Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Skull Beneath The Skin

[Game Design]

Life's too short to not enjoy yourself.

You've probably heard these words before. They're almost cliched. But heard from the lips of someone who's had a near-death experience, they take on an all new meaning. I recently had the pleasure of talking to such a person at Conflux. They were in a car accident, and could well have died, but they survived, and had the opportunity to see their life in a whole new light. They reassessed their world, their understanding of life, and their own mortality.

Were we designing games, we'd call this an immersion-breaking experience.

Breaking the Immersion

Breaking immersion in games occurs when an in-game event causes a player to perceive the gap between the game and the thing that the game is intending to simulate. It occurs when we remember that the player is not the character, that the NPC is not really a living being, that the world does not go on changing when we turn the power off. It occurs when we understand, as Magritte tried to show us, that the picture of the pipe is not the physical object of the pipe.

Press Spacebar to Respawn

The most classic example of immersion-breaking gameplay is death. The moment comes when you run out of health, when you fall down the bottomless pit, when you encounter one homing missile too many, and you die. And yet the player goes on. The game takes an abrupt right-turn from reality as we understand it and asks us "Continue?". It prompts us to load a save file, or to respawn, or to start again from the beginning, and we dive back into the flow. As Superman said to Green Arrow, "Death doesn't mean as much as it used to."

Fearing The Reaper

It sucks to die. It's not fun to lose progress, to fail the challenge, to repeat gameplay you've already conquered. And game design these days is moving more and more towards less immersion-breaking ways of representing fail-states - or eliminating fail-states altogether in favour of the mere absence of a win-state. But are we missing out? By moving into a safer, more friendly, world, are we abandoning the thrill that can make life so sweet?

Life In Purgatory

We may be facing a crossroads in game design. Given the choice, would we rather have one short lifetime on the rollercoaster, or an eternity in a cushion-lined purgatory? We're living a real-world where every cliff has a safety rail, where our CD cases have rounded "safety corners", where the government bans dangerous recreational substances in the interests of our own safety. With the horizons of thrill receding on all fronts... do we really want to chain the reaper? Do we want to tame the electron frontier?

2 comments:

statistical_blip said...

Yes we do. Because in a game in which you die irrevocably, you still don't really die. There's still no real risk. You just have to start all over again and spend hours doing stuff you've already done, which is usually not fun. Or else you stop playing the game entirely.

GregT said...

Um... agreed. You don't think I actually believe the stuff I type, do you? Of course irritating arbitrary death mechanics are rubbish. But stop, and put on your army helmet, and look around at the grunts clustered near you in the trench, and yell, "DO YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER"? It's good fun.

That's not even counting the whole argument on permadeath (see some of the other Round Table entries for this month coming off the drop down menu).