Column: 'The Interactive Palette' - Love Transcending Death: Challenge Versus Story in Calamity Annie
September 9, 2008 4:00 PM |
['The Interactive Palette' is a new column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example.]
In video games, there has been a gradual trend from skill challenge to story. Many of the first arcade games were tests of skill and reflexes: the player was challenged to score as many points as she could before losing. High score tables are a symbol of this era: a skilled player's initials were immortalized for all to see... until more skilled players pushed her off the bottom of the table.
Ever since the debut of saved games and passwords, however, games have been becoming more and more forgiving of failure. This allows for longer, richer experiences, as in the classic The Legend of Zelda, the first game to feature a battery-backed save feature. This has allowed developers to write stories that last longer than one gameplay session, has made death much less final, and has led to our modern story- and character-focused games.
But the skill challenge aspect of gameplay has largely been lost. Players expect a story, and that apparently conflicts with the concept of running out of lives and getting a game over. The loss of that very experience, of finding the player's skill, is often lamented among old-school "retro" gamers and new-wave "indie" gamers alike. The two ways of designing games seem mutually exclusive.
However, indie developer Anna Anthropy's recent freeware PC game, Calamity Annie, manages to do the impossible: provide a cruel skill challenge and still have a long, ongoing game story. It's a groundbreaking lesbian cowboy fast-draw romance where every game ends with the shot of a pistol, and it uses an approach that I think is applicable to a wide array of games.
Love Is A Bullet
There are, as common wisdom would say, two kinds of video gamers. There is the hardcore old-school gamer. She delights in scoring points, in defeating opponents in multiplayer, and in overcoming fiendish challenges. Whether it is a twitchy arcade game or an obtuse and cryptic puzzle, she wants a feeling of achievement from having "beaten" a game. If she has to fail two or three or a hundred times to do so, that's just part of the experience.
The other kind is the artsy, casual gamer. This type is playing for the story, or for the fun, or just to see how the game goes. She likes simulations where she can never really lose, or games where progress is easy or story moves along smoothly. If she comes across a difficult portion, she's more inclined to look up cheat codes or a walkthough than try repeatedly; she's not interested in testing herself, but in moving forward without the annoying interruption of dying all the time and having to start over.
Each of these groups thinks the other is missing the fun part. What fun is it to just sail through a game without any challenge? You might as well read a book. What fun is it to "try it again, stupid?" You might as well just hit your head against a wall. The fact is that there is fun to be had in either approach.
The tenseness of a challenge and the euphoria of success, not to mention the glow of accomplishment, is something that anyone who's won a game of Monopoly can attest to. Likewise, the feeling of experiencing a story, of really being there, is familiar to anyone who's become engrossed in a good film. And if you're partly responsible for bringing about that ending? So much the better.
This apparent dichotomy isn't really that big of a gap. Every player can understand both viewpoints, given some calm thought; it's just that some people lean more toward one camp than the other. The only reason it's seen as such a divide is that game developers seem to only be able to appeal to one side or the other. If a game can appeal to both the challenge-gluttons and the story-seekers, it can reach a wider audience and satisfy both halves of a conflicted gamer's mind. Anthrope's game comes close to this ideal.
I Am A Gun
Calamity Annie is an unforgiving game. The player faces twenty-five bad hombres, each quicker on the draw than the next. She has three lives. Missing an hombre, or shooting too slowly, will take away a life, and free lives are few and far between. Death comes swiftly and suddenly in this game.
However, between every five hombres is a special scene, either a minigame or a cutscene. These cutscenes tell the story of cowgirl Calamity Annie's awkward romance with a mysterious woman from town, and incorporate the six-shooting gameplay mechanic in a seamless and potentially final way.
But instead of restarting the story each time you play, the narrative marches onward past each "death." You see, Annie's enigmatic crush patches her up each time she's shot, so while starting a new game means she starts over at hombre number twenty-five, the progress of the romance continues. Indeed, it continues past the end of the game: there are multiple endings, each meaning something different for the relationship's development.
Here is a game with all the hallmarks of the ancient skill challenge games: limited lives, no health bar or continues, and a posted high score at the end. However, unlike those games, it allows for a story that continues past the player's failure. This technique may be the solution to the challenge versus story dilemma.
A developer can borrow from Annie by separating the story of a game from its rules for success or failure. Yes, one ship has been lost in the battle against the alien menace, but the war still progresses. A brave adventurer dies in the maw of a dragon, but the people she helped along the way are more free and more willing to help the next brave soul defeat the evil overlord... or perhaps more cowed by the grisly example she made.
I Draw First, And The Game Is Won
Calamity Annie is the first game to really pull that off. The only game I can think of that uses a similar technique is the seminal Planescape: Torment where, when you died, you woke up again due to your blessing — or curse — of immortality. The System Shock games and their spiritual successor Bioshock did something similar with their technological healing chambers.
This rebirth mechanic isn't quite the same, though; the games all feel easier due to it. Failure is forgiven, and the player's accomplishments continue. In Annie, though, the game is fiendishly hard throughout, perhaps because the story is not directly tied to Annie's success as a gunslinger. Her misadventures in love are separate from her misadventures with a gun.
It's not a complete paragon of gaming unity, however. Both kinds of video gamers will not be pleased equally. Eventually, to progress the story past a certain point, the player will need to beat all twenty-five hombres. The story-seeking gamer will likely balk at this task, which requires reflexes best measured in tenths of a second.
If the quick-draw game was a bit easier, or if the story was not finally held up by the player's continued failure, then Annie would be an even more effective reason to call for a truce between the two camps of gamers. This game is an uneven compromise, but it's definitely a start.
On the Gamer's Quarter forums, Anthropy writes, "I made the story persistent between games partly because the actions that advance the story lose their impact if the player is forced to repeat them every time she plays... I think that kind of persistence, where one play of the game affects others, is just beginning to be explored."
I'm looking forward to that exploration. Challenge and story don't need to be at war anymore.
[Gregory Weir is a writer, amateur game developer, and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]
Categories: Column: The Interactive Palette