Gamer Limit Banner

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.

  1. Heavy Rain did a fabulous job of keeping the narrative going even if a character dies. It’s a shame that it got such mixed responses from hardcore gamers because I thought that was well implemented, and would like to see that structure/mechanic in other games.

  2. avatar A.W.

    well, i have always said that if a game felt too easy, restrict yourself. challenge yourself to make it through a game on 1 try, or maybe giving yourself a limited number of “lives.” pledge that if your character dies, you will go all the way back to the beginning. then see how much you start to take it seriously.

    from the earliest days of home gaming, there have been games that were too easy, that you had to butch up yourself. For instance, let’s face it, hitman games are easy. So change it up. institute a rule that you must kill every bad guy. or harder yet, you can’t use disguises. that can be alot of fun.

  3. Sid Meier gave a wonderful speech at GDC earlier this year, and discussed the gamer mentality. One of the chief lessons he had to teach was that gamers want to win. Challenge them too much and they’ll say the computer is cheating. Games can only put players in danger as long as there’s a clear route to get out of that danger, and I think that any game where a main character could be permanently killed due to a single choice would face insane amounts of criticism.

    Game difficulty is a tough subject when even a master like Sid Meier just throws up his hands and eventually makes sure that the player wins. :)

  4. Heavy Rain did this very well, it was possible for every playable character to die and the story would not stop if that happened. I agree with Sean it was a shame it got mixed reviews especially now that we know there will be no DLC release.

    Also Demon’s Souls which recently released in Europe does an extremely good job of putting a new player in a constant sense of danger. Death is obviously never permanent, but you do feel pressured and “in danger” and understandably want to avoid death whenever possible. It may have been too hard for the average gamer but I have never played a game that made you feel as challenged without it also needing to use broken gameplay or bad design. I am looking at you ninja gaiden enemy attacking from off screen.

    • To both you and Sean – I totally agree! I actually considered mentioning Heavy Rain in the piece, but I didn’t have any personal experience with killing off any characters in that game, despite knowing that it was possible. I just didn’t want to spread misinformation in case I got some details wrong.

      Demon’s Souls is also a fantastic example, especially in your first few hours with it. Later on, the effect sort of wore off for me and I just became frustrated. Most of the time, it’s your fault when you die, but those few times where it is the game’s fault are really infuriating, especially if you end up losing a ton of souls.

    • I honestly can’t agree with Heavy Rain. In order for me to feel danger in a game I need to be invested in the characters. The character development in Heavy Rain is without a doubt one of the biggest reasons I hated the game. The relationships felt forced and rushed so I never could identify with any of it. It was so bad it was laughable. Because of that I never really cared what happened. I won’t even go into the plot holes in the game lol.

      Demon’s Souls I can’t agree with more! That game constantly put you in situations where you felt in danger because there was actually consequences – which are a large contributing factor to any game that makes you feel in danger. While I agree with Andrew that it is more often than not your own fault for dying, it is because you have control over these life or death scenarios that make it that much more meaningful. God I love that game.

    • Well I do agree with you a bit Kevin, a few characters were a little out there. I found I could relate to Jayden and Scott ok though. The game didn’t really have plot holes though, I will agree it most definitely didn’t take the time to lay it out clearly you had to “do the math” yourself.

  5. avatar BlackOpsBen

    It isn’t a question about how hard the game is. I’ve been frustrated out of my mind at how hard some games have been, but I’ve never felt in danger. Sure when you are about to die you might think, “crap I’m about to have to do that all over again,” but it’s immersion, attachment to characters and plot that creates a sense of danger.

    What games have been doing well is including optional game modes for those who do want extra challenge.

    The Ghost Recon games give me the feeling of urgency. The fact that (in the harder difficulties) one bullet is enough to kill you makes you act like you would in real life, not like in Halo where you run around with no care in the world.

  6. avatar JJ

    A sense of danger doesn’t necessarily derive from game difficulty. If it did, how could a movie ever give you a sense of danger, since you are never at any risk of “losing” at watching a movie? Danger is a carefully crafted effect that requires the designer to draw on fundamental human impulses and well-structured gameplay scenarios. Just increasing the difficulty of completion does nothing to induce a feeling of danger.

    As for the larger question of difficulty being fair or unfair, good or bad, it really is not as Sid Meier says, in my view. A game is a conversation between the player and the developer, and certain things just seem like poor or unfair design choices. For example, the game Nightshade on PS2 lost me about halfway through when I just had absolutely no idea what to do against a particular boss. After watching some videos online, I think that it involved using a very particular sequence of special moves at a very particular time…but the game gives you no hints. That’s not fun. Games designers should remember that games are not reality. In the real world, we can always investigate further and learn in our own way to solve problems, but in games we are stuck with the information the developer chooses to give us, so they had better give us the necessary info, in one form or another!

    In the same vein, developers should remember that games are not reality in the sense that difficulty is determined by the game’s dramatic needs, rather than by how “you would really behave.” When a movie shows a picture of the sun, I don’t want to GO BLIND in reality. Just make it bright enough to feel like it’s supposed to. Same thing goes for difficulty in games…don’t get too caught up in how these things “would be” if they were real, and just give the game the appropriate difficulty to keep players engaged and learning.

Leave a Reply