Whenever an anime gets really, really happy, my reaction is one of fear, because it usually means something terrible is going to happen soon.
I wonder, does the same thing happen with video games? I guess there’s always the assumed fact that the “good guys” will win out in the end, right? So no matter what happens, as long as you don’t “lose”, then somehow everything will be okay–despite the fact that the world just got destroyed and you’re trapped in an interdimensional prison, somehow you’ll be saved.
Then again, there are certainly games that try to bend this rule. For example, games that give you “unwinnable” fights that you’re supposed to lose. This has to be done somewhat cleverly as it can’t be obvious that whatever enemy you’re fighting is 100% impossible to beat no matter what, but maybe more like 95% impossible. There has to be a sense of being overwhelmed, so that you almost feel like you -should- be losing, even though in the past you’re used to never being “supposed” to lose. But, the unwinnable fight isn’t actually all that interesting anymore, since we’ve seen it a bunch of times before. BoF 3, for instance, or Super Metroid.
I thought Lifesigns: Surgical Unit had a really interesting last mission because there’s actually a separate ending that’s played if you fail the surgery (and the patient dies). It’s really sad, and it also kind of sucked because I watched the credits and then had to go and play the whole stage again, but it’s still an actual fully-fledged ending.
So maybe there’s more to explore here. What if, when something goes wrong, you don’t simply get shown a generic “game over” screen, and restart from the last conveniently-located save point? After all, in real life there ARE no save points, are there? So maybe it would make games more engaging–more “real”–if you just had to live with the consequences of your mistakes. Of course, you still have to be careful because people don’t like not being able to “win”. It’s usually (though certainly not always) good practice to make anything in an FPS unkillable, because the fact is–players want to shoot things and kill them! If they’re forced to run away, they totally feel cheated. Unless of course, it’s “tactical” running away–as in, sneaking past the guards instead of engaging in combat. But even then, it’s usually better to at least have the option (however difficult) to kill them.
Back to the original topic–there have been some interesting things done in terms of the concept of being forced to live with your mistakes in games. The “You Only Live Once” game, for example, is a platformer where you only get to play it once…EVER. There is no save point, there is no multiple lives, there is no reset, no nothing. There’s also a shootemup game that i think I saw on slashdot where shooting down enemy ships actually causes random files to be deleted from your hard drive (!), and getting killed yourself erases the game executable. But I think those two cases are rather extreme. What about a game where you can play it many times, but there’s no saving, and the actions you take/mistakes you make dynamically influence the outcome of the game. Of course, when I say “outcome of the game”, I really mean =plotwise=. Otherwise, something as simple as Tetris would already be an example. But no, wouldn’t it be interesting to have something like that? Of course, you’d have to do some work not to make it feel like you’re just being put through a bunch of A/B choices here and there. I’m not really sure what genre this would work best in, but FPS, RPG, adventure/point-and-click would all work.
“Dear Esther” seems like it might be doing something really similar to what I’m describing here, though it’s not so much focusing on having the ability to make mistakes and still play through a meaningful game–instead it’s more about utilizing the interactive “explore the way you want” capability of a game to make each play unique in terms of the storytelling. I’d try it, but I don’t happen to have Half-Life 2. I’ve never actually even played Half-Life 2. I’m hopelessly behind on contemporary gaming. =(