Let Off Some Steam

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.

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Comments

    BLAAAARGH!!!!!
    I'm still pissed off at Legion dying in my first playthrough of ME2.. I was tempted to re-load an earlier save but I decided to bear the brunt of my careless actions... Didn't make the same mistake 2nd playthrough, I assure you. But, I still feel the loss of Legion quite strongly, especially going into ME3 without him.

    Also, do you guys remember a text based game called Nethack? One life, one save. Save gets deleted if you die ONCE. Nothing like getting to level 15-16 of a dungeon only to DIE and not being able to re-load a save.. made you appreciate the character a LOT more.

      I felt the same way with Mordin. After seeing his 'Scientist Salarian' rendition, doing his personal mission etc, then I had him die at the door, it was a real loss for me as I liked taking him with me on missions etc. I thought ME nailed the personal aspect of companions really well :)

      I'm glad it was just that evil DLC character that I lost. Zaeeve? or something. I really likes all the other characters, and would have missed them in ME3.

      Got my sympathies. I quite like Legion too.

      I was really anal during my first playthrough of ME2, since I casually told myself that I'd only go through it once, to add weight to my actions and choices. Did the same thing in ME.

      Was so relieved when the achievement popped and said everybody survived.

      Now waiting for ME3 with a save game that I'm really happy with...

    See that is why I actually liked the save system in Dead Rising.
    A single save and having the save points so far apart gave your actions consequence. If you made a mistake you could not just reload until you do everything perfectly. You could not just ignore the zombie horde because you saved ten steps ago.
    It was not perma-death but when your last save was a hour ago on the other side of the mall and there is 2 groups of survivors that you might not reach in time because this boss is taking too long but you don't want to die and have to do it all over again... it is intense.
    I replayed it many times to try and get different endings and missions but I got bored with DR2 because it was so easy, you could not fail.

      I managed to fail in DR2! Mind you that was due to mucking around on the other side of the map and having a 'oh shi...' moment when I looked at the time and I realised I needed to finish a task in way too short a time period!

    I finished ME2 for the first time yesterday. then i started watchng season 1 of chuck. 5 minutes in and i'm like.. "man that chick looks and sounds like miranda. but she's blonde" - what an idiot its the same person.

    3 things blew me away here. 1. miranda is hot in real life 2. how good the facial graphics and sound were - it was that easy to pick that they were the same person. 3. every time she hit the screen it felt a little wrong. you dont belong here, get back on the normandy!

      This is the sort of stuff that made me not play Uncharted 2 yet. Just finished Dragon Age and it just didn't feel right.

        Yeah, my husband was playing Uncharted 2 the same time I was playing Dragon Age. It was so weird hearing Morrigan and Alistair in Uncharted that I sometimes had to leave the room when he played.

    On the other hand I really appreciated the fact I couldn't die in the Prince of Persia.
    Got rid of all those pointless re-loads when all you needed was atrip back to the last flat surface.

    the issue is that most games these days try to tell a paragraph of story revolving around a single character

    they don't have to worry about the possibilities of what happens if a certain character dies at different points in the story

    Perma Death is good for a story driven game. But it's not really something you can do in a FPS because there life can never be attributed soley to your actions.

    It worked in heavy rain because heavy rain was basically a choose your own adventure movie when it came right down to it, which isn't something against it but if you start getting cookie cutter versions with poor stories then it will kill any future options of better ones

    This is precisely why I like Dungeons and Dragons: with a creative person as the Dungeon Master, failure is not the same as losing. Failure is a valid option for the resolution of almost any given conflict. So very few games incorporate this because it's a huge strain on the design crew; either the game needs to be procedurally generated (and lack depth and/or emotional punch) or the tree of possible outcomes needs to be enormous.

    But it's really the most potent way of causing tension, of letting a player feel like it's -their- story, like -they're- in control.

