Monday, April 4, 2011

Saving the game, ruining the story

Thanks to the miracle of GOG, I've been catching up on some older games I never got around to playing for whatever reason. For the past couple of days, I've been trying my hand at Gothic 2, a sandbox RPG from German developer Piranha Bytes that came out back in 2002. I have two major complaints so far:
  1. The unusual control scheme requires both hands most of the time, making it more difficult for me to enjoy a beer while playing (are we sure this is a German game?).
  2. I die a lot. I mean, a really lot. Your character starts out as a weakling, a fact that NPCs seem to point out at every opportunity - often before, during, and/or after an ass-whipping.
I don't mind starting off weak. In fact, I'm anticipating a sense of satisfaction when my character finally turns the corner and can actually win a fight without hiding behind a city guard. I don't subscribe to the idea that everything the PC does must be heroic, and find it rather pathetic when games feel the need to stroke the player's ego. I've actually had a few chuckles over the utter lack of respect your character receives at the start of Gothic 2. It's a refreshing change.

No, the thing that I don't like is reloading.

Reloading may be a widely accepted feature in games, but it has no place in game design. What I mean is, designers should not factor in reloading when setting a game's difficulty. Reloading is a fail-safe, meaning something has failed when it happens. It's understandable when the player has to reload because of carelessness, bad luck, or lack of skill/incorrect difficulty setting. However, when players need information they can only get by dying and reloading - such as the location of enemies, how powerful they are, or what attacks work against them - then the failure is squarely on the design.

Death by lizard. Apparently these things are pretty territorial.
This is even more true in RPGs, where the game itself is most often experienced as a story - the story of the PC's heroic (or not) adventures. The alternate realities spawned by reloading diminish that story. At its worst, excessive reloading takes a tale that should be chiseled in stone and instead presents it as a manuscript with red ink scrawled all over it. Or, as the recent Gamasutra blog post Against the Death Penalty put it:
Regardless of how it's implemented a save and load mechanism cuts into any narrative being told. It’s like flicking back a few pages in a choose-your-own adventure book and pretending nothing happened.
It's not hard to reconcile the fact that the PC doesn't know about all those failures that have been crossed out. The PC is, after all, a fictional character who's blissfully unaware of the process that dictates the course of his or her life. Nothing hard to understand there.

Climbing mishap.
The problem is that the player perceives things at a different level. Games tacitly acknowledge and even embrace this fact when they include cutscenes showing events the PC could not have witnessed. Obviously, the product being sold isn't just the PC's role, but the whole story - whether it's an imposing Bioware-style narrative or a loose, emergent one in the mold of Oblivion (or something in between, like Gothic 2). Whatever the story, it doesn't get better by including the rejected "rough drafts" or "outtakes" where the protagonist dies prematurely.

Games have experimented with a variety of mechanics to eliminate PC death or incorporate it into the story. The most notable RPG example is probably Planescape: Torment, where your character is immortal and simply wakes up at the mortuary after each death. However, those high-concept devices don't really solve the problem. For one thing, they're often more inconvenient, so players opt to reload anyway. For another, they're such an obvious stand-in for the deeply ingrained reload mechanic that players don't even register the difference. In other words, too many trips to the mortuary has the same negative effect on the story as too many reloads.

One-shotted by a warehouse guard, who proceeded to loot my corpse while talking smack.
Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to see a better alternative to reload button, at least not under the current gaming paradigm. Sorry developers, but that means you're going to have to continue putting a lot of effort into properly setting game difficulty. Like difficulty slider, reloading is no magic bullet that obviates the need for careful design. It's just a Plan B, and like all Plan B's, it shouldn't come into play very often.

I could say a lot more about this subject, and probably will at some point. But that's all for now.


  1. Think of Prince of Persia: Sands of time where the reload is integrated into the game mechanics. It was part of immersion but you could also reload the game on save points.

    I agree with your assessment about reloading killing immersion. Games should be configurable to be as easy as the player wants it to be.

    For me it is that a hero should be able to survive against all odds and if you play a weakling you should not be trying to be a hero or you die.

  2. I actually think there should be things that can flat-out destroy the PC, particularly in a sandbox RPG. I just think the player ought to be warned. The UI should provide info about monster difficulty before they one-shot you, NPCs should warn you away from certain areas, or - at the very least - the game should guide you toward things to do that are appropriate for your level.

    The problem with Gothic 2 is that you seemingly have to wander around to complete the early quests - and wandering around inevitably leads to death.