A version of this article was originally written for Heart Container
Imagine you’re at a play–live theatre with an ensemble cast. The lights are dim, the set is immaculate, and the performances are impassioned and engaging.
And then, half an hour in, one of the actors flubs their line.
Instead of the other actors taking it in stride, everything stops. The stage goes dark, and you hear the director yell from offstage that they’re going to try it again from the top.
But it happens again, this time only ten minutes in. They restart again. And again.
It’s a pretty horrible way to tell a story.*
The string of the Game Over screen is, often, no less awful, and for exactly the same reasons.
Narrative flow is tricky business when you place a lot of agency in the hands of the player. There’s no guarantee that they’ll head in the direction you want or attempt the things you’d like them to do. Often, the player will wander so far off the path you’d like them to be on that there’s no real way to recover, such as walking off a tall cliff or face-first into a bullet. These are called “fail states”–situations where you have no choice but to hit the rewind button and pretend that none of this ever happened.
Sometimes this is a problem, sometimes it isn’t. In a lot of older games, the fail state was the primary motivator, nipping at your heels as you aimed for that high score list. But when you’re trying to tell the player a story, hitting rewind can be unforgivably jarring.
A lot of early game designers polarized on this problem. Probably the most prominent example of this was the difference between many of the early graphical adventure games produced by LucasArts and Sierra Online. The two companies were producing games that played largely similar to each other, with one clear difference: in Sierra’s games, your character could do something that would make it impossible to complete the game–or even die–while LucasArts’ games kept the player on a tighter leash, preventing the player from doing anything that would throw the game into an unwinnable state. It’s easy to see why both companies went down the paths they did. On one hand, you had player agency and freedom, which made the worlds seem much more immersive–and threatening. On the other, you had games that were much less frustrating and told streamlined narratives, since the player’s decisions never resulted in them being jettisoned from the story.
Over the years, avoiding fail states became the standard for adventure games. It just made for better storytelling. But other genres soldiered on, embracing the tension and freedom that fail states brought. After all, how scary would mechanized Nazis be if they weren’t capable of killing you?
Of course, we’ve been talking about these things as though these were your only two options as a game designer: either you let the player wander off the path, or you keep them on a leash. But a handful of developers have been looking at this from an entirely different angle. What if you could have the player objectively fail, but keep that failure from stopping the narrative cold?
The trick has to lie in the narrative itself. Some approaches have been quite literal–David Cage, the designer behind games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, has tried with varying degrees of success to allow the key player characters in his games to die, and have that death work itself into the narrative going forward. The consequences are real, but not game-ending.
But that’s hardly the only example. Here are some of the other ways games are cheating death:
- Bioshock – Upon dying, the player is resurrected into a new body to continue their journey from the nearest Vita-Chamber.
- Bioshock Infinite – When the player has run out of health, they’re rescued and nursed back to health by their companion, Elizabeth.
- Dark Souls – After death, the player continues to play as the undead.
- Far Cry 2 – The player is saved by a companion, who pulls them to safety.
- Infinity Blade – Upon death, the player assumes the role of their previous character’s heir.
- Portal 2 (multiplayer) – The player’s robot is rebuilt.
- Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – The player’s death is viewed as a failure of the narrator, who slipped up in telling the story and must correct himself (a comicly literal solution).
- Prince of Persia (2008) – The player is saved from death at the last second by their companion, who delivers them to safety.
- Rogue Legacy – Upon death, the player assumes the role of their previous character’s heir.
- The Secret World – When the player dies, they pass to a spiritual plane from which they must resurrect themselves.
- Zombi U – The story continues after the player’s death, the player then assuming a new identity.
* Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run can be the exceptions that prove the rule