I’ve been musing recently on the nature of courage, bravery and heroism, and their role in games and game-narrative.
It was taken by an automatic camera on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, during trials of a new design of Sea Fury. The pilot has come in too high, the undercarriage has caught on the crash barrier, and the plane has somersaulted and burst into flames, trapping the pilot in the cockpit.
It is the job of the man at bottom left to get the pilot out.
Does the fact that it’s his job make his action—rushing into that inferno in a thin asbestos suit—any less brave? Of course not.
Let’s talk about this in the context of a videogame. Can we as designers replicate the sensation that must have gone through his mind: the conflict between duty and stark terror, the very real risk of injury or death? It’s a yes/no choice: either he goes in, or he funks it.
Players, of course, face no actual risk. But even so games have, in recent years, lessened the amount of virtual risk that the player faces. It has become progressively harder to die, and the ‘punishment’ for doing so has been reduced. Therefore, as the games themselves have become more action-packed and realistic, the opportunities for the player to experience any sense of risk, or of consequence of failure, have almost evaporated.
(One notable exception—possibly the only one—is Steel Battalion, the g-robot simulator for the Xbox, with the dedicated and terrifying three-foot controller. If your bot is destroyed and you fail to punch the ‘eject’ button in time, your save-game is erased. Brutal? Absolutely. Awesome? Oh yes.)
Without risk, without the possibility of failure and loss, there can be no sense of bravery. Sure, the sargeant can tell the rookie private that he’s a gutsy kid, and the cut-scene can show the GI studying the photo of his wife and the new baby he’s never held before plunging into combat, and the genetic supersoldier can understand that the fate of millions rests on his actions to try to create the story-context and emotional state for an act of heroism. But if the character’s cut to ribbons in ten seconds, and comes back to life at the last checkpoint, then you’re not going to feel like a hero, you’re just a pawn trapped in a tactics-puzzle. Your bravery is irrelevant. It’s taken for granted that you’re going to rush into the fire-fight. And yes, the Royal Navy took it for granted that the Naval Airman in the picture would run into the fire, but he knew there were real consequences that went beyond his own physical wellbeing or likely punishment if he refused.
It’s primarily sandbox games like GTA and World of Warcraft that let the player avoid anything that smacks of bravery. Find a fight that looks like it might be a bit tough, why not wander off until you’re a couple of levels higher or you’ve picked up a better gun and some more health? It’s the tightly scripted, linear stuff that moves closer to capturing the essence of heroic action, and that’s more by punishing a lack of adventureousness—’No more gameplay for you!’—than by presenting challenges with actual risk involved. There are, at present, no good solutions.
Of course, a lot depends on how the player views their avatar, whether they regard the game-character they’re controlling as ‘me’, as a companion who they care about, or as a disposable camera and weapon-wielding tool. I’ve got a long post in the works about that.
But basically players don’t like risk. They like the appearance of risk, the semblance of heroism, but they really hate it when you make them feel like failures or take stuff away from them. Try telling a player that because they screwed up they broke their magic sword, or they’re going to have to sell their plasma-armour to pay for their half-body med-regen. They want to progress on all fronts, not just story and accomplishment but stats, equipment and fortune. It goes back as far as traditional tabletop RPGs: D&D lets you heal away injury and even death with cheap spells and potions; while also-rans like Runequest, T&T and Traveller were far more stingy with their cures.
Is there a way to get past this give-the-player-what-they-think-they-want mentality, this spoonfeeding of pseudo-emotion rather than the actual exhilaration of taking a real risk and having it pay off? Yes, yes there is. Actually challenge your players. They’ve bought your product, they’re locked in, they’re going to experience the gameplay and narrative the way you want them to. Don’t pander to them. Let them invest in their damn character for a change.
And give them a real narrative, one that lets them actually fail. If they screw up a set piece, don’t respawn them ten paces back and let them try again and again. Move on. They wake up in hospital a week later, and Pode, their hated rival from Company B, has grabbed all the glory for storming the machine-gun nest. Does this mean that they could play through the whole game the first time in thirty minutes of stupid, ignominious deaths? Yes it does, and they’ll get the suck-ass ending: the war ends, they go home to their girl, and she’s pregnant with Pode’s ugly baby. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, as Beckett said. Let them know that the possibility of failure exists, not just in game terms but in narrative terms as well, that screwing up affects the story, and the successes will be that much sweeter. Better than bottlenecking them at a hard part until they get it right through luck or quit through frustration, I think you’ll agree.
As for the man in the asbestos suit, Naval Airman Simon Wallis was my father. The Sea Fury pilot lived, and Dad received the King’s Commendation for Bravery. My dad was not the bravest man I’ve known, but he was proof that ordinary people can and will do extraordinary things if it’s demanded of them, and if they’re given a chance.