Man Down

10 Nov 2013

How do you handle player death?

The Spartan Beast isn't a street game in any conventional sense. It's a gruelling 12-mile trek through knee-high mud and neck-deep rivers, with obstacles ranging from "rope climb" to "ditch full of ice" to "20m of monkeybars above a lake". Fail to complete - not attempt, complete - any obstacle and you must do 30 burpees. You win the game by completing the course; you lose by quitting.

But, actually, it has a lot in common with street games. There are aesthetics: we're given a pep talk at the start by a man dressed in full Spartan regalia. Some people are in costume. There are elements of cooperation and competition among players. There are crew (at least until it gets dark, but that's another story) who create the experience.

In street games, rules can't be enforced as rigidly as they can in computer- or board- games, and the Beast shares this attribute, too. The crew have some discretion.

I witness this first hand: I'm a few miles from the finish, walking carefully along the balance beams, 20m of zig-zagging sideways planks covered in slippery mud. A crewmember is watching me. If I put a foot down, I've failed the obstacle; she should scream "burpees!" at me, inflicting another few minutes of intense cardio.

What will happen then is that I will go down for the first burpee, stay down, and get medevaced out. I know this and probably she does too. I'm already staggered, barely walking, a victim of extreme exertion and intense cold, with no food other than a handful of energy gels. My pulse is fast and weak; at a road crossing a mile back, my race partner threatened to flag down a car and get me out of here.

If that happens, the race is over, and I lose.

And perhaps that's the right thing. It'll be crushingly disappointing for me (and for my partner, who will feel honour-bound to leave with me), but a game you cannot lose is not a game at all - it's a tour. The reason La Noche De Los Muertos is still the best street game I have ever played is because of the glorious intensity of it: there was no negotiation, no reasoning, and no second chances. You win or you die. Knowing this makes for an absolutely heart-pounding experience, an even more intense version of the Ironman modes of computer games where you can't restore a previous savegame.

Also, having any kind of assistance undermines the meaning of victory, both for this player and for others. "I win!" becomes "I win, but..". The winner's club gets less exclusive.

Normally this would be a gloriously tense moment, the kind of do-or-die that I strive to create in game designs because it tells great stories, win or lose. But I don't have any capacity left to feel excitement. In Left 4 Dead, if you're knocked down twice, you can carry on, but the world goes black-and-white, the sound effects are distorted, and you're constantly reminded that another hit means the end. I feel like that. The medical reality of failure is so present now that I don't care any more; I don't have anything left.

So I do my best, but I slip and put a foot down, just for a second.

She doesn't call it. Neither do I. I finish the obstacle and walk on.

And at that point the game changes. It's full dark, now, and most of the crew have gone home, leaving us on our honour. We see others limping around obstacles, or half-heartedly attempting them and then moving on, without the burpees. I reach an eight-foot wall, try to climb it, slip, and land on my neck. I get up, eventually, and stagger around it to the finish line.

On balance, I think this was the right result. I'm sure the Elite Wave, with prizes and bragging rights, is rigidly enforced. But if every wave ran by those rules, the total audience for this race would be much smaller - and the casualty count would be higher. This kind of 'autoscaling' difficulty is the same thing I try to create in street games; Citydash reports your score against the teams immediately ahead of and behind you, so there's still strong competition even for 22nd place. In Heist, the guards will try hard not to see you if they've busted you three times already.

They can autoscale the other way, too. On my fourth run at 2.8 Hours Later it was getting too easy for me, so I brought a couple of friends along as VIPs that I had to protect. It didn't go well - but it made the game interesting again. I've even done this in races; in the Grim Blackout I ran through the water hazards, even though there's a track around them, because that's what I was there for.

In the case of the Beast, because the penalty for failure is so extreme - wait an hour in the cold for pickup, a humiliating ride in the back of an ambulance, owing a debt to a partner who could have carried on - it makes sense for it to be more carefully administered. The other way, of course, is to reduce the penalty. In Outbreak, if you're "killed" you can carry on as a zombie. In Night Watch you can immediately try again. In Citydash your options are reduced, but there are still things you can do.

I've been thinking a lot about aesthetics and plot design, and concluded that good street games don't try to write stories. They create worlds, and players write the stories. I think it's the same with challenges: the game should create the challenging environment. But the players make the challenges themselves.