Replay Value?

January 15, 2013

Catastrophes are usually by their very nature irreversible and today’s was no different. There I was sat in Kings Cross at noon, enjoying a ham and tomato sandwich before a job interview; suited up, portfolio in tow, preparation fresh in mind and lots of time to spare – everything was fine.

What happened next is probably best likened to a Hollywood actioner. Know that scene? Where the ‘buddy’ character takes a hit, laughs it off as “a scratch” only to collapse ten minutes later revealing the mortal wound in their chest? It was a little like that only with tomato splurge; I shrugged off the splatter on my leather jacket, unaware of the real damage. It’s got to be said, tomato tie-dye on a white shirt is hard to miss.

Upon discovering this disaster I thought three things in quick succession:

I’m an idiot.

How am I going to fix this?

I wish reality had quick-saves.

But it doesn’t. Neither do films, TV series, books or comics; excluding the odd bizarre exception (damn you adventure game books!) only videogames possess any kind of check-pointing/replay system where the outcome can be so drastically changed. ‘Catastrophes’ in their most literal form barely enter the equation.

It’s something I hardly gave any thought to growing up, being altogether too busy shooting monsters in the face to really consider what the medium did differently to its peers. In recent years though as the form has risen to cultural prominence the method of delivery and nature of interaction has begun to interest me as much as the content itself; it’s not just about shooting a monster in the face, it’s about how the monster was shot, what comes next and perhaps most importantly why in the face at all?

'Fight evil' they said. 'It'll be fun!' they said...

Both these fellows probably have heart wrenching backstories you’ll never know…

Through the 1990’s and early 2000’s I gleefully engaged in simulated mass murder; through Doom, Quake, Rainbow Six, Hitman, Timesplitters and countless others I unquestionably accepted murderous do or die objectives as freeform interaction. The violence never bothered me because it wasn’t real while impermanence of death was simply a non issue: of course I want to retry! Why on earth wouldn’t I?    

It couldn’t last.

Gradually something began to gnaw at the back of my mind. As Call of Duty mania began to manifest full tilt I found myself questioning the simplicity of these shooting galleries. I’d played soldier plenty of times before without a problem but as the internet overflowed with chatter about ‘killstreaks’, headshots and weapon upgrades I realised how tired I was of the old formula: here’s a gun, these men are bad, go kill them.

More exasperating though was the apparent ease of survival thanks to the underlying mechanics. Getting shot? No problem your health regenerates. Dead? Look you just respawned, try again. For all the tension and excitement enemy rocket barrages, ambushes and slow-mo encounters might suggest on screen I felt increasingly deflated by the sense of assured safety. There are pitfalls sure, but you know there will always be checkpoint trampoline at the bottom ready to bounce you right back.

“Hey wait a minute, that’s not a water pistol! Guys! He’s breaking the rules!”

“Hey wait a minute, that’s not a water pistol! Guys! He’s breaking the rules!”

I’m not suggesting these criticisms are anything new – there are doubtlessly thousands of flame wars taking place right now on similar topics in forums distant and deep – nor would I like this to be misconstrued as outright condemnation or ‘ban this sick filth’ propaganda, I’ve played these kind of games plenty and to a degree I still do.

Ultimately it’s the desire to see better that I wish to highlight; the possibilities of interactive simulation are so immense and yet I feel like we’re still only scratching the surface; as much as I love them videogames are still lacking a crucial something.

It was a flash game One Chance that really sparked the idea for Replay Value. Visually it’s a modest effort which only lasts about 15 minutes at the most but it has a unique feature – you only get one try. Oh yes, you can wipe your cookies and replay anyway but the concept tapped into something wholly untouched within me; a genuine sense of weight to decisions made and a sense of truly sombre finality. Honestly, I don’t want to try it again because I know it will never capture the same feeling in me, that’s the whole point.

Happy ending DENIED.

Happy ending DENIED.

With Replay Value I really wanted to hammer home the sense of weary repetition at the heart of most popular games by taking the viewpoint of two supposedly soulless enemy AI’s and giving them a sense of humanity at odds with a merciless player who has the game tipped invariably in his favour.

It struck me as an amusing concept, exploring a kind of gaming hell that also doubles as a story about working stiffs in a dead end job. I wanted to highlight what games have yet to and indeed may never truly master; a sense of the finite and the genuinely unpredictable. Win or lose both sides will be resurrected within the space of a loading screen, while it doesn’t look like faceless enemies in balaclavas will be disappearing anytime soon.

It would be unfair to say there’s been no attempt to push the medium forward and push the boundaries of interaction and involvement: the Portal games managed to sustain interest and humour through an FPS with no conventional shooting, Bioshock directly questioned the contradictory illusion of choice at the heart of gaming while the Mass Effect series had a serious go at creating a sense of widespread consequence to your actions. Still, the rusty old mechanics of videogames past continue to permeate all, simultaneously nostalgic and maddening.

Perversely, on another level I’ll continue love bright red exploding barrels, improbably ordinance stashes, absurd power ups, high scores and all the other clichés – like old friends dropping by to chat about the good old days. I’ll also no doubt continue to quick save every 30 seconds for many years to come but so long as that sense of peril, fragility and irreversible consequence remains out of reach so too will any deeper emotional connection with the form.

As for my shirt stain? I did up my suit and no one was any the wiser ;)