For a few months now, I've been playing Quarries of Scred (Noble Kale, 2014) which causes me frequently to scream at the screen. Nowhere near as much as NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) did, of course, but pretty much every time I die in the game it is because I am crushed to death by rocks. And it seems like it was my fault.
Quarries of Scred is a game that offers procedurally-generated challenge and if you die, just once, that's it for the level. No health, no extra lives. Just you versus the environment. Will you collect enough minerals to escape – or wind up dead after one wrong step?
When we talk about games that impose permadeath or similar aggravating conditions such as the sparse checkpointing of NaissanceE, we usually reference the power of consequences and how they make us feel. But have you heard of the “Peltzman effect”?
In 1975, Sam Peltzman published a paper in the Journal of Political Economy titled “The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation” in which he noted the expected drop in traffic-related deaths as a result of safety improvements did not materialise. Peltzman suggested that by making cars safer, drivers felt safer and this was reflected in their driving. The safety benefits of regulation could be cancelled out with the smallest increase in risky driving.
This is sometimes known as the Peltzman effect or theory of risk compensation: improving safety causes an increase in risky behaviour thus negating some or all of the benefits of those improvements. It's not just restricted to car drivers, though. There have been renewed calls to abandon bicycle helmets for the same reason. It's obvious that if a cyclist were involved in a collision then that cyclist would have a better chance of survival wearing a helmet than not. However, evidence is mounting that helmets are increasing the number of accidents.
It doesn't just work one way though and it's possible to take advantage of this behaviour. If we heighten the perception of danger, then we can encourage people to take more care in whatever they do. If we make roads seem more dangerous then it should reduce accidents. This is the idea behind “shared space” traffic engineering where the boundary between pedestrian space and the road is deliberately obscured.
I remember Amanda Lange writing a few years ago about how the “incredible threat of failure” was more important than the actual possibility of failure. Players sit up and pay more attention when they think they might die. Permadeath games and the like don't even bother with the fake-out; if you make a mistake, boom, goodbye, thanks for playing.
Instead of reflecting on how this makes players feel, we should consider how it makes them play. The theory of risk compensation suggests that they will play better. How many times have you felt like a “lazy player” in Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004) with quicksave at close hand? We can't contemplate life without the quicksave, but the resulting collapse of risk threatens the athleticism of the game. It's only when you switch to multiplayer do you start to see competition for good play: you don't learn that stuff in single-player.
Quicksaves, regenerating health and other sorts of developer generosity are well-intentioned but often diminish the experience. These systems make no demands, so the player sleepwalks through the game. Let's call it: some of these shooters are just walking simulators with a bit of colourful pizazz. There's nothing to lose, so there's nothing to play for.
This isn't to say all games need extraordinary challenge, but how risk compensation affects player behaviour is not something that should be ignored. Tricks to simulate risk might work but it's all too possible players will figure them out after which point they begin to relax. Suddenly, it's a walking simulator.
See, if I could save the game in Quarries of Scred, it would be abysmally boring. But I can't. And that makes all the difference.