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In story-driven games, 'Game overs' are a failure of game design, says David Cage
In story-driven games, 'Game overs' are a failure of game design, says David Cage
August 23, 2013 | By Mike Rose

August 23, 2013 | By Mike Rose
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    33 comments
More: Console/PC, Design



"I've always felt that 'game over' is a state of failure more for the game designer than from the player."
- Quantic Dream CEO David Cage discusses game design in his upcoming title Beyond: Two Souls.

Talking to Joystiq, the creator explained that players won't be able to die at all in Beyond: Two Souls, but rather, you'll either end up in a successful state or a failure state depending on the endless result of each section of the game.

For example, in one area of the game, the player will either be able to escape from enemies on a train, or be caught and then have to deal with an alternative story path in which they are caught. The idea expands on story elements that Cage has explored in his previous games, including Heavy Rain.

Discussing "game over" scenarios, he said, "It's like creating an artificial loop saying, 'You didn't play the game the way I wanted you to play, so now you're punished and you're going to come back and play it again until you do what I want you to do.'"

He continued, "In an action game, I can get that - why not? It's all about skills. But in a story-driven experience it doesn't make any sense."

Cage also revealed this week that Beyond will feature a two-player co-operative mode, in which one player controls an entity attached to the main protagonist. What's notable is that the second player will be able to control this entity via a mobile app.

The Beyond Touch app will be free to download for iOS and Android devices, and Cage says that he is hoping to reel in more casual players to play the game.


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Comments


Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz
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I always felt that death was an overrated mechanic/way of expressing failure. I'm interested in seeing what other 'alternative narratives' they come up with for failure. Reminds me of Deus Ex 1.

David Pare
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Right now I'm playing Tomb Raider and the most annoying thing in the game is when I'm watching an "interactive" cinematic and I miss the only QTE half-way through and I have to watch it all over again just to spam the button at the right moment. The only thing it does is break the immersion.

Ben Sly
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In a theoretical version of game design where content development takes neither time nor money, game overs are indeed a wholesale failure of game design. But if you actually want to finish a game you're working on sometime within the next decade, then it's wise to consider ways to tell the player, "This is beyond the game's scope." Game over screens are a clear way of doing that, and often are less immersion-breaking than teleporting to a hospital after being decapitated or offering choices that seem consequential upon presentation but still shoehorn the player into a linear plot.

But, based on Heavy Rain, it seems that David Cage is more interested in making a nonlinear movie with quick-time events rather than a game built around consistent mechanics. It's fine to do that, but it makes his advice hard to apply to games with any degree of mechanical depth. Nonlinear gameplay is a hell of a lot easier to do when you only have a few consequential decisions to make in each scene.

Roger Tober
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If you ever tried to write that type of game, you would find it's much harder than what you imply. It's actually easier to do non-linear games where the AI just does it's own thing. All of us get into the mire when we mix non-linear with linear because it's really just story branching which has to fit, separate and reconnect. One of the easiest games to write is something like Doom where you walk into whatever room you like and shoot monsters.
I agree though, it gets out of scope very rapidly and it's mostly nonsense to make it feel more real. Most people have these things called imaginations that are able to handle it. Although, I'm starting to wonder lately listening to game players and developers.

Ben Sly
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I'm not saying that the type of game David Cage is making is easy; indeed, it is quite hard to arrange all of those plot threads together coherently on their own and the problem explodes in complexity when the writer also has to work with all the artists and voice in content generation. I'm just saying that the base gameplay of that choose-your-own-adventure style is not deep and that quick-time events and pixel hunts are no way to solve that issue.

The type of nonlinear games in which AI does their own thing do the most of the work in the mechanics rather than in the developer manually generating new content. It's certainly easier to make a quality level in Doom than it is to add on a quality new scene in Heavy Rain, but that's only because the mechanics carry over in Doom in a way that Heavy Rain doesn't. The content generation at the "end", but because the core mechanics need to be refined enough to work with you're not actually saving any effort; you're just shifting it.

And I am trying to write a similar type of game in that it has a heavily nonlinear plot. However, the base gameplay upon which the is mounted is more like a tactics game within an Arkham-Horror-ish boardgame than Cage's style of quick-time-events and pixel-hunts. That design permits me much more flexibility than Cage's does: I can use those much deeper base mechanics to describe much more of the game world than quick-time events can, and I save specific pre-scripted scenes for specific interactions that the other mechanics can't handle. If I were to do this game in David Cage's fully scripted style, then the scope would have to be reduced by far and - even so - I'd still consider it too difficult to make. Even if I had all the necessary money, the coordination between developers and the coordination required for the plotlines to fit together would be too significant to get a good product out of at the end.

