100: The Slow Death of the Game Over

The Slow Death of the Game Over

The Slow Death of the Game Over

Blah, a trite discussion about the pros and cons of basic game design.

Game authors have only one way to punish players: Time. That's the only thing that the game developers have control over. Look, if you want your game to be widely enjoyed, then you can't be catering to the sheer-face mountain climbing croud.

I want and need my games to be accessible, easy to play, and easy to have fun with.

The problem is compounded when you add in a less than perfect game. There is nothing worse than getting a setback (or worse, a major setback) because of some flaw in game design or execution. Very frequently a save is more than welcome when someone is able to "finally make it through that crappy part".

I am very surprised that the article didn't talk about on-line games, and the concequence of game over in a situation where the "bad guys" are other people who get to continue to play. To be honest, I think that's where all the tension has been migrated to. Consider Battlefield, where if you die, there may or may not be a setback. When you re-enter the game world, your opponents persist, and are actively working against you. In counter-strike, you're done for the round: certainly incentive to get better. At the same time, your opponent is learning who you are and what your play style is... Even though it may be a different map, the amount of repitition is reduced because you're not fighting the same person who spawns at exactly the same spot and does the same thing every time (hopefully)... And so the tension mounts anew.

~D

I think the more important point here is that the quick-save / easy mode dynamic is an integral part of what allowed video games to evolve into a narrative media. Sure a lot of these "hardcore" games offer greater challenges, but who really remembers Super Mario Brothers for the story? Is the tragic image of a world under Dr. Wiley's rule what made Mega Man a great game? Not really. I mean, not to say that they weren't great games, but I don't think anyone could really get a narrative going if their readers/players/whatever had to start over every time they made a mis-step. Could you imagine a Final Fantasy VII where you had to start back in Midgar every time you powered on? The fact that the save system has proliferated has also allowed for the spread of narrative in genres that would now feel empty without them. A non-saving shooter wouldn't allow Half-Life 2 to even exist. With these systems tension can be generated not by the fear of starting over, but by the plight of the protagonist him/herself.

Prey is one recent major offender in this case: you couldn't die in that game even if you tried. I stopped playing after I discovered this fact.

Fable has a similar problem in that you could carry an unlimited number of healing potions, so combat had virtually 0 risk.

The quicksave issue can be handled by limiting the number of saves you get by difficulty level chosen, much like in the hardest mode of Max Payne you would only get 6 saves per level. The player himself can also impose saving limits.

The article did omit discussions about online play: players are indeed punished brutally, not by taxing their times, but by taxing their rankings amongst their fellows. Even in MMORPGs, where death is merely an inconvineance, nothing can get you tagged a newbie faster than dying at the wrong time or too frequently.

Another Mike: early console games didn't have great narrative mostly due to budget and technological limitations. Early computer games, on the other hand, were brutally hard but often had quite complex narratives and story.

EDIT: There are also some exception. The original Ninja gaiden is a supremely difficult game, but it's narrative was at least mediocre, even by modern standards.

A legitimate point, but how many people really bothered to push through Zork? Although an unarguably great game, I think it can be considered more of a cult classic. If you don't mind having a small dedicated audience you can get away with that sort of thing. People read the Silmarillion (Tolkien's lost unfinished works) for gosh sakes. Would I consider that a standard which can be maintained across a media form? Not really. For video games to gain acceptance as legitimate media to the general public they needed a means to making that narrative accessible.

Note: Despite attempts, I could never get into the text-adventure games. They were just inaccessible to me. I'm spoiled by growing up with windows, I know.

edit: Can't speak to Gaiden. Never got /anywhere/ in it.

rapa-nui:
Fable has a similar problem in that you could carry an unlimited number of healing potions, so combat had virtually 0 risk.

If you want to feel threatened, then don't buy so many healing potions, and let me be coddled in peace.

The more complex the game, the more the player has control over the game's difficulty. I find it interesting when the people who most complain when a game is too easy are the powergamers, who are known for... exploiting every possible trick in the game to try to make it easier.

I think that one of the games which best handled the "save anywhere" feature, without ruining the concept and goal seeked by the dev team, was Alien Vs. Predator, after the save patch came.

