“You know what they should do in Alien Isolation?”
Chris Jager, a Lifehacker Journalist. Perhaps most famous on the internet for the time he created, then ate, a placenta pizza using his daughter’s actual placenta.
Chris Jager likes video games. He’s also a bit unhinged. Every so often he’ll say something crazy about video games. This is about to be one of those times.
“Everytime you die they should ban you from playing Alien: Isolation for a day.”
Oh Chris. LOL Chris. Chris being Chris.
“Nah seriously. Think about it. They have all that tension to play with, but as soon as the Alien kills you a couple of times it’ll be gone. Then the game will be ruined.”
What a ridiculous idea I thought. I turned my back in feigned disgust and went back to bashing keyboards for a living.
But then I asked myself a question: what if he’s right?
The idea offended me to begin with. I associate delayed play with the very worst type of free-to-play excess — I’m reminded of Real Racing 3 and how it stopped me from playing. Real Racing 3 with its begging bowl, demanding I pay to not wait for whatever specified time Firemonkeys deemed necessary to syphon dollars and cents from my digital wallet.
I didn’t stop to think of the benefits.
I didn’t stop to ask myself – how would it actually feel if Alien Isolation did that to me. Killed me. Then refused to let me restart again as though nothing had happened? How would it feel as I hid tucked in a corner, in the darkness with an Alien stalking me, knowing that my potential death would have real consequences? That I would be punished, harshly, if I died. How would I feel when I did die?
There’s a difference between pretending a game has consequences – literally pretending – and actually pulling back the curtain with the strange truth: death in video games, for the most part, has no consequences.
Take the 2008 version of Prince of Persia, for example. A game that I loved. A game in which secondary character Elika would rescue players after a false move. Her hand, outstretched, would grab the player, rescuing him from the brink, plonking him back on solid ground, ready to adventure all over again.
People complained about that. People got angry. People then went straight back to every other game on the planet with checkpoint systems that essentially did the precise same thing. People weren’t angry with Prince of Persia because it was too easy — they were angry because Prince of Persia didn’t play along with the pretence of death. Prince of Persia didn’t partake in the ritual of video game death, it didn’t pretend that death meant something.
Rayman Legends is another. A platformer that doesn’t have a lives system? Huh? In Rayman Legends death simply takes you back to an earlier point in the level. Cool! I can’t remember this happening in any other platform game ever made. I didn’t even properly notice until someone pointed it out. I’ve been taking the whole ‘lives’ thing for granted since Super Mario World – but what are lives in Mario exactly? What do they mean to the player? Or to anyone for that matter? Nothing but a moving green mushroom we chase once in a while. A rewarding series of chimes when our bodies finally collide with them. An extra life. For what exactly? Nothing bad happens when you die. Nothing bad happens when you run out of lives.
There it is again: the pretence. We are pretending that death in video games is meaningful.
What happens when video game death has a consequence?
I remembered the shock, the actual bewilderment I felt when I died in Dark Souls and realised that the items I had used before dying would not be returned to me. I almost howled at the moon.
‘Don’t they know the rules? I’m going back to a checkpoint for christ’s sake!’
The permanency of Dark Souls. The permanency of death. No pretending. Your death fits a very unique set of rules that we all must adhere to. There will be consequences. If you suck, you will be punished.
I think I enjoy being punished.
In old arcade games death meant the loss of actual money. If you wanted to continue playing you needed to spend actual currency. The money I needed to sustain myself had been lost. Literally, I spent my lunch money playing Golden Axe. Literally I went without lunch to play Golden Axe, so the stakes were fucking high when Death Adder started swinging that blunt weapon of his in my general direction.
Even in older games played at home, my lunch money safe from harm, the tension of death was meaningful. Death might mean starting from scratch, death might mean losing hours of progress. When the stakes are high your body reacts, your internal organs throb. Your heart beats faster and your pupils dilate. Your breath shortens and you experience something that feels real. You become awake and empowered, terrified at the same time but above all you become engaged.
So many gaming experiences nowadays leave me feeling disengaged.
Back to Chris Jager. Back to Alien Isolation. Should a game like Alien Isolation withhold us from playing for a set period when we die?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. If it did, the motivations would have to be honest. Paying to negate the wait, obviously, shouldn’t be allowed. The period of time – that’s a tricky one, and there’s the whole issue of video games actually being entertainment. It would be commercial suicide, most likely, to properly stop people from playing your video game unless it was to force people to pay to continue playing, like an arcade machine or Real Racing 3.
So the answer is no. The answer is probably no. A game like Alien Isolation should not withhold us from playing when we die, but it should punish us. Alien Isolation should punish us in a fairly harsh manner if it wants to retain any kind of meaningful tension.
And a game like Alien Isolation really requires meaningful tension.