James Coote
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While I think second screens could become really exciting / important this generation, I don't think they will necessarily "reel in more casual players"

Deep and meaningful narrative is contradictory to "casual", and just tacking a phone app on isn't going to draw in previously casual players

Second screen is about way more than having an extra controller. It's about information. You have (on your second screen) information the other player can't see. How does a game designer use that? Cooperatively or adversarial? To add helpful extra information or give more than the player can reasonably manage (and in doing so, create the challenge of the game)?

Anton Temba
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Right tools for the right job.

Sergio Rosa
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He continued, "In an action game, I can get that - why not? It's all about skills. But in a story-driven experience it doesn't make any sense."

What if I told David Cage that 'action' and 'story-driven' are not mutually-exclusive things and that you can have both? Maybe someone should remind him that 'action' doesn't equal 'happy trigger dudes running around'

I would like to see what alternate paths he can come up with in a game like Bioshock, where' you're the lone guy under the sea, and if you're killed then that's it. He could argue on setting up Bioshock in a way that you can't die, but what would ultra-violent splicers do then? Give you a cup of tea?

Don't being able to die at all in a game can also be considered a game design failure. The excuse for players not dying in Beyond is that the ghost always saves you (for example in the part where the girl tries to jump off a bridge), but that's not game design, that's storytelling, and I could very well add a twist to that as well and say "what if at one point that ghost gets tired of you and decides not to save you?"

In our current project (a horror game) you're dealing with a serial killer that makes you go through some death traps, and if you fail, you're shot, crushed, burned, or drowned, no "alternate failure scenarios." After all, you're dealing with someone who wants to kill you, not make you go through an infinite loop of "ok, you failed again, so try again and you better do it because this is your 42nd try"

Joseph Majsterski
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This reminds me of the original Wing Commander game from 1990. The game was divided up into about half a dozen sections. In each one, you had a set of 2-3 missions. You could complete missions but fail to achieve their objectives. Depending on the balance of success or failure, you would move to one of two sets of missions in the next section. It was possible to win out through the whole thing and achieve a glorious triumph for humanity, or mostly fail and end up doing a rear guard for your retreating carrier. It was also possible to lose your NPC wingman and be forced to complete subsequent missions without them. Awesome awesome game in so many ways.

Jim Perry
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To say that the failure state is never death is kind of silly IMO. It depends on the game. Say in the game the player is in the sights of an enemy - is the enemy never going to pull the trigger? To me that smacks of the villain making a monologue until the good guy finds a way to escape. That's just dumb.

John Flush
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Hum, if it is truly a story driven game I think he is right. However, if you mix any skill aspects into the game (QTE, Aiming, reflexes, etc) then clearly the game over screen should be included. You are expecting the user to get 'better' at something if it is a core mechanic. If it is straight narrative though, that means you really are making a movie, and who would be pissed if a movie gave you a game over in the middle of it?

So if you are going to change you mechanics to basically play themselves, just make sure they do.

Robert Crouch
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If it's punishment to replay a game, then that is a failure of game design.

It just happens that a number of story driven games are maybe good stories, but poor games. So when you're 'forced' to replay the game without revealing any new story, it is not fun. If you use a story as a motivational crutch, you will obviously frustrate players when you force them to repeat progress without revealing new story.

That's not saying that story-driven games are bad. I agree with the author in that those sorts of games should not punish players by making them repeat sections. I just claim that this is an issue caused by gameplay that, without being tempted by a resolution to a story, is not fun on its own. You would not want to ask someone watching a mystery movie who the murderer was and then force them to rewind to the beginning if they got it wrong.

On the other hand, a game that is fun to play despite the story is still fun to replay even in the case of failure.

Papers Please! is a recent interesting case. While it's not driven by a very strong narrative, there's still obvious story elements to the game. Upon "death" you have the option to restart play at anywhere along the storyline. The game makes it compelling to investigate alternative scenarios. And apart from the early game being more simple than the late game, the gameplay is as engaging the fifth time through as the first; as well, your expectations change to support it. The first playthrough, when things are easy you try to make enough to support your family. Later you've gotten better at the game and when you try to do the simple challenges, maybe instead you want to maximize income.