Before the patch release, you couldn't save at all. Channeling the spirit of the 80 to 90 arcade, you only had life points, and that was all. Either you finished a level, or you died and restarted it from scratch.

It added an immense level of pressure, as the menace of death pumped up your heartbeat.
It reinforced the mood of the game, especially in the Marine campaign - the best of the game.

Then the patch came, and if my memories aren't blurry, you were allowed a limited number of quicksaves, seven I think.
You could save anywhere, but you had to think about it. It became a part of the gameplay, out of universe somehow, as you had to strategically gauge the hostile environment, and judge if it is was worth a respawn point or not. It was particularily tricky, as only one quicksave is stored at a time. A bad tactical choice, and you probably were doomed to restart in one of the most perillous situations, until you could find your way out of a very bad choice.

You really hesitated quicksaving. You didn't know how long the level was, what was waiting for you in the dark alleys of the derelict space stations and colonies. What if I use my last quicksave here, and realize that I'm only halfway of that damn infested spaceship, and I have to make my way through a legion of claws and teeth with a pulse rifle half charged and an ammo clip?

I suppose that a correctly balanced modern game would probably offer three possibilities, at least:

Easy - Infinite quicksaves.
Medium - Limited number of quicksaves per level (or even per game, much more tricky).
Hard - No quicksave.

Frankly, I thought this article was going to address the shift in adventure games that came between Kings Quest and its ilk, and The Secret of Monkey Island.

The Sierra AGI and SCI games were quite happy to let you die, and would often do so in the most unexpected and annoying ways. (KQ3 and 5 both had the opportunity to do something wrong, save a few times, and later unavoidably punish you for the earlier trangression. Both times it involved kicking a wizard's cat as I recall. Companions of Xanth also let you do this, but in a much shorter time frame.)

In SoMI, you couldn't die. (Well, there was one way, but it took some effort, and in a completely different area there's a game-over screen, but that doesn't actually kill you) That didn't I think in any way detract from the game, but in fact enhanced it, as it gave you the freedom to explore the full depth and breadth of the game, particularly the humour and excuses Guybrush would produce as why he would not do something. Games like the Space Quest series also had humourous components to them but you often had to die to see them, which would take a fair chunk of the fun out of it, in my opinion.

All the games above, as opposed to the ones discussed in the article, are adventure games, which both rely on a strong narrative, and do not benefit particularly from sending players back to do a "hard bit" or "easy bit" repeatedly.

I've recently been trying to play through the original Broken Sword, a game in the LucasArts style, but that does occasionally kill you if you make a mistake. However, it's not frequent enough that you remember to save that often, so you (or at least I) end up repeated long swathes of the game. Mind you, the narrative style of that game (any action he chooses not to take is usually expressed in the past-tense, as are many actions he chooses to take, and in fact the entire internal monologue. At least Runaway only used past-tense between the levels.) annoys me as well. I much preferred the dialogue Guybrush maintained with the player, 4th-wall violation that it is.

More on the topic of the article, I agree wholeheartedly that part of the tension and frustration of Dead Rising was the fact that saving wasn't the act of a moment, but a part of your planning and pathing. While I enjoyed hammering through the GTA3 series, and more recently The Godfather on the Wii, there's almost nothing to come back to. Dead Rising I also haven't come back to, but I intend to at some point try again, just to assuage my own curiosity as to whether, with a little more aggressive travel and fewer passes by the save points, I could have saved more people.

On a side note, the game-over screen is alive and well on handheld gaming devices. Then again, they rely much more on the "pick-up and play" style of gaming which is reminiscent of arcade machines like Operation Wolf or Silent Scope which let you choose your mission and hence difficulty, without having to play through the earlier easy stuff. A handheld game that you can't basically switch off with very short notice is nearly useless. (I dunno about the PSP, but the DS has the close-lid mode, which generally suspends the game, and is useful for some situations such as switching buses, but doesn't really help once you've arrived at your destination.)

To TBBle:
You can also put the PSP in standby by quickly sliding the power button. Only a prolongated slide upwards switches it off.

