Monday 13 July 2009

Nothing will save you!

In this post the the no-save system hinted at in the previous post will be discussed by going over various systems and see how they apply to horror games. I also want to point out that as in the last post, saving means the type of save that determines where the player starts after failure (death) and not progress recording. Also note that I will, becuase of reasons found in the previous save post, consider that weak negative failure effects (like quick save) reduce the scare factor.

Death is final
This type of save can be found mostly in rogue games like Nethack and means that if you die, you will loose all progress and have to start over. Pretty much all games utilializing this system is based on random generation of levels, so when one starts over the game does not play out the same as last time. It also has a concept of levelling yourself instead of the game character meaning that by using knowledge obtained from the previous session one can make it longer in the next.

Would this kind of saving work for horror game? To my knowledge it has never been tried and I think the main reason for this is the random aspects. Horror require elaborate setups with environments, enemies and events something that is not (yet?) possible with randomly generated maps (at least one horror game use it though). The story also tends to be important in horror games and procedurally generating that at the start of each session would be quite some task.

The idea of only having one life has lots of appeal for the horror game designer, as actions made would really matter and the prospects for instilling fear are very tempting. However, the requirement of having to randomly generate content does not lend itself very well to horror games and this type of system might only be workable for some really short and experimental game.


In this system the player is teleported back to a certain spawn position upon death, often combined with some other punishment (lost of currency, experience points, etc). Some examples: In Bioshock the player is teleported without any sort of punishment and in Diablo 2 the player drops all inventory at the place of death. As seen in the two examples, the degree of punishment can differ quite a bit. The placement of spawn points also changes the amount punishment a lot.

The biggest problem with this kind of system is that unless the punishment is quite large, it is either a very accessible system (making death meaningless, like in Bioshock) or one that can lead to frustrating (like Diablo). Thus it seems like if one does not pose some large negative effect upon teleportation it is not ideal to retaining atmosphere and creating fear. However, if the punishment is too harsh it will be very hard to balance the game, for example if the ammunition is lowered too much it might be impossible for the player to progress.

Mini game
The idea of this kind of system is that the player is punished by some kind of minigame before being able to return to the normal game. Prey is one game that uses this system and forces the player to shoot a certain amount of spirits before returning to play. At first glance the basics of this system seem very solid - a player never has redo any gameplay section and is always in the game (meaning no immersion breaking).

After "dying" a few times the problems start though. Whatever mini game the player is forced to play it will always detract from the main game and will never be as fun as the "real thing". This will lead to frustration and immersion breaking. If on the other hand the mini game is very short and simple, death will (like the accessible teleportation) become too easy and scariness be lost.

Would it be possible to make a horror game where the player never dies? As discussed in an earlier post on combat, it is very possible to do so and there exist many examples of such games. All of these games build the scariness from atmosphere and use no game mechanics to inforce it. Would such mechanics be possible in a game with an immortal character though? One way to do it might be in a Sim City kind of way where ones choices will have consequences later on. If bad decisions are made the player might be put in an unwinnable state (turning into a kind of "death is final" game) or simply be denied certain plot points or items. This is highly experimental though and I know of no games where it is implemented.

A variation on the "death is final" system is to add more playable characters to the mix. If one character dies the game continues with the remaining characters until all are dead. Although it might sound very similar to the "death is final" type, there is a large difference - a death of a character might be intentional and it might even be required for all characters to die in order to complete the game. In such a game "completing" takes on a new meaning as it would require the story to branch and have multiple endings (unless each death is scripted which defeats the purpose). This could in turn lead to all sorts of exciting new gameplay and it might be possible to induce emotions like sorrow to a degree impossible in other kind of games.

As with all approaches, is it not without problems. Rebirth requires the designer to manage several outcomes out of different situations and considering one story is often hard enough, this is not an easy task. If it should be possible to always complete game, then the situations where death can happen is also limited, especially if a death needs to branch the storyline. Given an appropriate story these problems are not impossible to overcome though and might work in some kind of Cube-like setup.

