Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Is Death the Mother of Beauty?

At the Montreal International Game Summit last month, Braid designer Jonathan Blow delivered a talk on three “conflicts” in game design. One of these conflicts is a conflict between challenge and story. While the organic structure of a narrative dictates that you flow from one narrative point to the next in a particular rhythm, creating challenging gameplay imposes the a different tempo on the experience. Every time you kill a player, in order to test their skills, the narrative grinds to a halt. Trying to make a coherent, smooth-flowing narrative pace in the game leads you to make the game easy for the player, and this conflicts with the need for challenge.

Sometimes, my response to this conflict is to doubt that challenge is necessary to game design, anyway. Penny Arcade's Gabe once said that as he's grown older, he's become less interested in beating games and more interested in seeing them, and I feel the same way. Though I'm pretty adept at jumping and shooting, I don't feel the urgent need to demonstrate my expertise in these areas outside of multiplayer games. In certain moods I'm tempted to make the same complaint about all games that I make about Rock Band 2: Why should I have to sweat in order to see all the content? I bought all that game from you, fair and square, and I shouldn't have to demonstrate my entitlement to it by pressing some buttons with proper timing.

But Blow makes a persuasive argument for the importance of challenge to game design. Challenge, he says, is a way for a game designer to invest the player's actions with significance. Punishing a player is a way of showing that their choices matter. It's failure that gives a player a unique feeling of agency and empowerment, because the possibility of death creates a context in which your conquest of the game's world is meaningful.

I think Blow is right. The problem isn't challenge itself. It's the nature of the punishment that matters, the way games compel you to repeat the same sections of the game over and over again. Repetition of this sort is worthwhile when it tests your abilities (I once wrote that death is the stick the designer beats you with in order to teach you the game's rules, and this seems right), but almost every game tests those abilities by forcing the player to rehearse an already-learned set of actions. This was why the AI Director in Left 4 Dead is so important: it frees the game from the shooting-gallery syndrome that plagues many shooters. Even when you are forced to repeat a scenario over again you can't fall back on memorizing previous run-troughs to get you through.

Merely executing a game plan you've already plotted out doesn't count as a good exercise of your faculties. It's coming up with a solution to a challenging problem that's enjoyable, which gives you an authentic sense of mastery. This is why Braid was rewarding despite its elimination of player death-- Braid challenges you to imagine the world in a particular way, rather than challenging you you memorize the width of a platform.

Tilting the challenge on the conception side of the conception/execution dichotomy also explains the core appeal of the Prince of Persia games. Sands of Time allowed you to erase your mistakes by rewinding time, and this freed you to relish the gracefulness of your movements, experiment with different solutions to the jump puzzles, and avoid the frustrations that come with the occasional execution misfire. The puzzle-like construction of the rooms transformed the gameplay into aesthetically elegant problem-solving, and the game succeeded in spinning a well-paced and clever narrative around this core experience.

They've followed this approach to its logical conclusion in the most recent Prince title by completely eliminating death. If you miss a jump or muss up a battle your partner Elrika saves you, every time. It is literally impossible to fail and get sent to a menu. This decision to eliminate frustrating repetition shows an attempt to shift the burden of challenge away from execution. As Tycho of Penny Arcade wrote today: “I think they wanted to make a lyrical, organic world that the character flowed through. They had an aesthetic goal, and the extent to which Prince of Persia succeeds as a game depends on how well they draw you into that.” This is exactly right. And it's not just the world that is lyrical: your movements themselves are effortless and elegant. Both the combat and the traversal have a careless fludity and unhurried tempo, which that fits with your character's casual approach to gallantry. The challenge comes from discovering a navigable path through the gorgeous environments, not from repetitive death.

This just all right with me. Almost every review of the new Prince game has complained about the difficulty, and this seems to be one of those cases where the game is guilty of nothing save violating the reviewer's expectations. As Mitch Krpata said today, the critic's job is to illuminate what the game is trying to achieve and how the game's various elements contribute to that goal. Prince of Persia isn't Ninja Gaiden, and this is OK, because it's not aiming for the same tension-filled experience. It's a game that wants to be lyrical. It wants to be an musical instrument rather than a crucible, and it succeeds in this goal.


Michel said...

All the new Prince of Persia does is automate quick saving and quick loading. It quick saves the game before each jump, battle, whatever, and if you fail then it quick loads while also presenting a brief unskippable cutscene of the girl saving you. Please correct me if I've misinterpreted this supposedly innovative functionality, but I don't think I have. It's still fundamentally broken and doesn't address anything that Blow was talking about. I don't think I've ever seen a player or critic argue that quick saving before every significant or insignificant event somehow improved the game -- quite the opposite, in fact.

Kirk Battle said...

