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Saving Lives and Avoiding Death: The Problem of Creating Tension in Games

February 20, 2012

by Joel Jordon

Save systems are given a lot of responsibility in modern game design. In the past, games were shorter and typically offered no save function. Arcade games were tough—they were meant to hand out game overs very liberally—because the objective of arcade operators was only to get players to keep on feeding machines with quarters in order to continue. But, over time, and with advances in technology on consoles, games got longer, and the punishment of having to start over from the beginning of these longer games would just be too cruel to impose on the player. The 1up lost its once-treasured place in game design because these new games didn’t have true game-ending game overs, and so the 1up could no longer really serve the function of protecting the player from punishment.1

The save system had risen up to the task of recording the player’s progress. Games started to ask the player to memorize (or, more likely, scramble for a pen and paper and write down) a code consisting of letters and numbers that could be typed in to recover progress when he or she came back to play later. The save system mechanic became so central to so many games that memory cards were developed exclusively for the purpose of accommodating it. Today there are hard drives, and save systems seem to be a major part of game design that’s here to stay.

Systems that Create Tension: Save Points and Quicksaving

The basic function of any save system is to give the player the ability to quit playing and then return to and continue playing from the point at which he or she left off. All progress that has been made up to any point at which a game has been saved can be restored so that the player doesn’t have to play through again the levels or challenges he or she has already completed once. None of the progress made after saving at one of these points and before saving at another point, however, can be restored.

Save systems, then, provide the framework for a very fundamental tension in most video games: the danger of losing or dying between two save points2 and having to replay through a section of the game again as punishment. It can be pretty odd to regard a save system as only a part of metagame design—as merely functional and practical and as something that just has to be there on the back end—when their implementation has such huge consequences for the most fundamental feeling and experience of the gameplay. How a save system is implemented can totally change the difficulty of a game and the kind of tension regularly felt by the player. Whether a save system—so outside of the central game experience—should be given this key responsibility is a matter I’ll discuss a little later.

A lot of early implementations of save systems were pretty explicit about them: they sprinkled designated spots where you could save your game throughout the world. Resident Evil, for example, is known for its save typewriters. Metroid has save rooms. The issue with this sort of save system is that the amount of tension it creates at various points is often arbitrary. As the player moves from one save point to the next, he or she experiences very little tension at first and a lot of tension later on because the punishment for dying—the amount of the game that will have to be replayed—increases as the distance from the most recent save point increases. If the save points are spread out from one another quite conservatively—as they usually are in games that have this kind of save system—there’s a total lack of punishment for dying after just saving at a save point and a severe punishment for dying after playing up to just before another save point. This makes the player’s experience of tension very uneven.

Other early implementations of save systems that were especially common in PC games worked in a completely opposite way: they offered a system called “quicksaving,” which allows a game to be saved at any time just by pressing a key. This creates a totally different problem with the player experience of tension, which is that it can be almost completely eliminated. Most players who play through a tough game that allows quicksaving get into the habit of tapping the quicksave key every few seconds so that, upon death, they won’t have to replay through much of anything. This can eliminate all of the feeling of tension from the play experience.

In some games, quicksaving also undermines other game mechanics that could have otherwise made the player append more value to his or her actions. In System Shock 2, for example, there are chambers that the player can be revived in upon death, but because he or she has to pay a price to do so and is also sent back to those chambers, there’s no real reason not to just load a quicksave instead.

The game’s hacking mechanic is also undermined by quicksaving: the player has a certain percentage chance of succeeding at any attempted hack, depending on how high his or her hacking stat is, but because the game can be quicksaved before attempting to hack anything, there’s no reason to upgrade the hacking stat—it’s possible to just keep loading a quicksave before a hack, no matter how unlikely it is to succeed, because it can just be attempted over and over again until it works.

Other Ways of Creating Tension: Life Meters and Auto-Regenerating Health

I’d like to take a moment to go on a bit of a tangent to briefly discuss two other notable game mechanics—which are a large enough topic on their own that they could warrant a whole other article—that greatly influence the player’s experienced tension. These two mechanics are life meters and auto-regenerating health, and like save points and quicksaving, they have generally opposite effects on player tension.

Life meters, which give the player a certain amount of health that can be lost over time and then usually recovered only when certain items are found or used, are like save points in that they can make player tension arbitrary: tension is low when the player’s health is high, and tension is high when the player’s health is low.

But this mechanic doesn’t need to result in totally arbitrary tension, and I think Half-Life can serve as a good example of a game that’s designed well to take advantage of a life meter mechanic. In Half-Life, the player is led along a string from one tough enemy encounter to another—each tending to reduce his or her health to close to nothing—but health packs are sprinkled so precisely that the player usually finds them just when they’re needed. This generally makes for a game with a satisfying cycle of tension and relief.