Heavy Rain is supposed to have this type of system and although I have my doubts of the game, this aspect will be extremely interesting to see how it turns out.

Physical punishment
Finally one could induce real physical pain to the player upon failure. Knowing that a couple of thousand volts might be put into ones body will definitely make one extra careful when exploring. There are already games where physical pain play a part of the game and it seems to me like it would fit perfectly for a horror game. Not sure if I would like to try it though (beta testers would be harder to find for sure!).

On a more serious note, this kind of system would not be impossible to implement without hooking the player up to a torture machine. Simply displaying disturbing visual and auditory effects might act as enough punishment, but just like with mini games it might end of frustrating instead of adding to the atmosphere. I know of no games that use this but games like The Path and Punishment might be considered close.

What are your thoughts on games without saving? Do you think any of these could be used to increase the scare factor or is saving the best way for horror games? I am also interesting in hearing if I forgot to mention any systems.


  1. I wrote a long ass post but then my computer crashed :(. So, here's everything in condensed form.

    Random map generation has a definite advantage over static maps: no knowledge of what's behind the next corner/door, which improves replay value if nothing else. Whether that's enough to offset the disadvantages as mentioned in the article, I don't know.

    "Death is final" isn't very compatible with a strong story, and a strong story is definitely a plus for horror games.

    Teleportation, mini games and immortality can all work in a horror game, but need a good atmosphere. Judging by Penumbra, I believe Frictional could pull them off, but I don't think these mechanics really contribute to the horror. It'll have come from somewhere else.

    Rebirth must have a rather non-linear story line, otherwise it'll just feel like having "extra lives". If done well, could do wonders to replayability. This would be the most interesting of the bunch for me.

    I don't think The Path or Punishment are anywhere near the physical punishment method (unless you mean getting terminally frustrated with Punishment so that you start bashing your head against the keyboard). Hell, "dying" is in a way the point of The Path.

  2. What about teleporting them to the next chapter of the game, cutting all the scenes in between? I know, is stupid, but might possibly work because it induces confusion on the player.

    On a more serious tone: I think Heavy Rain will be a disappointment. Looks more a film than a game to me (Mass Effect syndrome), although a lot of reviewers would like it even if it hadn't any gameplay. And sorry for being off-topic.

  3. You guys ever played Obscure? I believe it's the only game I've ever played that use the Rebirth game mechanic. It works pretty decently but it gives you the feeling that all the characters are... The same.
    For starters, it's best to have a single character in which you can deposit all your emotions and with which you can grow attached to (yes... Like Philip). For that character to advance properly throghout the game with said emotional attachments, it would be recommendable to add save points.

    However, if you would like to try out a no-save game, then here's an idea:
    Teleportation, you said, works along with penalties pretty nicely, but the question is the penalty itself. How about sanity as a penalty? For example, say the player dies in a specific moment of the game. Instead of simply dying, the player could start from a certain checkpoint, remembering the death that ocurred as some sort of hallucination. However, the more hallucinations of this type you have, the more it begins to interfere with reality, making the player suffer from more hallucinations even without dying.
    In other words, the more you die and have those flashbacks, the more sanity you lose.

    How's that for an idea?

  4. 1)
    What if the player get killed in REAL life when he fails? How much drama that could add to the gameplay and atmosfere? I think the player will quit the game as soon as he notice some danger.

    What if player cannot die but he can get permanent penalties. Like broken leg after fight so he can't jump/run. Player will be forced to be much more careful next time and think more about how to get to the high spots in the levels. This could add strong drama but it can add a lot of frustration.

    Adding some small randomization in position of enemys and scripted events could add drama after loading last saved game.

    I am tired. Good night!

  5. Death is Final sounds great. I'd love playing in randomized maps. That way you'll never know where the monsters are. Of course it would be hard to still have a good story line. If that's not possible I'd still love to have this as a mini-game or an expansion game.

