I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a total hypocrite when it comes to videogame difficulty. All at once, I find myself wishing that games presented more of a challenge, yet whenever I play an especially difficult game that makes me lose progress, I feel that my time is being wasted. One thing I know for sure is this: even when trudging through an especially difficult game, I rarely feel truly threatened.
In modern experiences, the simple fact is that true feelings of danger are hard to come by. We’re given experiences with the ability to save anywhere, liberal checkpoints, and overall low difficulty, and in many ways, I wouldn’t trade this for anything. Given this, how can games at the very least achieve the illusion of putting us in grave danger at every corner?
Alpha Protocol is a game that initially succeeds in making the player believe that each conversation could end in disaster if the wrong conversational choice is selected. Piss a particular character off, and you might not come out of the conversation alive.
However, the more you play, the more you realize that you’re never in any real danger during a chat. Even if you do manage to piss someone off enough to elicit a physical response, you’re simply thrown into a typical combat situation where you’re in no more danger than usual. By the end of the game, the illusion of danger is largely gone.
The underlying issue is that videogame mechanics have essentially made all videogame characters immortal. We cannot finish a videogame if our main character dies, right? Even in the most frightening survival horror game, we know that our death is nothing but a sentence to travel back in time to the last save.
Some games have moved away from this path to some extent, but their victories are limited. Mass Effect 2 has one of the most tense ending sequences I’ve ever experienced, as I knew that my choices throughout the game could lead to the (semi) permanent deaths of squadmates or even Shepard herself. The possibility of permanent death for those you care about, and the very character you inhabit, is the very element needed to make that final sequence feel dangerous.
However, that same sense of danger isn’t present up to that point, as the game can’t very well kill off Shepard (again) before the player has seen half of the game’s content. A developer can’t rob the player of the ability to experience the game’s narrative simply because it wants to make an interesting design choice.
However, there are some simple – and not-so-simple – ways that games can make the player feel like danger is a truly present threat. Uncharted 2 uses scripted gameplay events to put the player into insane situations. How can jumping from one crumbling building to another be anything but dangerous? If your design is strong enough, you can create the illusion of danger even when no danger exists; no matter how poorly Nathan jumps, he’ll eventually land safely in that adjacent building.
However, some intrepid developer is going to blow the potential of scripted sequences out of the water with a brilliant new gameplay mechanic. Mass Effect 2 came close, providing permanent player death when a sequel is planned (though it’s unclear how this will affect the third game, but it’s unlikely to be as ambitious as we dream).
A dream I have is a narrative-driven game in which death is always permanent, but the narrative always moves forward right up until the end. Given a single main character, players would begin by playing as usual, up until the point the character is killed, which could occur at any given time. Once that character was killed, he or she would be gone forever, and player control would move to a secondary character. Players would continue the narrative, moving from character to character. Kill everyone? That’s the end of your story, despite the many chances you were given.
I can’t even begin to imagine the design disaster this sort of game would create for a developer, but I can think of few mechanics that would give the player a greater sense of danger while playing. It goes far beyond the permanent death of plentiful secondary characters as in Valkyria Chronicles, and even rises above the game-stopping permanent death of many RPG hardcore modes.
While it may be many, many years before we see anything quite like this, I think there are many ways that games can put players in more danger that diverge from “give the player less health or ammo.” While the risk of alienating players is always present, a crafty developer should have no problem upping the danger without providing undue frustration.
Are games putting us in enough danger, and if not, how should games go about making it feel like the events in their narratives really do put protagonists in danger? Go ahead and play game designer, and hit up the comments or write a Gamer Limit blog and let us know your brilliant idea.