Haven't played the game but it sounds like an interesting experiment. Does the actual downtime of loading and going back become an intrinsic part of the failure? Is forcing the player to be inactive in a relatively active medium a part of their punishment? If so, chopping it out might irk the experience.

I think when it comes to challenge I just like it to have some kind of intent beyond "because it's the last level". The character who has been portrayed as a, like, badass should stay a badass when I fight him. I think Blow hits it on the head when he says removing challenge can inhibit the experience. Both Far Cry 2 and Bioshock are downright boring if you don't play them on normal. If the game is delivering a tense experience, then punishment is a necessary part of the beast.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@michel: I'm not claiming that the mechanic is innovative, saying that it achieves something that no one's ever tried before, or couldn't be achieved by implementing a quicksave option.

What I'm saying is that making the choice keeps the experience moving at a certain pace. This works in the context of the rest of the mechanics and it works for the kind of experience the designers are trying to create-- one which is centered on your swiftly exploring the environments and figuring out paths through them. It would be impossible to get the kind of rhythm they were going for if you had to think about dying before every jump.

I don't think this totally resolves blow's problem (He would probably think that making the game easy conflicts with the heroism in the storyline) but I do think eliminating the death fits in somewhat with the style of the narrative and I don't think it breaks the game, at least from my perspective.

@L.B.: The downtime is super-short, and this is key. (Too Human had an infamous unskippable cutscene that was clearly intended to be a punishment.) Like I say, I don't think minimizing the failure for missed jumps ruins it, but I may be in a minority here.

The connection to character is interesting really interesting. The prince is presented as this devil-may-care sort, and I don't think the game revolves around tension. Maybe we have a case here where the narrative and mechanics coincide. I have to say I played Bioshock on normal and didn't find it boring at all, but I think you're right that some kinds of experiences need the feeling of tension that comes from substantive death.

chesh said...

I think another quotation from Penny Arcade sums it up better:
This is similar to the philosophy behind Final Fantasy XII, as expressed by our own Gabriel: if all I'm going to do is select attack from a menu, why shouldn't it handle that part?
To build on what Michel says, it's taking a system that was not necessarily great in the first place (quick-save/quick-load for PoP, mindlessly attacking on trash mobs in FFXII) and making it, if not good, at least more palatable. For those of us who've become inoculated to the crappiness of certain mechanics, this seems like a fucking revelation. Just imagine what will happen when a developer replaces it with something genuinely better!

Sandy McArthur said...

@chesh maybe give Progress Quest a go.

Michel said...

It's not just the game being easy that conflicts with the heroism of the character, it's the fact that the story is now literally about a Prince who, as presented unequivocally in the narrative, is a bumbling fool who constantly needs to be saved by a mystical spirit. At least with quick loading the fiction is maintained that the player's failing is not a part of the "true narrative". Now there's not even the rewind feature of the first game with accompanying voiceover "No, that's not how it happened". With an unbroken gameplay experience, what they're now saying is "Yes, this is how it happened. The Prince lost his footing and a magical being saved him. Then he got stabbed but a magical being saved him again. Then he miscalculated a jump but it's okay because a magical being saved him from falling to his death." It's not a good story. It might maintain the flow of gameplay, but it completely sacrifices the narrative in the process.

Sandy McArthur said...

"Is Death the Mother of Beauty?" ... Yes.

Death and it's inevitability makes our lives meaningful. The relatively limited time each of us has available to us during a lifetime gives us purpose. Without this fixed parameter to live in we'd enjoy life to a point and then we'd just be bored and purposeless for the rest of eternity.

Players are afforded the luxury to cheat death so we can continue to enjoy the fantasy but without the mechanic of some kind of failure, usually death, there isn't much purpose. (In my life experience so far there isn't much 'beauty' that isn't associated with a purpose.)

Anonymous said...

I haven't played the game, but from the way you've described it, it doesn't seem like there's no 'failure'. When you fall there's failure, you're just picked up and placed a little ways back. Isn't this exactly what happens with a normal checkpoint system? Here it's just given a narrative justification. You could make an argument about whether the checkpoints are too generous, but not that they don't exist.

From a narrative stand-point, I'd have to agree that a hero that's basically invincible doesn't sound too compelling. Where's the tension and drama come from? Where's the conflict?

Anonymous said...

I'm only about halfway through the game, and I have mixed feelings about the rescue system. It's happened a whole bunch while platforming, because I'm clumsy. That's frustrating, of course, but I've noticed that after a couple hundred falls the princess (seemingly, anyway) starts making increasingly frequent and sarcastic comments about saving my butt, like she's frustrated too.
During the boss fights, however, the mechanic is a much bigger success. If you think about it in terms of how often, say, the Hunter steps on you and almost chops your head off, the game would become an incredibly unforgiving Mirror's Edge-like experience without the princess there to rescue you.

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