Half-Life is a tightly designed game, although no game design can really be tight enough to eliminate all potential hiccups when a life meter is employed as a game mechanic. It’s possible for the player to lose an inordinate amount of health against enemies early on and then run up against more enemies that are made much harder to fight than they should be just because of the health lost earlier, causing a wild variation in tension.3

But if the life meter mechanic and the save point system share similar problems, then the auto-regenerating health mechanic—which has become increasingly common in recent games—has problems similar to those of quicksaving. With this mechanic, the player can only die if he or she receives a lot of damage in a short time, because after usually only a few seconds of not taking any damage the player’s health automatically regenerates to its maximum amount. This mechanic has the advantage of eliminating the occurrence of any arbitrary extreme highs or lows in tension, but like quicksaving, it can also greatly reduce tension overall, largely because the player’s well-being in the game is no longer tied to any long-term gameplay experience. In games with auto-regenerating health, it’s possible for the player to continuously jump carelessly into fights with enemies and defeat them while taking a large amount of damage and then retreating to recover all of his or her health. The player may experience some short-term tension in each of these encounters, but the repetition of this over the course of a game may not result in a satisfying experience on the whole.

The Problem

Returning to the discussion of save systems: the majority of modern games have largely done away with both save point and quicksaving systems and replaced them with mostly invisible, automatic, and fairly frequent saving. The best implementations of this system save a game between bite-sized chunks of action so that, when the player dies, he or she only has to replay a small portion of the game as punishment, a portion that is contained in such a way that it makes sense to play through it again and nothing more or less. If implemented well, this system can establish a pretty consistent and reasonable feeling of tension.

But this still isn’t ideal, and I don’t think that using save points to control the player’s experience of tension can ever really be ideal because forcing a player to lose his or her progress and replay through a portion of a game as punishment for dying is disruptive to a cohesive game experience. Death persists as a game mechanic because it creates tension, an important part of a game’s design, but as long as death and saving remain metagame mechanics—as long as each time the player dies, he or she must experience the strange rewind of time and the repetition of events—an inelegant suspension of disbelief will frequently be required of the player.

I think there are at least two ways, however, for games to create tension without relying on a save system, with all of its inherent flaws. One is to eliminate death entirely as a game mechanic and create tension in other ways. The other is to build the gameplay around death—make it a central game mechanic—so that player progress isn’t ever arbitrarily reset but death instead punishes the player in another way (and maybe at the same time opens up the opportunity for new rewards). Although these may sound like two solutions that are completely opposed to one another, they are actually almost the same thing. In both cases, tension seems to become more thoroughly a part of central gameplay, rather than to be created obscurely outside of it.

Solutions

I’m going to use the rest of this article to discuss a few games that in taking a unique approach to death as a game mechanic demonstrate potential solutions to the problem of creating tension in games.

There is no death in Wario Land 3. Instead, each enemy has a different effect on the player-avatar. Most of these effects are necessary to solve the game’s puzzles and proceed through its stages, but they can also just slow Wario down, depending on the context. For example, touching a zombie enemy turns Wario into a zombie, which allows him to break through certain floors and get to areas below; but if the effect is activated where it isn’t needed for this purpose, the player just has to deal with only being able to move slowly until the effect wears off.  The game creates tension not with the threat of death but instead more subtly: the player will want to avoid enemies that will cause Wario to experience frustrating slowing effects unnecessary to solving any puzzles in a certain context.

Punishment is not eliminated but instead manifests as something more coherent with the game than the disruptive experience of death would be. The same mechanic that has to be used by the player to solve puzzles is used to punish him or her in other circumstances, and this gives Wario Land 3 a more unified and logical design than many other games have.

Jason Rohrer takes another approach in Inside a Star-Filled Sky, providing a game with a keenly designed structure that has something like death but eliminates any forced repetition upon its occurrence. When the player dies in one of the stages of this game, he or she drops down to the previous stage, but it is randomly generated rather than the same level as was passed through before. The stage the player died in, however, is not randomly generated the next time the player gets to it—it will remain the same as it was when he or she died in it.

What all this means is that it’s possible for the player to proceed backward through the game to find new randomly generated stages, where  he or she can find the power-ups needed to get through the later, more difficult stages that will not be generated anew until the player gets through each of them once. Rather than forcing the player to repeat long portions of the game as punishment, death is more thoroughly incorporated into the game’s core mechanics. Despite the unusual game design, this structure still allows for the experience of tension: the player still cares about avoiding death because dying in one stage after another could mean being quickly propelled backward many stages.