    Rebirth would be good if it could be done right. I'm no game director, but I think you'd have to be able to get attached to the 'main' character, so if you were to die it'd add drama. On the other hand it would be hard to make the transition from the dead player to the new person seam normal. I'd have to feel attached to the character as well. Maybe if you could rotate between each character (forced or not) you would be able to feel connected with them. But then they'd each have to have a different back ground and reason for being where they are.

    Haha, Torture would actually make the game a lot more scary. I feel like Penumbra Overture had somewhat of a mental torture which added to the game. Idk how you could have either mental or physical torture implemented everytime you die, but it would be cool.

    On a unrelated note. IF you ever consider multiplayer of any kind, Last Man Standing (LMS) would be awesome. It's ashame no other game has anything like it.

  6. "The oldest and strongest emotion of Mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." -H.P. Lovecraft

    The only real way to ensure fear is to ensure that the player doesn't know what happens next. If consequences become predictable then those consequences are no longer frightening. Why not consider a system where the punishments for death are far more unknown? The penalties could range from things as lax as mini-games to, in rare cases, something as strict as permanent death. The player would never know what will happen after the next mistake, but he knows -he fears- it could mean having all progress reset entirely.

  7. Anonymous,

    That's a really good idea, and neatly side-steps most of the reasons I feel like you have to be careful about never actually killing the player in games with more traditional save systems. The only other one mentioned here that I'm at all fond of as I've seen it implemented in the past is death is final. Teleportation is horrible and in every instance I've seen made the game significantly worse than it should have been; Bioshock, looking in your direction here.

    Rebirth is one that I think deserves to be explored more, but I think it should be kept limited and as I've mentioned previously it should probably involve characters the player is already familiar with and attached to. Really, for it to work well I think it needs to lead to final death when you run out of characters to throw at the problem.

    Immortality works great in either of two situations; either you've got brilliant visual and audio artists on your team but not enough budget to make a game with any sort of depth, or there are vulnerable things for the player to care about besides the character he's controlling. The latter, like rebirth, I think deserves to be explored a lot more than it has been to date.

  8. Txezco:
    Not played very far in Obscure (only tried demo) so did not know they use that system. What happens when all characters are dead?

  9. Quick addition:
    A system I forgot to mention is "Illusion", where the player thinks death is possible but it is in fact not. This is sort of a twist on the Immortality type and I think it would be hard to sustain in a full game. Many games use it for shorter parts though, like the beginning of "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night".

  10. There is a game that uses the imortality system...but its not a horror game. In Prince of Persia 2008 the player can't die....

  11. In Obscure, when all of the playable characters die, the game is over. In fact, it is the only moment in which the game is completely over.
    When the character you are controlling dies, the game automatically makes you take control of one of the other five characters of the game, starting from a "reunion point". This reunion point is located in the center of the map and thus allows the player to reach the point where the other character died easily.

    It's a good system, specially since every character has their own special ability (one can run faster, the other can say if there are items left on the room, the other gives you hints as to where to go to continue the plot, etc...). But still... It's an extremely american game xD I wouldn't recommend the system. And yes, the endings do differ depending on the survivors (I think...) but it's not really a noticable difference.

  12. The fact of death - any kind of death, - breaks the atmosphere. And it doesn't really matter, I think, of which type of death to talk.

    When player's alter ego dies anyhow, the player is forced to stop assosiating him/herself with protagonist, forced to differ the game reality from the real one (if player doesn't die of heart attack along with his/her virtual self, of course:)).

    I guess, it would be a good idea to logically include player's "death" in the storyline, like if, for example, some kind of monster overcomes the player and makes him "loose consciousness", then the next scene is about how player wakes up in monster's lair surrounded by corpses of previous adventurers and has to make his way out carefully, being very weakened... and stays "weakened" for some time (looses characteristics), maybe, even until the next chapter starts - to prevent players from just waiting in a safe corner for health to recover. So, if player dies, every new try to pass a hard place becomes more difficult, and, therefore, he has to think better and not just keep dumbly stepping into the same sh..t.
    Certainly, when player fails in one chapter for exact (or not too exact) amount of times, he becomes weakened enough to finally die and have to start the game over.

