Let Off Some Steam is a new section where we let you guys get something off your chest – it can be a vitriol laced rant, a sappy love letter to whatever, or anything inbetween. Send your ranty words in this direction, and try and keep it under 600 words. Today David Lowther talks about Heavy Rain and the consequences of video game death...
Perma-Death - or How I Started Worrying and Loved the Tension
This article may contain spoilers. It all depends on choice.
I was playing Heavy Rain recently with my wife. She is not a gaming novice, having grown up with consoles her whole life, but she is in no way an enthusiast. This is why what she said really struck me.
(Spoiler… or not, that’s the beauty )
My FBI agent Norman Jayden had just died many hours in. She said, “Great now we have to replay that scene”. I said, “No, we don’t”. She said, “What, we have to restart the whole game!?” When I explained that he was dead, and he was not coming back because of our actions, not some predetermined plot twist, the tension involved in every life or death sequence increased exponentially for her.
See, even someone who is not an avid gamer knows the cliché. You die, you try again. You run out of lives, you start again. I have played thousands of games, and this is true of almost all of them. But have you ever noticed how your heart pumps on your last life, or your last hit, or your last jump? Heavy Rain and it’s perma-death is exactly this, stretched over the entire length of the game. You can argue that not all decisions are life and death in the game, but that is only through hindsight. You don’t know if you can lose your current fight and survive. And if you die, the game won’t stop.
Herein lays Heavy Rain’s greatest asset. Sustained tension. You feel like what you do matters. Not just now, not just this checkpoint, not in some superficial “an extra line of dialogue opens up” way, but that every action has the capacity to shape the game. It can be exhausting, but after thousands of games that sort of investment is very, very welcome. By their nature, in games what you do can have a negative effect on your character. Few have the balls to make that stick. Few have the balls to make a game with no game over screen, to not define progress through pass or fail. It is a genuine breath of fresh air.
It doesn’t work across all genres, though. I’ve seen perma-death discussed before as an experiment in Far Cry 2. It certainly ramps up the excitement and adds some heft to your smallest decisions. But in that example death only ends in frustration. There is no opportunity for the story or world to perpetuate; therefore it is either reload or start again. I’d sit out Gears if getting through the first ten hours only to die at the hands of a freakin’ Lambent Wretch meant a new game. But to me that just means that nothing in Gears, with its 4 vs 100 fire fights (running low on ammo, while bleeding out), will ever feel as tense as going toe to toe with a dodgy mechanic in Heavy Rain.
That is not to say one is better than the other. Or that Heavy Rain is perfect. It is not. This is just in praise of a game that manages to elicit a different set of emotions, something developers used to do more often. It’s also in praise of a developer who took a risk with a sizeable investment to try something new. I hope that there is room for such diversity and continued experimentation in major AAA releases in an industry becoming bogged down in sales competitions and yearly reskins.