The other trouble with widely spaced save points is that if you have a fixed window of time in which to play during a particular session you might be forced to waste the entire session's advancement due to not reaching a save point.

That's not dramatic, it just sucky.

(FF-XII, I'm looking at you !)

I'd just like to say that the save anywhere idea is a great thing, but at the same time it should be accompanied with harder battles, more challenging games, and so on. If anything save anywhere is only accompanied with easier games. I have yet to beat Super Mario 1 yet I've beat a couple recent games with out ever saving once except when it's mandated.

Save anywhere is a wonderful functions as people here mentioned but the very simple fact is that games as a whole have been made easier as well as giving save anywhere, what should have been done is increasing the difficulty of the game as you give more saves, not making it easier.

Arbre, I remember the awesome tension of AvP pre-patch. My heart raced in that game - one of the best experiences I've ever had. I didn't play it pre-patch but it sounds like they replaced fear with strategy, which isn't a bad tradeoff - certainly better than infinite quick saves.

I really like the idea of adjusting the amount of available saves based on game difficulty level. It seems like a much preferable alternative to some of the more gimmicky ways designers use to make games harder (even though they aren't hard at all because of saves). All too often I think games can be ruined when choice becomes a matter of "see what happens, then rewind" - this is very damaging in strategy games, for instance.

Some games have done away with saves completely, and become wildly successful based off of a good gameplay mechanic.

For example, the arcade game Geometry Wars on the Xbox360. This is a game that can be played in short doses, 10-30 minutes at a time, and depending on your skill level, a game can last between 5 minutes to some of the best reaching multiple hours. The game has zero story, only a few extra lives to start-more can be earned, and doesn't feature any levels at all. The only mark of you making progress is noticing how many more enemies are coming on the screen at once.

This was also one of the top games played in the early life cycle of the 360. It still has a loyal and active community.

Regarding saving as a whole, I think it comes back to not only telling a narrative, but what the mass consumers want as a whole. As the gaming population ages and expands, there are many fewer "hardcore" gamers left. We are a dying breed, being replaced by casual games and people who don't want the mostly impossible challenge of a Ninja Gaiden. They want a quick escape, and be able to return to life anytime. As much as the narrative has driven the save system, the change in the majority of consumers purchasing games has put pressure on the industry for this change as well.

@ Dom Camus:
I'd definitely agree with you on that point. I think that Diablo II (and possibly D1, which I've never played) really handled that well; the saves in that game worked more or less like a traditional roguelike in that when you saved it was almost exclusively right before you stopped playing the game. After death, though, you would spawn from your last save.

The ideal save system would, in my mind, combine both the checkpoint system used in most JRPGs with the save-on-exit system: you'd hit up the checkpoints every now and then to save, and upon exit your game would save so you could resume from that point on the next boot (immediately after which the exit-save would be discarded). It gives the developer the advantage of being able to space the checkpoints to build tension etc. as well as giving the player the advantage of a pick-up-and-play game.

It seems to me that one acceptable compromise would be to allow the player to save anywhere, but only load upon exiting the game or losing.

Archon:
Arbre, I remember the awesome tension of AvP pre-patch. My heart raced in that game - one of the best experiences I've ever had. I didn't play it pre-patch but it sounds like they replaced fear with strategy, which isn't a bad tradeoff - certainly better than infinite quick saves.

I really like the idea of adjusting the amount of available saves based on game difficulty level. It seems like a much preferable alternative to some of the more gimmicky ways designers use to make games harder (even though they aren't hard at all because of saves). All too often I think games can be ruined when choice becomes a matter of "see what happens, then rewind" - this is very damaging in strategy games, for instance.

To a degree, it's true that they traded fear with strategy. But the fear was still there, in a way. Simply because the creatures were very vicious and dangerous.

