Is death enjoyable to you?
How many times did you die today?
Video games it seems are the stuff of life and death. When I walk around the show floor during E3 and glance at the monitors what I see usually amounts to something like this:
Guy running, firing weapon, taking damage, death. Reload.
Guy running, firing weapon, falling in hole, death. Reload.
Guy running, firing weapon, swimming in lava, death. Reload.
I witness the same sequence of events whenever my non-video game savvy friends come over to try out games. And regardless the setting, the reaction from the player is always the same: frustration. Death is no fun. No one enjoys it. It takes you out of the game experience, and the immersion you were enjoying, usually to some form of save-game reload screen. For players unversed on load screens, the experience is jarring and even somewhat confusing. Which game to load? Why do I have to go so far back? Where are the weapons that I previously acquired, and so forth. I know to hard-core gamers this stuff sounds moronic, but it’s real. And I feel it is part of the reason why games are considered “no fun” by so many of the uninitiated.
I’m going to skip past my general belief that games these days are simply too difficult for most mass market consumers… and go straight to the question of death. Why do we continue to use death as a game mechanic in video games? Why is it that video games are the only medium to employ the repetitive life/death mechanic?
Not suggesting that we get rid of ‘death’ per-se, but that death not be something that takes you out of the game context. Right now most games remove you from the game and take you up a level of immersion in order to display a load screen. Whenever this happens I feel that the amazing entertainment experience I was just enjoying has been hijacked.
If you ever owned a laserdisc player or have watched a VCD movie, then you know the feeling. You’re watching the film, completely into it, anxiously awaiting the next scene, the next bit of action, and BAM! The screen goes blue (or whatever flavor your player sports), and you are prompted to insert the next disc. It’s like the lights being turned on at the bar at 2AM. Huh? Where am I?
That same thing can be seen with video games. Watch your friends the next time they’re playing a game: Head craned forward, eyes locked to the screen, fingers twitching madly, body movements mimicking in-game actions, mouth agape, totally oblivious to the outside world, then BOOM. Death. Everything changes. The neck straightens, the mouth closes, the eyes blink, the head comes round, and the experience is ended. Where are they now? Sitting in their living room in real life, death-limbo on screen. Out of the game.
Grand Theft Auto 3 is a great example of a game where the load screen interface is replaced by an in-game construct, the hospital, or the police station. You die and then, instead of being prompted to load a saved game, are taken to a logical in-game location where your character is reset and control is returned to you. Loss of immersion is very low, at least compared to viewing a load game menu, waiting for a game to load, and then effectively traveling back in time to your previous game state.
I think there are limitless possibilities for wrapping the death/load mechanic into some less jarring wrapper that makes sense in relation to a game’s characters and setting. Helper characters can take the fallen main character to be revived. The main character can have some intelligent death-handling AI that allows him a death-time interaction with the player. Perhaps death is replaced with an accelerated “sleep” from which the player can awake after 5 seconds after having watched the nearby environment clear itself of hazards. So forth and so on…
If death is going to be a core element to video games, then it should be something as seamless as turning a page in a book or transitioning from one scene to the next in a film. It should not distract from the quality of the game or remove the player from the experience. If it does then it becomes a heavy-handed crutch and means of increasing difficulty without delivering any play value.