If you enjoy the gameplay, you enjoy it similarly every time you play through it, even if poor decisions force you to replay a section. But it also does a reasonable job of continuing the story in the case of minor failures, but with repercussions.

In short though, if you are telling a good story using a not-very-compelling game as a progression structure, then don't force players to play that game without giving them story.

The tomb raider example by David Pare is an obvious example. A game of "push X now" is not a fun game. The fun is in watching the story unfold and what happens after the cutscene. By restarting at that point, you're now rewatching the same movie so that you can play the "push x now" game again. On the other hand, if the movie just made the character fumble when the player missed the QTE, but eventually recover, but maybe start the next level with slightly diminished health, or a bit less ammo from whatever the character had to do to recover, that would be OK. The "push x now" game is still boring, but you're not here for that, you're here for the story behind it, or the game that comes after it. As long as those things are still presented, it's OK.

Sharon Hoosein
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Honestly has anyone ever been traumatized by having to press the restart button?

All it means is you failed to master the skill the game is trying to teach, and you need to learn from repetition. In games that aim to reward player behavior, you experience a bit of frustration until you get a sense of accomplishment. However, you only gain a sense of anticipation after you've accomplished something.

Having a character you care about in a nasty situation, knowing they could've been in a different situation if you hadn't screwed up, and now you actually have to deal with the consequences of your failure is a different emotional pattern. In some ways, this is more effective because there is always a sense of anticipation. Instead of frustration, there's guilt.

In story based games, the goal is to have the player experience emotions as a result of their actions. In mechanical games, the goal is to reward player behavior. Guilt is darker, more powerful emotion than frustration. Events don't have the same emotional impact the 2nd...or 50th time around. For games like those David Cage tries to make, "game over" is the wrong answer.


As an anecdotal example, I started playing Remember Me. I'm interested in what ability to rearrange people's memories implies. Defeating a boss or kicking/punching a bunch of minions are the boring sections of the game regardless of success. That failure just means having to do more punching/kicking is boring, though it's not really the combat's fault. It'd be much more exciting if my character got arrested, interrogated, and there was some permanent state change because of my failure.

Michele Kribel
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So David Cage says that death is a failure in game design, and then he makes "games" entirely built with quick time events as the sole game mechanic? Nice...

Jonathan Osborne
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For a game that makes great use of death as a mechanic: Planescape Torment.

Ben Sly
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Although I consider Planescape: Torment to be one of my favorite games, I would disagree with this statement. It makes excellent thematic use of death, but as a mechanic it is little more than an automatic respawn free of any consequences. It discourages use of your companions even though you can resurrect them cheaply: they still leave their inventory in piles on the ground and force everything to be picked up and re-equipped. So, it strongly encourages sending in your protagonist alone and repeatedly dying to grind down the hardest enemies in the game. All the potential challenge of the game's combat is replaced with tedious runs back to the battle from the respawn point, and no enemy ever changes their behavior in any way after repeatedly dying to them.

It's a very good thing that Planescape: Torment's combat is easy and the primary draw of the game is thematic; its combat pales in comparison to the other Infinity Engine games, and that is in no small part due to the death mechanic.

Tom Horan
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David Cage makes a very particular kind of game, and though his "game over is a state of failure for the designer" comment sounds like he's holding all game that use it in contempt, he does concede that he has there's no better option for skill-based action games. Surely that lets him off the hook for having the gall to call into question the oldest, most fundamental trope of videogames and the literal word "game": the requirement to win or lose?
In fact, true failure is only possible in a game where there are no games overs, as the traditional method doesn't acknowledge failure; it merely ignores the failure and delays success by pushing you back to an earlier state where success is still possible.
The disagreement here is over whether videogames need to retain the "game" bit of their title. Cage gets flack for throwing about perceived pretentious terms like "interactive experience", but that's a perfectly legitimate, if vague, way to describe what he does. The QTE and The Game Over Fail State are merely crutches by different names.
As you probably assumed by now, I enjoyed Heavy Rain, but not because it was a good "game".

Roger Tober
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I think it mainly depends on how far you are sent back from the fail state. In a story game, it should be only a small way back, because you won't want to play much of the story over again. In an action game it could be all the way back to square one. As far as, you didn't do it the way I wanted you to, that's somewhat the definition of a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. You can only combine multiple stories to get around it, and then it's kind of a "choose your own adventure" type thing that is more for young players who are interested more in mechanics than story depth. Story is only one aspect of a game and it shouldn't be overdone at the cost of exploration, skill learning, puzzle solving, etc.
I think what David is saying is that this all has to make perfect sense and I think the audience doesn't have a problem with being thrown back slightly in time without much of an explanation. Immersion is somewhat overrated. We all know we're playing a game and we have imaginations.

