Biggest Crisis Moments in Gaming

Apr 24, 2019

The Central Crisis is a moment of high drama in any story, but in video games it’s also the perfect opportunity to mix up gameplay in surprising and exciting ways. In this post, I take you through some of my biggest crisis moments in gaming.

In the season 7 American Dad episode A Piñata Named Desire, tensions rise between the two main characters when Roger (an alien) discovers Stan (the head of the household) is a terrible actor. But when Roger looks a shoo-in for the lead in a production, Stan unexpectedly steals the role from under him.

And right then, side-character Barry runs in, throws up his arms and yells, “The ‘All Is Lost!’ moment!”

"The 'All is Lost! moment!" - Barry, American Dad!

“The ‘All is Lost! moment!” – Barry, American Dad!
American Dad, Reddit

A Nose By Any Other Name

The “All is Lost!” moment has several names (Central Crisis, Supreme Ordeal) but its location and function remains the same in every story. After the escalating tension of Act 2, the main character approaches what they perceive to be their goal. But, in a major reversal of fortune, everything goes wrong and the situation takes a nose-dive.

“It seems like a total defeat. All aspects of the hero’s life are in shambles. Wreckage abound. No hope.” – Blake Snyder

Very often, it moves the hero close to death; either through the death of a character, having them placed in mortal peril, or by moving the action to a location associated with death. And that’s no accident. It’s so they can rise again, renewed and restored, for Act 3.

“Heroes must die so they can be reborn. The dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth.” – Vogler.

The Death Star trash compactor. A classic example.

The Death Star trash compactor. A classic example.
Star Wars, Fandom

Learn, Adapt and Change

The “All Is Lost!” moment encourages the hero to adapt and change. It forces decisions, decisive action and escalates the story’s central conflict. And in video games, it provides the perfect opportunity to mix up the setting, mechanics and gameplay.

I’m gonna roll through a few classic moments now. And for any you’ve played, consider:

  • Where in the story the moment occurs.
  • The setback experienced by the player-character.
  • The mechanical setback experienced by the player.
  • Themes of death and rebirth.

Moment 1. The flame pit: Portal

Both Portal and its sequel feature moments where, after cheating death, you go ‘behind the scenes’ to find and destroy a murderous AI, putting to use what you’ve learned in the test chambers in a much less curated environment.

Moment 2. ‘A man chooses…’ Bioshock

After discovering you’re an unwitting slave, your plasmids go haywire and you lose the mastery of the abilities you’ve relied on to survive.

“… A slave obeys!” - Andrew Ryan, Bioshock

“… A slave obeys!” – Andrew Ryan, Bioshock
Bioshock Burial at Sea, Fandom

Deeper and deeper… James Sunderland descends beneath the earth

Deeper and deeper… James Sunderland descends beneath the earth
Silent Hill 2. Fandom

Moment 3: Descent beneath Toluca Lake: Silent Hill 2

In a game permeated by death, the descent beneath Touluca Lake is particularly horrifying as James journeys down seemingly endless staircases, elevators and black pits, including a blind leap into his own grave.

Rather than navigating labyrinthine buildings to solve puzzles, this whole section is a linear. The player can only move forwards and down, deeper and deeper, with no way back.

Moment 4: The Sorrow: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

After escaping prison, Snake flees a military base before confronting The Sorrow. This leads into a powerful third act as he’s reborn on a river bank and recommits to his mission.

There are numerous mechanical shifts here. In captivity, you have no control – it’s all cutscene. Escaping, you’re stripped of your camouflage and equipment. Then finally, facing the Sorrow, you’re forced to confront death itself

Moment 5: The Bottom of the Well: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

The Shadow Temple features a lot of classic underworld imagery including a literal crossing the River Styx. But it’s at the Bottom of the Well where the player’s most vulnerable.

This is most evident when you fall through an illusory floor and land in an earthy, grave-like pit. Here your objective of saving Hyrule feels more distant than ever, as the ReDeads lock you rigid, leap on your back and nuzzle you to death.

And that final aspect is true for all examples: an effective “All Is Lost!” moment makes us feel further from our goal than ever before. We feel that despair, we participate, persevere, and eventually claw our way back to the light.

Coatsink and The Trial of Endless Agony

Moment 6: Chapter 4: Esper 2

Esper  2... What the where?!

Esper  2… What the where?!

In the fourth chapter of Esper 2,  everything you take for granted about the physical world and laws of logic are stripped away.

Now go solve puzzles!

Moment 7: Rotgut Mine: Augmented Empire,

“It’s a lost cause.” - Willa Thorne, ever the optimist.

It’s a lost cause.” – Willa Thorne, ever the optimist.

Willa is captured, isolated, and forced to escape a hell-like prison with her ailing father. She’s stripped of her rank, weapons and augments and must survive using her wits alone

Moment 8: The Trial of Endless Agony: They Suspect Nothing

“Here, your endurance will be pushed to breaking, in a seventy-two hour onslaught of lasers, flails and digital shurikens!” – Nerezza

Here, your endurance will be pushed to breaking, in a seventy-two hour onslaught of lasers, flails and digital shurikens!” – Nerezza

 As we conclude out time with the psychotic Nerezza in the Human Detection Division, she introduces us to a device that looks more like a torture machine than any test.

Things don’t go exactly to plan, however, and instead we’re ushered into a game of whack-a-mole.

It’s worth remembering then, that while the “All Is Lost!” moment is the backbone of every story, it has the ability to surprise and delight us every time we actually get to experience it – to know how it feels to cheat death and live again.

Jon Davies - Narrative Designer

A writer from Leamington Spa. Jon’s worked in video games for over twelve years on titles including Guitar Hero Live, DJ Hero and, after joining Coatsink in 2016, the critically acclaimed Augmented Empire.

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