What is it that we really enjoy about videogames? Great story? Sure. Immersive world? Definitely. A chance to become somebody totally new? Yes, but more than that – they are a chance for us to experience the impossible. Videogames give us a sense of empowerment and that is where the real enjoyment comes from. Good games give us a chance to break the rules – rules that we would never dare test in real life. Take any of the Grand Theft Auto titles for instance, of course the story is great and the characters are developed but funnily enough, I had the most fun messing about. When I had invincibility, when I had the best weapons and unlimited ammo, when I had the power to do whatever I wanted – that was when I was having the most fun. Now, I’m not simply trying to praise cheating here as any gamer worth their salt knows that using cheats generally makes a game boring and actually detracts from the experience. I am trying to emphasise the joy of experimentation in a game space and the feelings of empowerment that come from pushing an experience beyond its normal limits.
Prototype is another good example of this kind of a game pushing towards this kind of empowerment. Granted, it was a relatively average game but the concept was particularly interesting. You were Alex Mercer, a superhuman, practically invincible man who could run up skyscrapers, hurl giant objects and eat people. Unfortunately the campaign itself was rather frustrating to play, but the free roam aspect of the game was curiously entertaining – Mercer’s superhuman abilities made for exhilarating gameplay, despite the games rather crude execution.
Perhaps a series with a better pedigree makes for a clearer example – the recent Assassin’s Creed games excel at empowering the player. Combat is weighty but fluid, and brilliantly intuitive in execution. The sheer wealth of moves used by Ezio means the player can feel like a master assassin, despite requiring little in the way of complex input. The game didn’t need to be difficult, in fact, the easier the game was to play, the more successful I was and the more powerful I felt.
However, there is one major flaw that detracts from the experiences in both these titles – death. A ‘Game Over’ screen is hideously jarring when you’re meant to be playing as an all powerful superhuman or elite assassin. Of course a game has to be challenging and naturally, the possibility of failure will serve to ramp up the difficulty of a game, but why use death? Not only does it not fit in with the image of the player’s character, but it’s also a little overused. Thankfully, developers are starting to take note of this and look for ways around it – Assassin’s Creed tries to skirt around the issue with its ‘synchronisation’ explanation, though this still does nothing to change result of failure, it simply removes the label of death (and as a result is kind of a cop out).
Fable 2 tried to avoid it as well, the sudden resurrection of the players avatar successfully removes any kind of ‘Game Over’ screen though it still maintains a penalty through scarring on the player’s character. This is actually quite an effective way of maintaining immersion and demonstrates how Fable 2’s ethos of constantly rewarding (and thus empowering) the player effectively improves the gameplay experience.
Konami’s tongue in cheek NeverDead is perhaps the most promising upcoming title featuring immortality as a gameplay feature. The protagonist, Bryce Boltzmann, can have his limbs pulled off and can even be decapitated yet still keep fighting. In fact, the game even encourages the player to remove body parts in order to help take down enemies.
As NeverDead’s trailer suggests, the immortality of the player needs to be emphasised in ways other than simply stopping them from dying (another reason why an invincibility cheat often ends up just being boring). Essentially, a player’s avatar needs to be physically hurt in impossibly painful, unrecoverable ways. Remember the fight between Raiden and Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 4? The way they stabbed, beat and mauled each other combined with the gravity defying moves they could execute really emphasised the power of those characters. Okay, it was a little homoerotic but still, everyone wanted to play as Raiden after seeing what he was capable of! Perhaps the upcoming Metal Gear Solid: Rising will go someway to answering that call.
However, until the majority of developers are happy to let go of death as a gameplay penalty, can we really experience and believe in the exhilaration of immortal power that many games champion themselves on providing?