Let’s Designing ~3: The Value of Sacrifice

I haven’t really been playing games this week, but I watched a metric fuckton of Doctor Who.

Stick around, I’m going somewhere with this. There’s this moment in nearly every episode where the Doctor turns on his opponent and demands their surrender, lest he destroy them/their family/their entire species. It’s a cheesy threat, but not an empty one: the dude sacrificed his entire race in pursuit of his goals.

How rarely our games ask us to give something up for good. Why is that?

Virtual worlds and fantastic experiences seem like the perfect playground for exploring how loss changes lives. Think back to the first time you played Symphony of the Night, slashing your way through an undead-infested antechamber with abandon in a pretty sweet prologue that quickly sours when Death shows up to jack your shit. You go from badass to bum in thirty seconds flat, and you spend the next thirty minutes learning to survive without the benefit of your weapons, armor and double jump. The first enemy you encounter after Death rolls you is a Bloody Zombie, one of the most pitiful antagonists in the game, but since you’re basically naked you approach with caution and gingerly beat him to death with your bare hands to claim his rusty short sword.

How great did that feel, all those years ago? How fucking scared were you of his rusty blade, knowing that with no armor and only 20 HP you could die in a handful of swings? How fucking amazing did it feel when you bested him? If you’re anything like me, I bet you’ve forgotten the legions of Dire Wolves and Fish Men and Axe Knights you slaughtered all those years ago, but that first Bloody Zombie sticks with you. That’s the power of sacrifice, of loss. They challenge you to cope.

Games are predicated on challenge, yet developers seem leery of demanding sacrifice from their players. I suspect it’s a pragmatic decision to deploy carrots rather than sticks in an effort to ensure more players enjoy their time with a given game, but I’d like to see games recognized as an expressive medium that can thrive on more than simple pleasures. It felt really satisfying to solve a test chamber in Portal 2 or kick a dude off a cliff in Bulletstorm, but it felt even more satisfying to push Ethan into drinking lethal poison to save his son in Heavy Rain.

Maybe it’s macabre, but there are precious few games that demand you doom your protagonist to an agonizing death in order to accomplish the mission. Metal Gear Solid 4 comes to mind; whether or not you place faith in Kojima’s (alleged) approach to game design as an exercise in post-modern entertainment, you have to admit that hammering on that gamepad to force Snake down a blistering-hot irradiated hole was painful. It’s too bad that neither Kojima nor David Cage had the guts to kill their leading men, relying on deus ex machina to make sure they’re fit to fight another day and ensuring the player’s agonizing decision to sacrifice means nothing.

In an industry predicated on pass/fail, L.A. Noire deserves props for allowing players to fuck up and live with the consequences. I appreciate that L.A. Noire allows for players to play on in the face of poor performance (missing evidence, botching investigations, letting criminals walk free) and accounts for that sacrifice in the story, but I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. Heavy Rain is even more brutal when it comes to sacrificing characters in the name of narrative, but the weaksauce conclusion renders your greatest sacrifice meaningless.

I’d like to play a game that gets progressively more challenging by weakening the player instead of toughening the enemy. For example, let’s design a side-scrolling action game with a gender-neutral badass tasked to fight his/her way through a city in the throes of civil war to search out some bullshit bric-a-brac that will postpone World War III. It’s classic Metroidvania, but nobody swoops in to steal all your good shit at the start of the game; instead, the player starts out learning the ropes of combat and exploration by controlling a total badass with stats pumped to the max, ensuring that the tutorial level will be a breeze.

As the game progresses, the player may find new weapons and gadgets but rarely makes any serious gains in terms of firepower. In fact, he/she will be forced to sacrifice gear, allies and life/limb to progress through the game, demanding the player to make difficult decisions and learn to play with the consequences.

For example, let’s say you play for an hour or two before coming to a swift river that cannot be safely forded without abandoning the veritable arsenal your character carries on their back. In most games you’d drop your gear without a second thought, confident you could quickly re-arm yourself at an enemy weapon cache conveniently placed around the next corner. Not here; in our game, you have to learn to fight the next few enemies with just what you’re carrying and hope you can scavenge a serviceable weapon from their filleted corpse. Worse, let’s say you pick up a blood parasite while fording the river and end up contracting a severe case of malaria; as the game progresses your protagonist gets progressively weaker and weaker, demanding the player to carefully ration their finite supply of painkillers while risking discovery and death to pillage hospitals and pharmacies. Eventually our hero runs out of drugs and must fight to the end as the fever ravages his/her body, forcing the player to start sacrificing stat points and health to keep fighting.

Then you trip an IED boobytrap and lose a leg.

The enemies never get bigger or badder, they never sprout cybernetics or jetpacks or weird ninja powers that challenge and confound the player; the challenge is not to beat The Big Bad. Instead, the challenge comes in learning to silently take down two mercenaries with a pistol and three bullets while you’re missing one leg and half-blind from malaria. It’s the Oregon Trail of action games, and I can’t wait until a developer has the balls (and the consumer cachet) to pull it off and turn a profit. The success of a game like L.A. Noire is inspiring; if powerful publishers like Rockstar can prove that a market exists for games more complex than Halo or Gears of War, we might see more games that challenge us in ways we’ve never seen.

So we got together and played L.A. Noire this weekend, under one condition: no takebacks. The save and reload options were dead to us, and we had to live with the consequences. I watched us fail, and it was hard. Right off the bat, a dirty dame went free; we could have caught that bird, could have made her sing. We could have found all the evidence. We could have made that shot. Reloading is as simple as flicking the stick and pulling the trigger, but we didn’t. We stuck by our guns, and that made the game more exciting.

Meaningful sacrifice you must live with — play with — is too rare in games. Let’s make more mistakes.

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