Inside a Star-Filled Sky uniquely challenges many typical game mechanics in this way. But it goes even further than that, questioning the cycles of reward and punishment in games altogether with one very simple fact of its design: the game is nearly infinitely long. Without any tangible goals in sight, a reason for the player to try to advance at all is not built into the game. Players can, however, set their own goals, choosing which level they want to try to get to, and the game then ultimately and uniquely allows for player-defined reward and punishment.

Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, on the other hand, are designed to tightly control when and how players are punished and rewarded, largely through being basically built from the ground up around a player death mechanic. In these challenging games, the player is expected to die often, but rather than only require him or her to play through a portion of a stage again, death has other consequences. Upon death, all of the the souls the player was carrying (souls are the game’s currency, used to buy any items and upgrade stats) are dropped at the point of death. The player is then forced to face the danger of what killed him or her again, if he or she is to attempt to pick up the souls again—and if the player dies again before succeeding to pick them up, they’re lost forever. Because of this, the player’s choices throughout the game tend to be far riskier than they are in most other games, and this gives the overall experience much more tension.

Balancing out these games’ severe punishment for death, however, are certain rewards inherent mainly in the level design. The worlds are Metroid-like in that there are a lot of secret paths and shortcuts that can be found and opened up to connect one area to another. My experience of playing through many sections over again after dying, which would in most games simply be nothing more than repetitious punishment, was actually to discover a wide variety of secret areas that I might not have otherwise found. These two games are designed so thoroughly around the mechanic of death that rather than just be a punishment, it provides the opportunity to discover more rewards.4

In Dark Souls, the player can even find shortcuts far out in the world that connect right back to the very first area of the game (after the tutorial). Because the player, out there in the wild, is at constant risk of dying and being dealt the severe punishment of losing all the souls he or she is carrying, this reward of returning to the safe zone of the first area of the game—and being able now to use this uncovered shortcut to skip all the dangerous areas that have previously been traversed—is enormous. Ultimately these games maintain a constant cycling between tension and relief that makes for a hugely satisfying experience.

Conclusion

Many game mechanics seem to have only established their acceptability above and beyond any other mechanics through having been repetitively employed in one game after another. I believe the above examples show that these usual mechanics can be ignored in order not only to solve the design problems they present but also to create completely new gameplay opportunities.

I think it should also be noted that in much of the above, I often took for granted the fact that games are about physical violence. I used terms like lives, health, and death that have taken on almost universal game-specific definitions because so many games use violence as their metaphor for conflict. But, in fact, the best way to escape the difficulties presented by these mechanics would likely be to design games that are not about violence at all. This current constraint in subject matter cause constraints in game design that necessitate incorporating imperfect mechanics like death. Until designers attempt to create more games that are about other subjects, it is unlikely that we will begin to see new kinds of game mechanics for new kinds of games.

Notes

1 The Mario series, oddly enough, for all of the innovations it has brought to game design over the years, is one game series that lingers in the past with regard to its lives system. 1ups abound in the latest Mario games, even though dying in a stage just once makes the player have to start it over anyway, which is basically the same thing that happens when a player loses all of his or her lives and gets a game over. Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t even transfer the number of lives accumulated between play sessions—a console reset always brings a player’s life count back to five—so that there is effectively not much reason to collect 1ups. Super Mario 3D Land, on the other hand, does transfer accumulated lives between play sessions, but it is so generous in granting extra lives  that many players should have no trouble earning upward of one hundred of them by the end of the game, which just nulls the threat of game over that a lives system is intended to create. In both cases, extra lives serve no significant gameplay purpose—although they might still be satisfying to collect.

2 Some games also use checkpoints—points at which the player can’t save the game but from which he or she will nonetheless be able to continue playing after dying. For the sake of ease, I’m going to use the term save points to refer to both actual save points and checkpoints throughout this article.

3 Half-Life also uses a quicksaving system, and paired with the life meter mechanic, much worse issues can arise. For example, it’s possible for a player to quicksave the game right before a difficult enemy encounter that could be made just about impossible if the player’s health is very low at the time the save is made. The player then usually has to load an earlier save in order to be able to advance.

4 This game series has another unique mechanic that helps in discovering these rewards: an online messaging system that allows players to leave anonymous notes throughout the game world, including notes with advice about where to look for secrets.  Without a mechanic like this, many secrets might go undiscovered by most players—its inclusion seems to serve the purpose of better ensuring that players regularly experience rewards, offsetting the games’ frequent threats of punishment.

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