    The only serious problem or difficulity I see in this type of "dying" & reloading system is the neccessarity to make up and create a big number of scripted events and "penalty locations" (like monster's lair), then integrate them in gameplay depending on storyline and environment.
    But I still consider it the most realistic of acceptable types of saving as it doesn't destroy the connection between the in-game player and the real one.

  13. I was going to post pretty much the same as Silkworm here, sans that quite interesting suggestion.

    But really, no saving is just as flow breaking as the worst kind of quicksaving could be. In fact, to me, it's even worse, since it forces me to replay certain stages up to god knows how many times. And I have a clear-cut example: The room with the steam-shooting tiles in Penumbra: Overture. That part was not remotely close to scary, and in fact it was so infuriating it made me leave the game for a good few weeks before I decided to give it another go. And note that I have the game up there with my all-time favorites in terms of atmosphere and storytelling. In fact I decided to give it another chance because it was just to f'ing brilliant to have it ruined just for that puzzle.

    If you ask me, it's quite a shame that some designers think that crippling the gamer (scarce ammunition, unresponsive controls, not-saving) is a valid mean to induce horror. To me, that's just lazy design.

    You said it yourself up there, "these games build the scariness from atmosphere and use no game mechanics to inforce it". To me, ALL games should do that. And ESPECIALLY horror games.

    You know which game is an incredibly effective horror game, probably the best in gaming history, one which screwed with my nerves to the point I was physically afraid of entering some rooms? That's the first Condemned. And oddly enough, it features save spots, a regular save menu, and quicksave. 'Nuff said.

    I think that if a gamer overuses the ability to save to the point it breaks his experience, it's his own fault for being such a stupid woos an noone else's. Like they say down here, it's like cheating at "Solitary" =P

  14. I guess a wise mix of several systems could be a wise solution. This, however, would, perhaps have to alter the plot.

    Punishment of slower movement on character hurting / a mini-game, if it somehow takes place at the same place where the "death" occured, i.e., soul entrapment that has the player fight somehow to release himself / having the player choosing to (or not) kill himself at some point / Death Is Final (DIF) if the player fails the given "survival test" / ...

    In all, it's what I said above. Taking the storyline and it's possibilities in considerantion, an adequate system for the given circuntances and the time/space in the game completion "percentage" would be a very wise way of having it done, applying DIF in the eventuallity of complete failure.

    Conventional saves are unimersive at most. While one can feel so scared even after (quick)saving that he will save another time right after, just in case (:D happens to me in Penumbra BP), one will always have the confortable feeling that nothing will be lost if he dies, which also makes the player think of files and folders from real life (and that btw it's dinner time and he's hungry) during a deep scary scene.

    It's in the way of continuous gameplay that I think the thoughful mix of systems would be a (hard to achieve) good thing.

  15. I really love Nethack, although it is quite frustrating some times. But i still believe a horror game with random parts and permanent death might be possible. The story of nethack is not that great, but there is an overall story and there are certain "key"-parts that are the same every time. For the required randomness, I do not think the story has to be necessarily random as well, although some "random encounters" and the players reaction/decision could possibly effect the ending of the game.

    Another great idea with an "immortal" player character is shown in Braid: While the player somehow dies, he can just rewind the time to any previous time. I think this works really great and does not destroy any immersion nevertheless represents some kind of punishment.
    For a slower game such as an horror-adventure, you could possibly increase the "pain" of the punishment by the speed in which you are able to rewind, e.g. the player has to watch a slow-motion rewind of the last few seconds that lead to his death in some minutes. I suppose this would even increase immersion, while still giving the player some time to breath, waiting full of excitement to continue but being annoyed of having to wait - all at the same time.

  16. I think rebirth saving should be considered to many more games.
    The idea of a game designer is it being a hard job.

    I think it should be fun to the developer to make much more end scenarios and it's weird to think that all games are infact trying to put one end to a game.

    One would assume that a great game is the one who is most worked upon as a function of time.


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