Counterpoint: Peril in Games

The Walking Dead

Welcome to another round of GamerNode’s Counterpoint, where a handful of our editors come together to discuss and debate a controversial gaming topic.

coun·ter·point n \kaūn-tər-pōint\
1. The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.
2. A contrasting but parallel element, item, or theme.

As we here at GamerNode reflected on this past year’s best games for the 2012 Nodie Awards,  we came to an impasse. Games like The Walking Dead, FTL, and Mark of the Ninja received critical acclaim in 2012 (us included), so we broke down these titles and debated one of their principle elements: peril. The inclusion of permadeaths, consequences, and scarce retries factor into what makes these games compelling. The question is: does having them make the game more compelling? If you know you don’t have all the tries in the world to complete an objective, is there a greater sense of reward once completed? Or is better if a game has no consequences? Are checkpoints better for the experience?

Greg Galiffa: “Neo-NES experience versus the more common ‘try and try again’ approach”

Since playing FTL, and with the popularity of The Walking Dead, 2012 belonged to the one-shot games. Having played multiple stealth games last fall – Assassin’s Creed III, Hitman: Absolution, Dishonored, etc. – I spammed auto-save checkpoints like a champ. When I thought back to FTL (also indie title Red Rogue), I realized I enjoyed permadeath and roguelike games more than the experiences that I’d alter over and over.

I read an article at Rock Paper Shotgun about this same idea. The author, Jim Rossignol, argued that games are more fun when there are strong consequences. When it makes you live with mistakes made, the end result is more engaging. I agree. More games should have, as Rossignol puts it, peril. I’ve played through Street Fighter X Mega Man a few times and I always want to go back to it, despite having to start all over. It’s a neo-NES experience versus the more common “try and try again” approach.

For example, Mass Effect 3 did well to craft the game around your choices, but I didn’t feel anxious running around the galaxy. The game launches because of the impending Reaper attack, but that doom detaches from the narrative save for times Hackett remindes you it’s still coming. Like, “Yo dawg, Reapers are on their way. Get it together. Hackett – OUT.” Had there been more direct consequences for wasting time around the galaxy, it would have made the game stronger and married the narrative with the gameplay more meaningfully. Of course, the issue is barrier to entry. Consequence is only popular to a certain extent. Games need to have some degree of accessibility for marketing reasons. Still, I’d love to see more games that said “No” to my request for a retry.

Assassin's Creed III

Mike Murphy: “Having peril where it means constant failure and restarting can be incredibly infuriating and unnecessary”

Peril is good in certain situations and for certain titles, like The Walking Dead and XCOM. These are games where you can lose characters and the story can change and continue, very much like Heavy Rain, but it won’t cause you to have a “Game Over” screen. Having peril where it means constant failure and restarting can be incredibly infuriating and unnecessary. And I don’t think having that peril is truly the point for games like Assassin’s Creed III, Hitman, and Dishonored.

As you said, consequence can only be popular to a certain extent. I, for one, am fine with being able to quick save and restart so that I can continue to experience the narrative instead of being punished for some careless mistake or unpredictable difficulty. With regards to your comments on Mass Effect 3, I don’t know how you didn’t see that the Reapers were coming and creating peril when you take into consideration that they were attacking just about every freaking planet you landed on. And peril was created because you didn’t know which of the non-party characters who played important roles in ME1 and ME2 were going to live or die (Wrex, Mordin, Jack, Thane, etc.). Though to your point, that was all because of predetermined narrative and couldn’t be changed by your choices, like the decision between saving either Ashley or Kaiden in the original Mass Effect.

Dan Crabtree: “We’re talking about the convergence of emergent and authored narrative”

I think Mike is super right about some games just not being built with the intention of perilous consequence. What I’m hearing Greg say, though, is not that Assassin’s Creed III should have peril, but that he’s just digging games that do. And clearly, with all of The Walking Dead‘s GOTY nods, other folks do, too.

On a higher level, we’re talking about the convergence of emergent and authored narrative (I KNOW, MIKE, I’M SORRY). Mario has been in peril since 1983, but it’s the fleeting peril of restarting a level or going back to the last save. And in the earliest era of gaming, authored narrative took a huuuuuge backseat to emergent narrative. I’d argue that arcades were the first folks to understand peril and consequence in gaming, and then they (mostly the game makers producing the cabinets) figured out how to capitalize on that. With, you know, money. Money staving off death.

Then arcades blew away like a White House intern and as gaming moved into the 64-bit era, developers became a lot more forgiving. I think a piece of that was the invention of removable data storage for saves, part of it was the ability to create worlds we could INHABIT instead of just traverse. I’m sure there’s a more complex answer there, but games just got a lot easier. Even some of my favorite hard games today (mostly platformers like Rayman Origins, Donkey Kong Country Returns) offer a path through the game that doesn’t require mastery and doesn’t employ memorable consequence. Again, I’m not railing on this; I’m mostly asserting that there’s a tradition behind some of these development decisions, and that Dark Souls wasn’t the first game to be super hard.

I have not enjoyed ZombiU. My zombie apocalypse fantasy is much more in line with Day Z (I haven’t actually played it). Like Far Cry 3, I want to be able to fail and keep all the goodness – ALL OF IT – for which I’ve been working for the rest of the game, not just some ammo or a gun or two. TAT ME UP, BRO. I’m decidedly anti-arcade mode these days. I think achievements have played into the desire for more permanence in my successes, and less in my failures.

