Thursday, July 16, 2009

Game Pitch: Meaningful Death Game

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

After reading Josh’s recent post on death and failure in video games, I found myself thinking that a game that treats any character’s death with a sense of permanence and resolution could be pretty incredible. My next thought was that this would probably also make the game incredibly difficult and barely any fun at all, as I would have to play from the beginning of the entire game each time my character died. So how could a game deal with death as a serious consequence without ruining the enjoyment of playing the game?

To answer that question, I’d like to pitch a concept for a game at you. If you’re someone who plays games, I’d like you to think about whether you’d enjoy this one. If you’re someone who designs games, I’d like you to make this one. If you’re a company that develops games, I’d like you to hire me to be the creative designer on this one. Let’s a-go!

The Opening Scene:

You’re sitting in the back of a bus traveling through the Rocky Mountains, looking out the window. The girl to your left is listening to her headphones, but smiles sweetly when you look at her. The bus stops in a small town to refuel, and the driver and a few passengers get out to stretch their legs and grab some snacks. After a few moments, sounds of a struggle and a scream are heard from the inside of the gas station. The window of the gas station breaks as the driver goes through it, and a strange, near-human creature leaps through and lands on all fours, with several others following it out of the building. Someone in the bus manages to close the doors and lock them as the creatures pound on the windows and panic breaks out.

The girl next to you throws her headphones down. She looks panicked, but she takes your hand and reminds you that you know how to drive a bus, and you have to get out of here. You work your way to the front of the bus, sit in the driver’s seat, turn the key and hit the gas. The creatures hang onto the side, keening and crying as you pick up speed. Suddenly, you see a woman in the middle of the road ahead of you, and you swerve to avoid her. You slam into a rock and go flying through the front windshield. As you lie on the pavement, the girl from the seat next to you runs up to you, crying, as a few others mill around outside the bus. They're talking, but they sound very far away. The girl holds your hand and caresses your face as everything fades to black.

Now you’re looking down at the body of a young man on the pavement. Your eyes are blurry with tears, and the people around you are trying to figure out what to do next. Not too far away, strange and hideous calls sound out in the night.

The Concept:

A survival-horror game with a large cast of characters, where each chapter of the game has the player taking the role of a different character. Each chapter would end when the character currently being controlled either reaches a specific goal or dies. Later chapters would have more or less of the cast remaining based on the survival rate throughout the game. Multiple endings would be possible: one where everyone dies, another where one or more people manage to escape to safety, a third where the story of the town and the monsters is revealed and the threat is wiped out forever. At points in the story it would present the option to give items or weapons to other characters who might have more of a use for them, and the player would have to balance their desire to have the items now against their desire for the other character to have them later in the game.

The Payoff:

Using a satellite phone given to you by a character now long dead, you manage to use your knowledge of electronics to fix it, hook it up to a larger antenna and get reception, contacting help and the outside world. It's a good thing he gave the phone to you to fix, instead of using up the batteries trying to find a signal on a broken phone.

In a later part of the game, another character has a brief, emotional moment where he recollects the death of a character you played earlier in the game. Or, if the character lived, he tells her how much she means to him before they leave the relative safety of the house the survivors have holed up in.

A writhing horde of monsters teems down a hallway towards the few remaining characters. You hand off the keys and items you’ve found to the people you’ve grown so close to in the last few hours, and tell them to run. You stand your ground, shooting the beasts down as your friends escape. The first one reaches you and knocks you to the ground, but as they surround you, you see that your allies have gotten far enough away to make it. You know that they have everything they need to end this.

Other Applications:

A similar idea of a large cast of characters and meaningful, permanent death could be applied to a number of different game concepts. It could make for a more intense and realistic war game, where the player controls different members of a whole squad of soldiers. Or imagine a Batman game where you play as the rogue’s gallery of villains and try to execute a nefarious plan as Batman works to take you down, one by one. The possibilities are both varied and exciting. So what do you say, gamers? Would you play it? And game companies, am I hired?


  1. I would play this game. You are hired.

  2. I like your moxie kid! You're hired! You can take Johnson's desk. Johnson, you're fired.

  3. The idea of switching characters as one dies I think is actually being used in Dead Space Extraction to a certain extent. I'm not sure if the character switches for each chapter, but I do know that you switch characters and that some of the characters do die. For example, I saw a demo for a chapter on a website and at the end of the demo the characters were talking and suddenly everyone screams as they're staring at you and your character falls to the ground for an unknown reason as the chapter ends. But they're definitely not using it in the ways you thought, I think the idea is awesome. Btw, this is your nephew Ben ^_^.

  4. Welcome to the site, Ben! Glad you found it.

    Dead Space Extraction is sort of an interesting game, though I wonder how much of the gameplay they're sacrificing for the sake of pushing the graphics of the Wii to their limits. It's possible that they'll tell a good story, but with a "guided experience" which is just a few steps removed from a rail shooter, I doubt that it will be a very deep and fulfilling experience. It's hard to capitalize on the interactive promise of videogames with incredibly limited interactivity.

    Who knows, though? Maybe I'll eat my words, and that game will be incredible. I thought Dead Space was a pretty great game, and the Wii could use a little more incredible this year.

  5. I'd play it. I loved Eternal Darkness, which at least had the huge cast that came back at the end, and this sounds like its along similar lines.

  6. I've heard of Eternal Darkness before and it sounds like it was really good. I don't know a whole lot about it though. Was it good, and do you think I could find a copy somewhere?

  7. I think Eternal Darkness was easily one of the greatest games for the Gamecube, and probably one of the most creative horror games I've ever played. Finding it might be a bit of a trick, though. I'd try eBay or looking for used copies in game stores or on Amazon. If that doesn't work, let me know, and maybe I can lend you mine! It's definitely worth checking out.

  8. I'm thinking about this now and the connotations of such a system are really interesting! Oh, and apologies for post necromancy, but this was linked to in the year end wrap up.
    So ideally in your example the player successfully drives the bus for however long then accidentally hits the rock and dies, moving on to the perspective of the young girl. What if the player messes up early? Do you crash the bus earlier and then maybe have to take a different trail up the mountain or whatever? Otherwise the player might feel cheated, "Why do I get to switch characters when I die there but not here? RAILROADING!"

    The other thing that could be frustrating is if the player aces the whole bus driving experience, not failing a single challenge, then is forced to die at the end.

    The final and most interesting thing I think, would be how this would affect the player's desire to be different characters. What if the player hates lame bus driver kid but really likes to play as the girl? Maybe they'd try to crash the bus early, or if they hate playing the girl they'd be frustrated when forced to switch to her.

    Feel free to pick apart/comment on anything I've said, I wholeheartedly submit as nothing but a fan with no knowledge of actual game design.

  9. Hi, samineru, thanks for posting. I don't mind old posts being raised from the grave at all.

    The way I imagined the opening sequence, it would be less interactive than the rest of the game. It would serve as a mechanics tutorial, teaching the player how to move characters in the game and how to interact with objects. Most importantly, though, it would teach the player that point-of-view characters can and do die. This would probably be the only required death in the game. It would also probably be mostly cut scene, with some of the mentioned basic tutorial elements. The rest of the game would put the player in more direct control of the outcome.

    That being said, any death in the entire game would be permanent. If the player did have complete control of the bus and died earlier than mentioned here, they would be dead. The scene might play out a little differently.

    If a player did decide, at any point in the game, that they hated a character and wanted to let them die so they could move on to the next one, that is certainly a viable option. It may influence the outcome down the road in unexpected ways, however.

    This is all just how I imagine it, though! Thanks for your thoughts.


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