Permanence and Decision Making in Video Games

A few weeks ago I was reading a very interesting round-table discussion in a well known gaming magazine, concerning the role of traditional narrative and the author in modern video games. At one point they touched upon games trying to impose a sense of permanence upon gamer decisions, and they highlighted an individual, his name escapes me, who decided to play with permanent death. Basically, if he died it was permanent game over. This got me thinking about the wider issue of games attempting to impose a sense of irreversibility onto the player, and as an extension of that, how developers utilise player led decisions in their games.

I can see the appeal of, and am slightly intrigued by, the idea of approaching a game with a sense of finality. Taking the Far Cry 2 example, it’s easy to see how this would add an entirely new dimension to the game. Creeping around every corner, exercising caution where you would usually run in blindly, and spending large portions of the game running away around the nearest corner to pull bullets out of your body. Come to think of it, it doesn’t sound quite as much fun as I initially thought!

Speaking of running away and hiding around corners, Demon’s Souls has delighted and frustrated in equal measure with its take on permanence. Its auto-save feature removes the ability to restart a section, and it punishes the player severely for ill timed or thoughtless actions. A misplaced lunge is liable send you hurtling back to the start of the level, with your previously vanquished enemies re-born anew and stripped of your demon soul currency. Yet, Demon’s Souls has succeeded, at least critically, in its unforgiving take on the RPG. This weighty approach has won it a legion of fans, partly because it fits so well into the game, and because it doesn’t override the fun of simply playing it.

Staying within the RPG genre, a sense of permanence and divergent choices are nothing new in console gaming. Chrono Trigger is a perfect example of a title well ahead of its time that presented numerous options that would affect how the narrative played out. The way it pressed the gamer to carefully consider their next move was exhilarating, but also worrisome. I played Chrono Trigger for the first time earlier this year on the DS, better late than never, and I’m not ashamed to admit that in an attempt to achieve a “good” ending I found myself constantly referring to online game guides, which did dampen the experience somewhat. Moving more towards the PC, MMORPGs have long exhibited a near absolute sense of finality in gamer decisions. Aside from resetting a character, there are few ways to undo divergent choices, with game data being saved on the server and not being user malleable. However, games such as these are not entirely narrative driven. Although a decision may effect the direction or growth of your character, it’s not liable to lead to an end game narrative outcome.

So, is the responsibility of permanence and decision making something we should embrace, or is it adding too much weight to a past-time, that for the majority of gamers, is about throw-away fun, escapism and release? Heavy Rain looks set to bring this question to the forefront in 2010. The director, David Cage, has voiced his desire that gamers only play through once, in the hope that it will provide all decisions with a real sense of permanence. If your actions lead to the death of a character, that event will shape the narrative and ultimately affect, and make unique, your time with Heavy Rain. This certainly sounds very interesting, and I am eager to see if it delivers on its promise, but it does seem out of keeping with one of the defining aspects of a video game; being an infinitely recyclable experience.

Staying with 2010, the forthcoming Mass Effect 2 is set to take game-to-game permanence to a new level. Game saves and, more importantly, decisions made during the first game are transferable and directly affect the characters and narrative of the sequel, offering a real sense of continuity. But, will it leave gamers who missed the original out in the cold?

Many games completely do away with permanence and consequence, and at times it can be to their detriment. It never fails to surprise me when the latest FPS is heralded as the closest thing yet to a warfare sim. The regenerative health system featured in the vast majority of today’s shooters completely nullifies any sense of realism or consequence from decisions. Why take your time infiltrating that bunker when you can just barge in and then regenerate your health on the other side. The GTA series is another good example of a lack of consequence dampening the impact of the game. Once you realise that beating down that pedestrian, or shooting a cop has no real effect on the game, then it starts to gradually lose its appeal.

Personally, I like games where actions carry consequences and decisions weigh heavily, but not too heavily. I think most of us embrace the fact that decisions can be re-made, cherishing the ability to erase our mistakes, and it would certainly be very dreary and unappealing to play a game too grounded in reality. If we want to manipulate our games to introduce a degree of finality, just like the Far Cry 2 example, then that’s great. But it’s a decision best left to the player, not dictated by a developer who would prefer us to experience their game only once.

Mistakes, or unwanted decisions, are inevitably a load or a checkpoint away from being reversed. I for one enjoy the illusion of my gaming choices carrying meaning, but I can rest safe in the knowledge that it is, after all, just a game, and unlike real-life, most things are reversible. Unless of course your game saves are corrupted. Then you are stuck.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90's. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

5 comments

  1. What MMORPG’s have divergent choices? Maybe I didn’t get that deep into them but I can’t recall anything from recent memory. (And yes, I am trying to ask a legit question and am not trying to be a smartass, all apologies.)

    How come you didn’t mention Fallout 1 & 2. Game changing choices and moral ambiguity were central themes to those games.

    • Michael J /

      I think Matt is referring to the choices you make regarding your characters growth in MMO’s – attributes, skill trees etc, rather than the narrative sense of making choices.

    • Hey JT. Just like Michael said, I was refering to character progression/growth as opposed to narrative.

      As for the Fallout games, i’m sure that they would fit well within this discussion. However, i tried to limit the sample of games I mentioned, and also I have never really got into the series, so it didnt come to mind. I’m told that im missing out!

  2. half_empty80 /

    Imagine what it would be like playing a game with permenance. It would be a totally different experience. Risk taking would be huge, since if your character was seriously injured or died, it would be game over. Heavy Rain is promising to be something very different, and I can’t wait to see if it pulls it off.

  3. Robert L. /

    It’s surprising to me that David Cage wants users to play through Heavy Rain one time and one time only. Re-playability is considered pretty standard for games (I’d argue it’s one of their defining features), so Cage is definitely taking a risk in developing a game that’s intended for one play-through only. Also, there’s the issue of selling a product for $60 which isn’t meant to be used more than once; unless a single play-through clocks in at least thirty-hours, I imagine a lot of gamers might feel upset when the credits roll.

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