To bring it back to the discussion of narrative: When game developer toolsets became more sophisticated, enabling designers and writers (my god, the writers) to tell complex stories much more easily, it only made sense that they use those tools to tell stories. Namely, stories that they wrote. It’s taken some time for the conversation about games, between game developers, to turn from “How can we tell a cooler story in a game?” to “How can we make the game a better story?” Authored to emergent narrative, I’d argue.

And then on the other side, we’re already seeing developers push back against even that impulse and say, “What’s the least I can do to tell an emergent narrative, so that the one element that IS emergent really shines.” I’m thinking expressly about Dear Esther here, but I have to imagine Unfinished Swan falls into that category as well. I’m super fascinated by all of this, and still love playing games without hardcore consequences, because they often excel in something else. Mark o’ the Ninja (an Irish port), I’m looking at you.

That said, I get where folks are coming from with all the love for FTL, The Walking Dead, ZombiU, and kin. You’re all just wrong.

Eddie Inzauto: “We don’t play games to ‘not die’ “

“Games are more fun when there is strong consequence. When it makes you live with mistakes made, the end result is more engaging.” That statement is wrong. And not only because it’s one man’s opinion.

Sure, other players, perhaps those interested only in being told a story, might prefer no consequences for their external input at all, and would rather limit consequences to those spurred by character actions within a game’s narrative. But it’s more than just a black-and-white distinction or even a difference in preferences between individuals. Video games are far too multi-faceted to pin down a particular element that determines their capacity to engage.

Even when examining consequence, it’s important to note that there are other rewards involved in those games that instill a sense of peril. We don’t play games to “not die.” I’d be hard pressed to concur that success can be measured in “not-failures.” In each example of games that threaten us, the greater scope of the experience points us to some compelling definition of value for the time and effort we invest in it. These rewards or win states commonly overlap between players, but are also personal to a degree.

In most cases, peril serves as just one flavor of the more universal concept of urgency, which exists as a foundational element of this spectrum of rewards. How urgent a player deems the acquisition of a game’s rewards to be will dictate his or her level of engagement in the journey to capture that reward. It will also directly correlate with the perceived extremity of the game’s consequences.

I would contend that Greg’s distinction between games, however, has more to do with cohesion versus interruption. Games that force a player to live with the consequences of his or her actions and continue playing remain cohesive throughout the experience. Deaths, restarts, sidequests, distractions… save-game, checkpoint, quest-giver, map-marker…. All of these things break a player’s connection to a game world by bisecting what we instinctively expect to be continuous circuits of both narrative and play. I could craft a bunch of analogies here, but suffice it to say that interruptions to these things are universally negative.

While I do think that peril helps to focus a (certain type of) gamer, I don’t think that’s the only factor at play when it comes to their ultimate enjoyment, or the viability of a game’s design. And as for emergent narrative, yeah, an emergent game doesn’t stop to say, “Oh shiz, you effed it up. Hold on. Go back and do it how I planned it.” It’s more like, “Cool, yeah, try that. Let’s see what happens next.” I guess I prefer a chill roommate to an OCD one.

Mark of the Ninja

Greg:  “It creates a more believable gaming realm”

I’m not saying consequence is the only way a game can be thrilling. I’m also not saying games with safety nets are obsolete. Those experiences are just outside the engrossment of the titles I’ve mentioned. ACIII is weak because it clutters the world with unnecessary challenges, or distractions as Eddie would say. In games that push for more choice and more mastery, those distractions are normally vacant. They’re instead replaced with competent mechanics and sometimes paralyzing narrative.

Not dying is not what it’s about either. It’s about choice and strategy that, if handled without care, dynamically alter my story. It creates a more believable gaming realm. For something to feel earned I need to guess and be pushed. Urgency is lost in games that allow constant trial and error. But of course, I do enjoy those games. Uncharted 2 had some brilliant, linear moments. If I failed them, the game was very forgiving with retries. And it was a lot of fun.

Still, I’m realizing that consequential games challenge me in a way that makes my characters’ narrative resonate more than with titles I plow through in a few hours. I think the first Mass Effect is a great example of a game that aligned these two points – consequence and narrative – near perfectly. By the end, I was so invested in what I had experienced because of what my choices meant to the characters and to the universe, which was more fulfilling because I was able to explore most planets I encountered.  With the later installments, the narrative was less organic, which made my choices feel less attached to the overall plot, which made my time with the game less meaningful. Except for Tali and the Geth portion of ME3. Almost tears, guys. Almost. Tears.

And as Mike said, peril/choice/consequence aren’t meant for all games. I just hope more games consider them in the future.

Pack a punch with the upgraded weaponry.

Eddie: “What is urgent to you may not be to someone else”

That’s fair. I’m far more acquiescent to the term “consequence” over “peril,” too. But again, what is urgent to you may not be to someone else, right? To you, it’s connection with narrative, but to someone else, psychologically satisfaction may be dependent on reaching level whatever in Azeroth or becoming top-ranked among the competition in Call of Halofield (please don’t get on me for that one; I’m not saying they’re all the same).

I personally derive more pleasure from the types you’re talking about, for sure, but I also find urgency in a large world to explore. The more that is unknown, the more compelled I am to spend hours exploring, discovering, and learning. Knowing that I’m missing out on something out there drives me to remedy that “problem” with my play experience.

What I’m saying, then, is that I don’t disagree with you from my personal play perspective, or that you’re wrong, Greg, but that this can never authentically be a universal discussion, because in a way, engagement depends on choice, or natural inclination.


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Author: Greg Galiffa View all posts by
Greg Galiffa is an Associate Editor at GamerNode. He's also an apologist for the first TMNT film. You can follow him on Twitter @greggaliffa

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