Especially the facehuggers.
Who could imagine, today, that a single creeper like that would equal an immediate game over if it managed to wrap its tail around your neck?
That's unforgiving, really, and for all the FPS games I've played, and all these lethal beasts I've ran away from, and enjoyed perforating with axes and bullets in a strigent thirst for revenge, I have never been so afraid of an absurdingly small enemy as I was of facehuggers.
Fortunately, back then, the creatures weren't able to leap from roofs or walls. They were bound to the floor. If it had not been the case, it would have been an even worse affair, as I would have been obligated to look for every single dark corner, roof crack and airduct, coupled to the necessary survey of the motion tracker and the hope that my rifle wouldn't jam.
Oh yes, how many games actually had one of the most used and most powerful weapons become inoperable in the most sadistic taunting way, especially when there was an eight legged game over circling you?

Even some arcade versions of ALIEN or AvP had facehuggers jumping at your face, but falling off quickly. This cheapened them. The PC game was the one which really managed to make it real and dangerous.

In terms of play and differences brought by the patch, you could still find the "pre-patch" fear once you knew you used all of your quicksaves. Once again, you mentally kept your fingers crossed.

You would also re-experience it as you'd choose not to use them too often, and several times, this increased the tension, reinforced the mood, and thus it would happen that you'd actually forget about quicksaving, and that was like the good ol' times again. You'd even finish levels without using all of your quicksaves, and that was very satisfying, immersion wise.

Honestly, I think that a limited number of quicksaves is one of the best principles I've experienced in ages to adjust the difficulty, and it particularily suited this universe.
The bad point, however, is that there are games which fail at providing a real quickload, in the sense that it's not quick at all.

As for the difficulty, I think it was fairly conservative, as it could be set from the beginning by choosing a level from the title page. Difficulty would not necessarily increase the power of the creatures, or nerf your weapons or armour, since I never got that feeling, and that would have been cheap, really.
As an example, DMC3's latest two higher difficulty levels were simply absurd and uninteresting, with the basic ghouls being as strong and tough as mid-level bosses.
What changed in the AvP game, IIRC, was the amount of ammo and medipacks you could find, and eventually in the frequency of attacks. One of those rare games where you couldn't always know where the enemy would come from. Of course, you would understand the mechanics of creature spawning, after playing the same level a couple of times, and realise how unseen level design related volumes would trigger spawn points, but the spawn randomization made it such that even if you knew that a given room would start the production of enemies, they would sneak in from any hole or corridor (this is an aspect which the Invasion mod for UT2003 prefectly nailed), and so you had to check all angles past a certain door.

To conclude. I believe there is room for the hard and harsh game over. Especially when you need to build tension. A good tension I mean, the one that really elevates and perfectly espouses the game, not the Ghouls N' Ghosts kind, where it would actually piss you off to no ends.

I believe some or all of the Hitman series allow for only a limited number of saves for each level. The game which I believe has got the best balance so far in terms of it's saving mechanism is Operation Flashpoint. It had one save available per mission, and one predetermined save at a certain checkpoint in the level aswell. It would also save the game if you 'Aborted' the mission to exit the game, and then reload from that point while discarding the save for that abort point (I believe someone has also made mention of this system). This made you think very carefully about how you'd play and actually plan when you would use your save, since you could easily die from one hit.

I liked this article better the first time when it was called Killjoy: How Inconsequential Death Took the Fun out of Virtual Life, which went way beyond questioning whether quicksaving is for lamers or not, but rather the fundamental concepts of player death and consequence in RPGs/adventures.

But for (mostly) linear action games I agree that the limited save system is the way to go. I mentioned Operation Flashpoint back in the old thread. Give the player a sensible number of saves per stage/level, and I think you can strike a decent balance between tension and convenience. The way it is now is kind-of absurd. Prey (with its resurrection system which was practically "god mode") was among the dullest games I've ever plowed through, and I'm pretty sure its resurrection system had everything to do with that.

Come to think of it, you know what really contributed to rape-tastically, unforgivingly brutal gameplay? Load times.

te2rx:
I liked this article better the first time when it was called Killjoy: How Inconsequential Death Took the Fun out of Virtual Life, which went way beyond questioning whether quicksaving is for lamers or not, but rather the fundamental concepts of player death and consequence in RPGs/adventures.

Tongue in Cheek: How come Cosmo can cover the exact same topic EVERY ISSUE ("guys and sex") but when The Escapist covers the same topic twice a year later, someone immediately calls us out on it??

