Thursday, September 07, 2006

Game over, immersion, and the cost of failure

The Game Over screen is long overdue for replacement in many games. Back in the day we all started with 3 lives and got used to the notion that once our last life was up we would be forced to either continue from the beginning of a level or see the dreaded game over screen.

Recently I have been playing Ninety Nine Nights and Halo and the difference between how these games handle player failure is striking. Ninety Nine Nights holds onto a lot of old school game traditions that I believe are due to be phased out, but I want to focus on one particular aspect of the game which involves its complete lack of checkpoints during a level. You can save in between levels and you can replay old missions to build up experience and earn more equipment, but you can lose up to 45 minutes of your time if you die during a mission. Most games nowadays don't throw you back that far but many still show you a game over screen when you die. And every time I see that screen and either get punted to a title screen to reload my game or get treated to a long loading screen, I ask myself the question of whether or not I want to continue playing. If I see that screen several times the answer is almost inevitably yes.

Contrast that experience with Halo, which handles player death far more elegantly. Halo has a number of checkpoints liberally spread throughout the level and when you die you are back at that checkpoint in no less than a couple of seconds. You never see a game over screen or a loading screen. I realize that part of this experience may be due to optimization they did assuming the presence of a hard drive, which is no longer a given. Even so, this is a shining example of keeping the player firmly immersed in the game. When I play Halo, I want to keep playing and only if I die several times during a particularly long checkpoint do I hit the menu and choose to save and quit.

This was also my experience when playing Half Life 2, although to lose the least amount of time you have to quicksave frequently and sometimes this leads to saving when you aren't monitoring your low health often enough. In both of these games, the option to quit is embedded in a menu that you have to manually bring up yourself, and thus you are reminded to leave the game only when you are consciously thinking about it. In Ninety Nine Nights you are presented with the game over screen followed by a short menu asking you to retry, select a different level, or quit. After dying a few times at the end boss of a 30 minute level I often find my eyes fixating on that quit option. As a result, I have broken my game playing into more frequent sessions of about 1-2 hours each. In contrast I tended to play Half Life 2 single player in roughly 2-4 hour sessions or even longer for the sections I really enjoyed.

It seems to me that every time you are shown a menu screen of some kind you are removed from the game experience temporarily, unless that screen is well integrated into the game fiction. The screens depicting the words "Game Over", "Mission Failed", "You died" etc. reinforce the fact that the player failed. It's negative reinforcement. It seems to me that for any story-driven single player adventure part of the goal is keeping the player immersed in the experience and moving forward at a consistent pace. Too many breaks in the action and you stand to bore or frustrate the player.

Given some of my past blog posts about topics such as GameFaqs you may begin to think I dislike difficult games. On the contrary, I've enjoyed playing some of the harder games from this past generation such as Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry 3. I just find myself wanting to finish more games and part of the reason I set aside a game prior to completing it is the unnecessary negative reinforcement that some games toss my way. When I sit down to play a game I want constant immersion and the ability to keep the adventure moving forward. Game Over just isn't doing it for me these days.

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