Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bedeker's Dilemma and the Thrill of Danger

Walter Bedeker, from the Twilight Zone episode
"Escape Clause"
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about the importance of consequences in video games. Hopefully there are some Twilight Zone fans out there, as I use a particular episode to convey my point.

Hanah and I are currently playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess together. As I calmly dispatched a gigantic, fearsome looking evil knight, she commented that "It looks like you're chopping wood." It wasn't that the knight looked like a tree, it was because he posed as much danger to me as a dead log. Granted, I've played a lot of video games and it's hard to faze me, but the point remains that I'm rarely intimidated by things in games that are supposedly meant to be intimidating.

I attribute this to a lack of consequences. If I slip up when playing Twilight Princess, I'll lose a couple of hearts. If I really get sloppy, I'll have to drink a potion or use a fairy. If the unthinkable happens and I die, I'll have to start the battle again or, at worst, retrace my steps to the boss' lair and then restart the battle. Mechanically speaking, death doesn't mean much, as I could continually restart the same battle with few consequences besides lost time.

Most mainstream games are like this. Progress stops only when the player gets bored and walks away. Therefore, the thrill you get from danger is more likely to come from an aesthetic or narrative source: huge explosions, dramatic music, an unexpected scripted plot twist, etc. The problem here is that, without novelty, even the most convincing illusion of danger will lose its power. Just take a look at how the Call of Duty series struggles to continually up the ante in terms of spectacular set pieces. In reality, the games don't provide much real danger, which means the developers have the unenviable task of trying to entertain immortals. Without the fear of death, how do you excitement from death-defying circumstances?

It's no wonder that games like Demon's/Dark Souls and Spelunky enjoy such dedicated followings in the current design climate. In many ways, they are very much like old arcade games: visually modest, but mechanically terrifying. One sloppy mistake and everything you've built is gone; your temporary virtual life, such as it is, is snuffed out. In this situation, the "GAME OVER" screen is more than a reset sequence, it's truly an end.

The roguelike genre is one of the few places in which death has retained its power in video games. When you're down to your last hit, out of items, short on time, and staring at a spider you know has the power to end your epic run, you feel tense. Your hands sweat a little and your heart beats faster. You're afraid because you know you could perish, but you're simultaneously excited. Death has real consequences and the feeling of escaping its clutches makes you feel alive.


  1. So a kid in the 80s with no more quarters should have found cheating death even more exciting?

    Are you proposing a pay per play game along the lines of I Wanna Be The Guy where beating it proves you have the complete package (skill, dedication, and wealth)?

    Someone tweet Molyneux. This could be his next project. :)

  2. Hah, point taken! There are definitely limits to the amount of punishment people should (or can) take. However, I think what you said is basically true: it might not be fair, pleasant, or even desirable, but limited resources and high consequences make for an exciting experience.

    If you can find some way to work a lovable dog or freaky virtual child into the mix, I'm sure Molyneux would be all over it! :-)