Perhaps we need to distract with pictures of scantily clad women and articles on "gamers and sex".

Archon:
Tongue in Cheek: How come Cosmo can cover the exact same topic EVERY ISSUE ("guys and sex") but when The Escapist covers the same topic twice a year later, someone immediately calls us out on it??

Perhaps we need to distract with pictures of scantily clad women and articles on "gamers and sex".

I'd just like to point out that this summer, white is the new pink.

If gamers don't like save anywheres, then DON'T SAVE. Why should hardcore, masochist gamers ruin it for those of us who don't have a huge desire for intense aggravation and don't think it's fun to play the same 10 minutes of a game over and over again sometimes watching the same 5-minute cut scene over and over to do it?

For some people apparently this sort of torture is more fun, so I would suggest that when you start a new game, players be allowed to turn off saving.

I have another objection to the lack of saves; power failures, console crashes and tripped-over cords. These have all been responsible for my replaying big chunks of games at times. When you present me with an Xbox that is impervious to loss of power and has games that never crash, regardless of coding errors and scratched disks, then I'll listen to arguments about whether save anywhere ruins the dramatic tension of a game.

Archon:
Perhaps we need to distract with pictures of scantily clad women and articles on "gamers and sex".

10 Hot Tips for Hot Cyber!

te2rx:
I liked this article better the first time when it was called Killjoy: How Inconsequential Death Took the Fun out of Virtual Life, which went way beyond questioning whether quicksaving is for lamers or not, but rather the fundamental concepts of player death and consequence in RPGs/adventures.

I, for one, enjoy both articles, as they present a clearer picture taken together (albeit months apart), and, since we can all agree how we deal with the end of a game is at least as important as how we deal with it's beginning (or middle), I think it's great we've been able to get a couple of top-flight talents like Mr. O'Hale and Mr. Orland to approach the subject.

As for the games, I've always enjoyed a good amount of tension in a game, but frankly, I much prefer being able to redo bits of the game here and there as I see fit. But, as Dead Rising and the most recent Hitman have proven, a good game can overcome it's stupid, rigid save system.

Russ Pitts:

I, for one, enjoy both articles, as they present a clearer picture taken together (albeit months apart)...

Yeah, I felt like they were two articles on the same subject, but from totally different perspectives. This current article came at the issue from the perspective of someone with roots in arcade gaming, and the previous one came at it from the perspective of someone with roots in pen and paper/tabletop gaming. Just look at the impact of those different 'lineages' on each author's position by comparing how one ends with:

"So here's a toast to the punishing, brutal, unforgiving, masochistic games of the world - the kinds of games brave enough to have game over screens that actually mean the game is over. For those about to die, we salute you!"

and the other ends its concluding points with:

"Failure should create possibilities rather than merely foreclose them."

This came up in the REvil/Sex, Gender, and Games article a while back, that it's been 'done'. To me, there's a big difference between a subject being 'done' and a subject being initially broached by one person with their perspective, and then being revisited by another person with a differing perspective.

To Archon and the Escapist staff: Your complaint applies to a lot more than just the Escapist. I feel like any major issue which really does need to be examined gets tossed out in favor of trash in the name of ratings. I think that reporting from most venues has become so diluted with meaningless drivel that people dislike reading about something just because they think they already know what the answer is. More boring stuff about global warming - put an article about Paris Hilton instead. Addressing the growing concerns of minorities who are unable to escape poverty because they would stop receiving government aid if they were able to save any money away - Sounds like a snooze to me - I hear that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are having problems, put them on the cover instead. Worse yet - New Orleans is still in shambles from Katrina, people who lost everything still don't seem to have anything. But rather than a detailed intelligent piece on several specific families, lets instead run an article talking about how great Spiderman 5 will be.

I'm ranting a tad, and probably not making the point as well as it could be, but the gist of my argument is thus: We need more articles about everything from as many different views as possible. I would very much enjoy a third article from a third author's perspective still talking about death and it's place in a game. I would love to read rebuttal articles in the Escapist. Maybe Marty O'Hale thinks this piece is completely wrong and wants to write why. I would enjoy that article. I think the joy of debate is lost on the majority of the people I interact with in the "real world". I don't fault the escapist for holding some of it here. If an article is well written, POST IT! Don't keep intelligent well thought out view points from me just because we've talked about something before.