    Naturally, this design philosophy doesn't work for all game-styles, but it really needs to be explored more, and more often. Truly next-gen gaming is when you can fail a quicktime event, but the game keeps going~

      Failure is not the same as losing - that's a great way of putting it.

    Just "replayed" two missions in Star Trek Online - both broken and unable to claim reward. WTF? Over a year old and still bugs like this???

    Great vent man, really well written I think. What HR does that is really really unusual in modern videogames is put the characters in situations that aren't life and death, so that there are only so many ways/places any of the characters can actually be killed. So, pragmatically, the developer only needs to write so many versions of the story with/without certain characters. That's the practical reason this kind of thing would never work in an FPS type game (or Mass Effect) because you're constantly under the threat of death.

    But yeah, I agree with the above poster I replied to. Expanding our gaming palette to include other versions of failure aside from simulated death that essentially rewinds time (whether through a PoP style mechanic or save points or you have to start over, its all the same) so that the hero never actually fails... That'd be really interesting. I mean, Heavy Rain was already interesting. I'll be intrigued to see if LA Noire incorporates that kind of mechanic. Being the detective means that if you fail to solve a crime, its not necessarily you that will die...

    I remember being quite shocked when I put one of my buddies out of his misery in Far Cry 2. We were in a firefight on a dirt road and after I took down all the enemies I turned around to see my buddy lying down waving at me. I ran over to help him out and instead of pulling out a syringe, he said something like 'Make it quick' and I shot him dead. And he was dead alright.

    I then stood there looking at his body thinking "But, but I didn't...wha?" for about ten minutes.

    Is it my imagination or do people not read beyond the first sentence and think this a place where we let off steam in the comments as opposed to in the chosen article? Oh well.

    But as far as permadeath goes...arrggghhh, stressful! I could only play Heavy Rain in short bursts because I was always really tense and literally on the edge of my seat so I didn't miss any moves and inadvertently get my characters killed.
    Thankfully in Mass Effect 2 though, my completionist attitude saved the lives of all my crew. I am half tempted to have some of them die on my next playthrough though to see how it changes Mass Effect 3.

      I'm tempted to do the same thing, so far I've managed to save everyone (obsessing over upgrades and loyalty missions, mostly :P) but it'll be good to see how it transfers over to ME3.

      Having seen the death cutscenes, though, I'm not sure I'd be able to kill them off, even as a test. The characters are just too well written.

    I'm sure this has been mentioned before but the thing that bugs me most is that this headline *should* be about the Steam distribution system. Every time I see it I expect some delicious Valve gossip and I'm always disappointed.

    It may be unreasonable of me, but I decry the current state of Bioware and RPGs in general. Sure, Obsidian is still banging together beautiful, flawed things, BUT THAT'S NOT ENOUGH DAMN IT. I know it's unrealistic, but I wish Bioware would stop talking about streamlining and so on, and give me a proper successor to Baldur's Gate 2. Or even Neverwinter Nights. Maybe it was the D&D settings and lore, maybe it was the superb brilliance of the Infinity Engines, but I just feel like Bioware have lost the magic. ME1, at points, seemed to get it back, but got bogged down with irritating side missions and then morphed into a shooter. Dragon Age was good, even very good, but the whole setting came off as forced to me. Everything was so rahrah adult darkness that it got in the way of the wonder. Likewise with the WoW-esque combat system. While it seemed to work pretty well, I felt that a layer of strategy that was available in BG/NWN was removed from Dragon Age. Anyway, I have a hope that by reconnecting with a compelling universe (Star Wars) Bioware can get some of that juice back.

    DAMNIT! i just want to see more character customization, and more skill games. Perks and enhancements are fun, but GONE are the days of Unreal Tournaments insta kill skill.

    HC is becoming the replacement, but still with perks. solutions?

    Also, someone set up a petition AGSINT the DIRECTOR OF UNCHARTED, fucking mad man has no idea what he's doing.

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