Saturday, July 27, 2013

How Monaco Fails Its Players

I picked up (against the better judgment of my bank account) several games during the last Steam Sale. Three of those were stealth titles of recent publication - Monaco, Gunpoint, and Mark of the Ninja (the last a gift from my friend Pat). And I bought them despite the fact that I have very real problems with the stealth genre.

Monaco has gotten the most play so far. The Girlfriend and I are moving through it, and the emotions it evokes have been a little roller-coaster-y. When it's working, it's fantastic - the art design is incredible, the character abilities well-balanced, and the challenge often invigorating. Until we hit the wrong mission, anyway. Then the alarms go off, the guards start shooting, and soon we're dead.

Now, Monaco, as far as stealth games go, is quite forgiving. You're given plenty of information about what the guards are thinking and seeing, and they have pleasantly elastic memories - if your character can stay out of sight for long enough, you'll be forgotten, and the level will go back to an un-alerted status. And in co-op, a dead player can be revived by his or her co-conspirator, making survival much easier. And yet...

There is no sensation in gaming more infuriating than loss of progress. One of the reasons we play games is that it gives us a pleasant, if artificial, sensation of achievement. We are doing things, growing stronger, passing through levels. And when those achievements are stripped from us by our own mistakes or failures, the feeling is crushing. Feeling crushed isn't why I play games.

To give a Monaco-specific example: it is a significant task to grab every single piece of loot on a floor of Monaco. It involves stealth, hacking, combat, all of your characters' skills. And if, after achieving that task, you die on another floor of the same level, it's all gone. That progress is deleted as though you'd done nothing for the last half hour of your life.

Worse, you're forced to repeat the areas you've already completed. Novelty is another important aspect of games, and by punishing players by stripping them of progress when they die, you're also stealing novelty from them. I want to experience new challenges, not be forced to re-complete ones I've already done because I died on an unrelated part of the level (this is a problem I had with Hotline Miami, as well). If a challenge kills me, I want to try that challenge again. Not spend twenty minutes doing the things that lead up to the challenge.

Am I just whining and asking to have my hand held? I don't think so. I still want hard, nasty challenges in my games, but I want the challenges to be their own reward. I don't need the stakes of knowing that failure means losing half an hour of progress in order to take the challenge seriously.

For an example of someone doing it right, look to Gunpoint. One of Tom Francis's stated design goals with the game was to never make players feel like their time had been wasted. As such, Gunpoint saves every few seconds, and after a failure, you can simply rewind a few clicks to try again. You still have to solve puzzles and execute tricky maneuvers, but there's no sense that you're being punished by the game. If you're seen, you die pretty much instantly, and then the game immediately reloads an old save; it's exactly what players have been doing when being spotted in stealth games for years, it's just automatic and far less painful.

I love Monaco. But it has made me feel legitimately upset because of how it treats its failure state, and that's not a great way to feel while playing a game. There are better ways.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything here. At the very least, if you fail a level and are forced to replay it, you should be able to keep all of the things that you acquired that make your character better at getting through the level. That way the repetition is at least meaningfully gainful.