And before someone says it - two people debating do not necessarily need to disagree on everything - just on a couple finer points for it to be interesting.

- Tom

Tom, your points are well taken. While I would not be so vain as to claim we succeed all the time, The Escapist was certainly founded with the intent of tackling "big issues" in gaming. Perhaps those issues aren't as big as global warming, but they are big for our little corner of the universe.

Julianne, Russ, and Joe would have to speak to the possibilities of rebuttals. I'm just the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit that trots out to talk on the forums sometimes. :)

The idea of rebuttal articles or editorials is interesting, and something I'm sure we'll be talking about in the weeks ahead.

As for accepting that not all issues have one -or even two -sides, I think this is a failure of the internet age, and perhaps a symptom of the reduction of the typical attention span more than anything. It would be very nice indeed to break out of the mode of thinking that everything printed on the internet is an Absolute Truth, and one must either accept or disavow that Truth or therefore become irrelevant.

The fact is, most folks have opinions, and even though they may vary widely, none are usually any more valid than any other. Was Fallout the greatest game ever? No, not really. Not in my opinion. But if someone else thinks so, I'm interested to hear why, even though I may disagree. It's not the opinion itself that makes for interesting conversation, but the reasoning behind it.

I've found both of these articles to be quite resonant and enjoyed them both greatly. I generally agree with the sentiments whole-heartedly, finding the tension and drama in a game is reduced when you have as many "do overs" as you want. Sure, some might say that the player can always opt not to use the quicksave, but when the option is there, saying no is really, really difficult. Upon completing both of these articles, I find myself agreeing that a less flexible save system would usually improve gameplay.

But then I remember playing FarCry. The original release of FarCry had only a checkpoint save system. For the majority of the game, this was fine, it heightened tension, etc. It led to a few annoying replays, but nothing I couldn't handle. Then came the very final area of the game. It was the part set into the volcano caldera, filled with those hulking, nearly unkillable giant baddies. Just before this area, you were able to get loaded to bear at a armory, so one couldn't have been more prepared. The areas was quite large, the enemies quite plentiful and you had to kill every last one before you could continue (IIRC).

I played that area for something like six or seven hours straight, dying time after time after time. Near the end, I was nearly blind with rage and frustration. It wasn't fun, it wasn't challenging, it wasn't tense. It was insulting. But I'd spent some 20+ hours getting to that point, so I didn't want to just stop so close to the end. I swore that as soon as I finished the game, I'd uninstall it and never play it again.

And that's exactly what happened. I finally gave up that night (it was probably closer to dawn), but after about three more hours the next morning, I finished that area and the game, watched the ending and uninstalled the game forever. What had been a relatively impressive game up to that point was completely and utterly ruined.

I think this is the danger that many developers face when choosing their save system. Providing an unlimited quicksave might slightly annoy a few people, but nobody is really going to take major issue with it. The converse is not true, however. Forcing players to perform the same task over and over and over can quickly build frustration and hostility, which really shouldn't be what the developers are going for. A overly flexible save system isn't going to harm your game much (if at all), but an overly rigid one could very well kill it.

Maybe the problem is that we're looking for a "one size fits all" solution that doesn't really exist. I can't imagine many people think Resident Evil would have been a better, more terrifying game if you could save whenever you wanted. But FarCry, for example, could have been redeemed for me if they have offered in-game saves or more prolific checkpoints. Maybe the save/death mechanism needs to be more strongly examined as a design feature, especially in terms of the effects it will have upon gameplay. But what's for sure is I still haven't touched FarCry since, and probably never will.

Diablo 2 in Hardcore mode FTW

To hell with the Game Over screen. Its only use is that of artificial game lengthening. It's a rustic artefact of the coin-guzzling arcade games of yore, and it deserves to be dead.

Personally I stopped playing Bioshock because there was no threat in death nor challenge in life. I can't find any sense of achievement in that! I literally put down the game and went and played outside.

 

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