Who doesn’t love winning. It’s crazy to think there’s someone out there who needs to be motivated to want to win. There is, in fact, a veritable cadre of psychological studies regarding the impact on winning and losing. And guess what: it’s super important.
With that as a baseline of knowledge, now consider that video games are designed around the concept of succeeding. There is at some fundamental level in every game where there is a goal and it is to be accomplished. Even the most abstract or non-game-like products like Proteus have (equally abstract, non-game-like) goals, like explore or relax.
This makes it seems totally nutso when designers make the assumption that they have to go out of their way to make you want to win, as if it were their responsibility to instill the basics of human psychology into your brain. It’s as if they feel a need to remind you that being happy feels better than being sad, and then also telling you what it means to feel happy. It’s a level of handholding that isn’t necessarily insulting but certainly questionable.
Most of this came to mind recently when I was going back through last year’s backlog of games I either didn’t finish or didn’t play at all. One of those was Alien: Isolation, which I never fully got around to despite liking what I had played at E3 and doubly despite hearing from some of my horror-loving friends that it was good for a scare. And after getting a little into it, I realized they were right: this game is scary!
But then I kept playing. And it kept doing the same thing. The scares became annoyances. It wasn’t that I started to hold my breath because I mimicked the character out of sympathy fear but I started sighing because I knew I was about to die. Not only had I failed at the game’s and my own objectives to survive, but I also had at least 20 minutes of crawling over the same stretch of vents and tile floor ahead of me.
Certainly, I am not clean of the blame. I should have been more patient and I should have been more alert to the Working Joes around me. But there is a construct of the game which mechanically defeats the your own desire to not be defeated, and that is the save system. There absolute, discrete points in the game where you can save at, though more accurately I should say they are the only places you can save at.
In the diegetic nature of the game, this makes sense. But for the gameplay, it’s highly problematic. I can’t be sure without talking to someone who worked on the game or seeing some design docs, but it seems to me that this is very specifically for heightening the tension of each stretch of non-saving. It should make your innate desire to win even stronger and fervent.
The problem is that it does exactly the opposite of that. It only serves to increase frustration when you die, leaving you with a bad taste of directed anger instead of personal regret. It forces you to redo the entirety of something that only ever existed to raise the stakes to a more interesting realm instead of an indignant one.
Following the repeat attempts, it further sucks out whatever tension that may be left with a knowledge of what to expect. This foresight combines with a deadman-walking, fuck-it kind of attitude that invariably leads to rushing from one door to the other until some confluence of luck and skill leads you to a success in a matter of seconds rather than minutes or hours. And when you can’t brute force your way, with the game aggressively guiding you to its draconian path of winning, it then becomes a controller-throwing affair.
We, as players, inherently want to win. This idea that a game has to further our wired need for success is patently absurd. Instead, the consequence of failure should be born from an intermingling of mechanical and narrative needs. Let’s say, for a second, that the save system in Alien: Isolation was replaced with a modern auto-checkpoint system. How do you put back that design intent of heightened tension?
To answer that, let’s take a step back. The fear of the game itself comes from not knowing where the xenomorph is at any given time. Hearing and seeing the clues colliding with the less opaque threats of the world are where the drama comes in. So instead, the design intent should draw from that. Even with a more frequent set of checkpoints—let’s say at every doorway—a randomized but informed placement of the xenomorph and other localized threats should be enough to inspire inklings of anxiety.
This restates the primary desire to hide and remain hidden with every death, rather than putting some meta fear into the player that extrapolates some systemic assumption of raising stakes and ire. None of this is to say that any of this makes Alien: Isolation a bad game or that it is a bad game (I actually am enjoying most of my time with it), but it certainly brings to mind many questions of modern game design.
Obviously liberal checkpoints aren’t a panacea nor should they be (see: Dark Souls), but the idea that we need to be coerced into wanting to win is troubling. Instead, the reward of succeeding should be heightened, even in the punishment of losing. What person would ever want to be pushed by the stick instead of led by the carrot?