Steven An
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It's always dangerous to over-generalize, but clearly not having death puts the player in a certain mood. Amazing story-driven games like Gone Home and To the Moon use this characteristic to great effect.

Mike Higbee
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I'd hardly call those titles games, they remove the actual gameplay elements just to have a linear narrative akin to the older interactive movie titles from the 90s.
People seem to have this notion that good gameplay and quality storytelling must be mutually exclusive from each other which is what gives us titles like these which serve as a step backwards if you ask me.

Kujel s
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Honstly I wish this guy would shut up, he's a pseudo game developer so we really shouldn't be paying him any attention. For whtever reason he bypassed film school and got lost among us game developers and the media giving him attention isn't helping send him home to hollywood.

Roger Tober
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That's a little ridiculous. His games are popular. There isn't a set way to make a game. Very few of us want to play mindless sandbox games the rest of our lives.

Mark Venturelli
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Finally some common sense. Nothing wrong with interactive storytelling like Heavy Rain, just glad to see some needless inheritance from games being removed from them!

Andreas Ronning
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He's right and wrong. This echoes the Lucasarts/Sierra philosophical divide around adventure games with fail states. But it applies rather weakly to games with action elements. Having endlessly diverging narrative paths based on analog fail states seem just as poor and inelegant design as the "center-piece loop" of games like Uncharted.

Shane Hendrickson
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Great. I'll be interested to see how he sneaks his own equivalent of a game over screen into the game anyway. You know kind of like how he complained about how modern games are too focused on trying to titillate teenagers and then a few months later released a game where the player can keep extending the female character's fully nude shower scene. Oh, wait but that was "mature" and "contextual" I forgot.

Mark Ludlow
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There's a term for no metaphorical "Game Overs" in stories, "Deus Ex Machina", and an over-reliance on them can cause the reader to lose their ability to suspend their disbelief. Hopefully David realises this and doesn't rely on it too much, but a "No fail" system doesn't really sound like he will. A story can end in many different ways, at different points. "Game Over" doesn't have to mean "Try Again", it can mean that this is where the story ends, and would the player like to play again for a different story?

Ramon Carroll
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Just make the game that you want to make for the type of consumer base that wants it. That's it.

Alex Covic
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When it says "Game Over", I just stop playing.

Jed Hubic
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So games are art and expression, except that if you make games in the same genre as him you should use the same mechanics else you're a failure...right. I think by story driven game, he means interactive movie. It's a pretty broad stroke to paint all story driven games with a game over screen as being total game failures. That's like Sid Meier saying every strategy based game without a turn based system is a failure, just because his games are turn based. I could be off I'm sure but every interview with him I read puts me off more and more.

Personal opinion of course, and I think in a game industry related comment section, people who disagree with me are showcasing a failure in comment design.

Ramon Carroll
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Couldn't have said it better. He's just another David Jaffe, is all.

Blaze Sanecki
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What about old Sierra adventure games like Space Quest and King's Quest series? Those were (and still are) great story driven games with a lot of 'game over, try again' screens. So many in fact, that I would even dare to call it a feature!

Luis Guimaraes
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Within the context of the click-flick genre it's *mostly* true, but doesn't really apply to the whole spectrum of video-games. For game-overs to become a failure of game design the rest of the game must already be all wrong.

Terry Lugviel
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Personally I think it's a failure in game design when a company and/or designer who makes it big on a single platform sells out to a a company that forces them to make their titles for a single console exclusively and abandon completely the platform that made them famous.

On topic though I don't think a "game over" is a fail. Eventually a gamer WILL conquer that particular challenge and most likely will derive a sense of satisfaction from finally beating that boss/puzzle/whatever. While an alternative to death that offers a different path of progression is interesting and can be good for the narrative I'd have to see how it's used before I can say whether it add more value than a death scene.

I think the biggest question is how much does the path diverge from the two options...being captured or escaping. If with escaping at Location A you go directly to Location C to continue the story does getting captured at Location A send you to Location B until you escape and then on to Location C to continue the story? If that is the case then better players are rewarded with missing story elements everyone else sees? I can't see that as being a good thing.


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