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Fall damage in video games is bullshit

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There has never, ever been a time when I have wanted to take fall damage in a video game.

I understand why it exists. Falling from a great height in real life most likely means sustaining some kind of injury, if not outright dying. Therefore, if a game wants to be as realistic as possible, characters must sustain damage after a fall, too. When realism isn’t the sole aim, it’s also a way of forcing the player to be extra mindful of their environment, particularly when the game provides tools for getting around fall damage, e.g. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s glider. That game’s stamina wheel works in a similar way; if you miscalculate your strength and can’t make it all the way up a cliff, you’ll fall to your death.

Forcing players to be more conscious of the tools they’re given and how they can be used is commendable, and Breath of the Wild in particular has seen players pull off unbelievable tricks using the game’s mechanics. But would removing mortal fall damage mean that players wouldn’t discover those stunts on their own?

At least for me, diving into a video game has always been about escaping from reality, even if the game’s setting is a facsimile of the modern world. In any open-world game, I also want to be able to explore without worrying that I’ll die if I flub a jump, and if anything, the idea that I won’t take damage when I fall only encourages me to do more exploring. For example, in Breath of the Wild, items like the glider serve more purpose than just breaking a fall, and the stamina bar pops up in many different contexts. Is fall damage really a necessary aspect of these types of games?

When I jumped into Ghost of Tsushima, I didn’t even think to worry about fall damage. As soon as I’d passed the tutorials and was set free on the open-world map, I charted a straight line from my location to my nearest objective. I started on my merry way … and promptly fell to my death. As it turns out, there are a lot of things to like about Ghost of Tsushima, but the lack of fall damage is not one of them. There’s a perk you can unlock that allows you to avoid fall damage if you press a button at just the right time after jumping, but the timing of it can be finicky, and it doesn’t work if you fall from too high up.

A lighthouse in Ghost of Tsushima

Image: Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

There are games in which falling is part of the whole point — the entire genre of platformers is based around repeatedly falling and dying — but in games in which exploring comprises the bulk of the gameplay, fall damage has never made the experience more enjoyable, particularly if falling from a great height means certain death. In those cases, it almost feels like the player is being penalized for exploring. On top of that, it breaks the flow of the game, as your character is forced to revive and restart at a different point.

Other types of open-world games, like the Yakuza franchise, put a different kind of limit on exploration. Besides the fact that the games take place in a series of districts rather than an entire world map, fall damage has been removed from the game because there’s no opportunity to fall, period. Characters are blocked from moving off of balconies and other high spaces, but that restriction makes sense given the landscape. The Yakuza games aren’t about climbing around and exploring in quite such a physical way. No falling, no fall damage. Though it makes sense, it also takes a little freedom of control out of the player’s hands.

On the other end of the spectrum are games like Doom Eternal, which let the player fall from dizzying heights, then keep going as if nothing had happened. It’s an empowering feeling precisely because it’s impossible according to real-life rules. Yet it never comes up as an answer to the question, “What superpower would you most like to have?” That’s not because it’s a bad power. It’s because it’s difficult to imagine a superhero who would have a power that’s so banal. And yet it works in Doom Eternal because the game is about becoming strong enough to fight off all the forces of Hell.

Demons in Doom Eternal

Image: id Software/Bethesda Softworks

Is there a happy medium, then? Somewhere between removing the ability to fall, and becoming so overconfident in one’s godlike ability to fall without sustaining damage that paying attention to the game’s intricacies becomes second to proving one’s invincibility through wanton destruction?

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey comes the closest to answering that question. Falling incurs damage, yes, but never death. It’s a way of penalizing the player for falling without throwing too big a wrench into their experience of actually playing the game. The result encourages exploration. You still have to weigh your choices before taking a bad fall; if an enemy happens to be waiting down below, they’ll have no trouble taking you out before you recover from the damage taken.

Realistic or not, fall damage is something that tends to sap the fun out of any game where it’s present, but it’s the ability to fall and die that is the real problem in the equation. Far from making the experience less realistic and requiring suspension of disbelief, being able to jump without fear of death is one of the great pleasures of video games, and it’s only when you jump, die, and hit a loading screen that you’re really taken out of the experience. Let fall damage die.

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