In the Twilight Zone episode “Escape Clause,” a hypochondriac named Walter Bedecker strikes a deal with the devil. Bedecker is granted invulnerability and immortality with the understanding that, should he ever wish to stop living, his soul will become property of Satan. Confident that he’ll never tire of an infinite life of perfect health, Bedecker happily signs on the dotted line. Of course, this being the Twilight Zone, things don’t turn out too well for him. Bedecker’s newfound immortality ushers in a profound sense of boredom. Without the fear of death, life gets dull. Bedecker begins committing increasingly dangerous crimes in the hopes of finding some excitement and is ultimately sentenced to life in prison. Facing an eternity behind bars, he exercises his escape clause and cedes his soul to the devil.
I bring this up both because I love the Twilight Zone and as a way to explain my obsession with consequences in video games.
Games have gotten safer over the years. Failure (metaphorical death) is less common and its effects increasingly temporary. Regenerating health abounds. Most games conveniently save your progress and many allow you to revert to a specific save state of your choosing. New Super Mario Bros. Wii will even play the game for you. The point is that it’s rare to be faced with a seemingly insurmountable situation (unless it’s a scripted event). In some ways this makes games more accessible and enables them to tell linear, authored stories. In exchange for trading away unexpectedly (and sometimes unfair) danger, we can play games without having to worry about death.
However, in accepting this deal, we face Bedecker’s dilemma. Without the morbid thrill of danger, things get dull. I haven’t been close to failing in any of the last three Zelda games. I “died” a bunch in Uncharted 3, but the ability to simply load up the same scene a dozen times until I wasn’t killed by a random grenade sucked away any tension in the experience. Thatgamecompany’s masterful games evoke a wide array of emotions, but none of them make me feel the thrill of real, irreparable danger. I’m immortal, and I’m bored.
It’s hard to say when this risk-averse philosophy arose, but G. Christopher Williams makes a good point about the impact of the “GAME OVER” and “Continue?” screens:
Indeed, early continue screens in console games frequently read something like this: “GAME OVER. Continue? Yes or No?” Now , continue screens very often simply state, “GAME OVER. Click X to continue,” as if being told you had lost means nothing. The expectation is that being “beaten” isn’t really a true state. Of course, the player intends to continue. The only reason people quit is because they lose interest, not because of a failure on their part. (“I Admire Your Ability to Lose”, PopMatters, 18 July 2012)
Of course, there were also numerous games that didn’t even offer that. In those games, dying meant the game was truly over, and if you wanted to start again, you’d have to begin a new game. Because of this, the stakes transcended any in-game achievements. In traditional arcade games, sloppy play might cost you a high score, but you’d also pay with your time and your quarters. Death meant more than simply having to sit through a “Continue?” screen; it was swift, brutal, and permanent, which made it exciting.
Bombastic aesthetics have become a fetish that games rely on to excite players that need to be distracted from the fact that there is very little riding on their decisions. Every year we get more realistic graphics, more garish explosions, more cinematic situations that make things look more intense. However, if we peel off the many layers of polish, we find that the danger is a facade and that, even in the middle of a virtual war zone, our avatars are as safe as poor Walter Bedecker.
Games like Spelunky, Demon’s Souls, and Dark Souls gain dedicated followings because they offer an escape clause. Playing them allows you to trade in your immortality and rediscover the excitement of danger. You quickly rediscover the anger and frustration of unexpected loss, but that’s part of the experience. Knowing that the next boss in Demon’s Souls could easily kill me is a thrill that Zelda hasn’t given me for years. Seeing that cartoonish spider bounding towards me in Spelunky is more terrifying than any number of photorealistic explosions because that spider has the power to end my entire run rather than send me back a few screens.
It’s something we’ve known since the original Rogue. An “@” symbol bumping into a “D” can be one of the most intense situations in video games because the outcome will have immediate, permanent consequences. Certainly, not every game has to be crushingly difficult and completely unforgiving of failure, but consequences are something that we should hold onto as we chase ever-more realistic graphics and increasingly elaborate set pieces. Novel aesthetics can offer short term adrenaline fixes, but they will ultimately be overwhelmed by the complacency engendered by constant safety. As Walter Bedecker realized, without the existence of death, it’s hard to feel alive.