate this insane notion I am trying to convey is to compare it to a book. How many times while reading a book have you been forced to restart the chapter? No, I'm not talking about your mind wandering or outside influences altering your ability to continue reading. I'm talking about situations where the elements of said book cause you to have to restart.

The answer is simple - it's never happened. This is because when telling a story the last thing you ever want to happen is to disengage your reader. Same thing happens with movies. You'll never be forced to re-watch a section of a movie by the natural elements of the movie itself. Video games are different as they don't abide by these rules. There is absolutely nothing more disengaging then being in the middle of a cinematic masterpiece only to be removed by a restart due to a simple player mistake.

I posed this idea on Twitter this morning hoping for a few responses and was pleasantly greeted with a few. The conversation that followed more or less stemmed around the idea that while video games certainly do halt your progress, they have the right to re-test your skill. They should not however have the right to force you to replay sections of the story.

The problem is that it's nearly impossible to separate the two. How can a game be created to engage you, the player, in a never-ending story all while being challenging enough to make the experience enjoyable?

There are games that have been close. Far Cry 2 makes it very difficult to die, giving you that feeling of ultimate power and continuous story-telling. The majority of open-world, sandbox-style games also mostly succeed at never taking you out of the action even if your character was to "die". Prey was probably the closest game to accomplishing this. It's mainly shooters that suffer from this issue. Games like Call of Duty, Dead Space, Medal of Honor, Halo, and especially Max Payne 3 are all great examples of "death" causing a severe disconnect from the story.

So what's the solution? I'll be honest - I don't have the answer. All I know is that if developers want to bridge the gap between video games and movies they need to start here. I'm obviously not in favor of ridding video games of character deaths. They are a necessary evil. I'm concerned with how deaths are approached, hoping for some sort of innovation.

The simple solution would be to develop easier games if they are specifically story driven. The problem then arises with the distinction between a video game, an interactive movie, and what gamers really want.

I'll leave the question open to you. If death in video games is the sole reason for this disengagement, what would you do to solve it? Or, for those of you out there who undoubtedly won't agree with me, is there even an issue at all?
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