By John Walker on September 18th, 2008 at 10:12 pm.
I have a challenge, developers. I know you’re reading. I want a high profile, big budget, mainstream action game in which the player character is invincible. I believe that the next truly great game will be the one that does this.
Games have come close. There have obviously been infinite lives for many. Mario, as he ages, becomes far more generous with his back-up existences – anyone who played Galaxy will know it was hard to have few than a few dozen laying around. Then of course there’s Quicksave, which creates an artificial invincibility, so long as you remember to hammer it frequently enough. And perhaps the closest to the goal would be time travel, with games like Prince of Persia and Braid demonstrating that you can have a great deal more fun if you’re not constantly condemned to death.
However, they’re all still a significant distance from my desired goal. I want a character who cannot be harmed. Impervious to bullets. Unbothered by spikes. Swinging blades? They bounce off him or her. Falling from the top of a giant building? A nice, safe thud at the bottom. This person, for whatever narrative reason, simply cannot die.
This of course doesn’t mean he or she is otherwise supernatural. A wall is still a wall, and if it cannot be broken, it cannot be broken. An impassable cliff face cannot be mysteriously ascended. Swathes of enemies still impede progress, their blasts of laser fire sending you reeling backward. And, most of all, actions can have consequences. You may not die, but you can still regret.
I interject here for clarity – I’m not talking about games where death changes nothing. A regular MMO will bring you back to life with minimal penalty, your pre-death actions still seeing their results in the world (well, to a point, clearly – the dragon you killed is probably alive again by now, but that had nothing to do with your demise). But if anything, an MMO kills you far more often, and in far more ways, than most games, lacking the rescuing Quickload. We’re talking about a game in which you never, ever die.
This isn’t just some peculiar fantasy of mine. There’s a purpose behind this challenge. Imagine the difference it would make to a game’s design. Imagine the old, reliable themes that would no longer be there to keep a weak scene buoyant. Imagine how inconvenient it would be to the average action game if falling down a hole wasn’t a way to kill you.
Of course Prince of Persia deserves another mention here. When Sands Of Time was first revealed in Montreal in 2003, I was one of a group of journalists staring slack-jawed at the screen in sheer wonder at the painful obviousness of it. This didn’t happen when we were first shown it on the big screen. It looked nice there, but it didn’t yet make sense. It was when we were sat down to play it for ourselves.
The idea for rewinding time came to producer Yannis Mallat while he was in the shower. It was an idea so good that when PoP creator Jordan Mechner heard it, he moved himself and his family to Canada, so he could oversee the game. These are big, important moments. It’s time for another.
I was playing Sands of Time that day for quite a while before I used the sand. PoP’s excellent acrobatics were instinctive and simple, letting me perform superb moves without much trouble. But then I messed up a big jump, and watched as I fell to my death. Years of ingrained training had taught my immediate reaction: Oh crap, when did I last save? How much will I have to do again. I hate it when… wait a second. And I jabbed the Rewind button and watched my error so beautifully undo itself before me.
I can’t capture that moment for you, but I can show you this:
That sort of thing.
But then you run out of sand. The glass goes empty, and some big, stupid baddy twats you with a sword, and you’re gone. At that point that Rewind button becomes accursed. You hit it, despite knowing it won’t do anything. You hammer at it uselessly, watching the stupid, dead Prince slump to the ground.
Think of any first-person shooter. In fact, don’t. Think of Half-Life 2 Episodes. Valve make their games in a much discussed (and yet all too often ignored by the developing community against all reason) way – they playtest the code with outsiders every single week of development, the dev team forced to watch helplessly as Joe Public haplessly fumbles with the current build. They take notes, noticing when the player gets stuck, when they stare in confusion at a wall for fifteen minutes, when they get lost, and most of all, when it’s not clear what they should be doing next.
They then go back into their game knowing exactly what needs work. They reiterate, and refine, and the result is games that glide like a buttery penguin on an ice rink. Valve take this even further. After Episode One was released, their frightening Steam-based spybots noticed that many players were getting horribly stuck in the car tunnels. People were dying down there an awful lot, and as a result, very many just gave up on the game at that point. It’s Valve’s desire that people see all of the game they made (despite already having that person’s money, which is quite nice), so they released an update that made the sequence simpler. People preferred the game, and far more people went on to complete it.
I don’t say this to celebrate Valve, although certainly I think they deserve it in this instance. I say it because it so helpfully demonstrates that people don’t want to die over and over again. Difficult sections in games are a good thing. Dying because it’s difficult is not. And that’s my challenge.
I want games to get more difficult because they are more challenging, not because they are more deadly. In my utopia, cranking the difficulty level at the beginning of a new game would not increase the number of enemies intent on your death, or weaken your defences to their attacks, but rather make the game more challenging. And I think the best proof of this would be the first developer to create a game in which you simply cannot die.
Let me be clear. I am in no way talking about simplifying games. A badly implemented understanding of Valve’s iteration process could lead to a stupefyingly easy game, which doesn’t kill you simply because you’d have to actively seek out death and jump into it. My challenge is to make a game that’s every bit as involved, frightening, imposing and impactful as the best action games out there, but without being able to dangle the scythe of Death over your head.
Imagine what would have to happen. Removing the overly familiar would force a developer to think in brand new ways. People wouldn’t be fooled by a lousy physics puzzle every fifteen steps, they’d want a lot more. Think of what new, inspired scenarios we’d encounter to push us to our gaming limits, without their relying on wearing away at my life bar. Don’t ask me what they would be – that’s not my problem! There are amazing, imaginative minds in this industry whose job it is to invent such things. Minds I argue that aren’t being exercised, because of the gaming default of, “Oh, just make it hard not to die in this bit.”
So who’s going to take me up on this? Make a pledge. Pledge to be the developer who will set out to make this breakthrough.