Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The State of Play: A Game While Dying

Several years ago I wrote an article for my original blog about death in games, it was by far the most popular I wrote in my entire time on WordPress. Now that I'm back, writing about games and I've even expanded my writing to more than the digital I thought it was a good time to revisit the subject...

"Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay;The worst is death, and death will have his day."

Richard II: Act III, scene 2.

William Shakespeare

The first games I played as a boy were probably not unlike those that you played. There was the hide and go seek type games, and card games like War and Go Fish. There was even the odd game of street football, but my parents were early adopters of Video games. So, I also grew up with access to the Atari and later the NES. I was fortunate to attend a school that likewise offered access to early computers, so perhaps it's not surprising that my first encounter with gaming death was in black and green.
This is pretty heavy stuff to lay on a five year old...

Those early text based games offered some higher stakes than your typical game of tag or Old Maid, and their legacy continues. As I grew older games grew more advanced, graphically, mechanically, and in terms of narrative (sometimes). Atari gave way to NES, NES to Sega, and Sega to the Playstation. As a teenager I suffered my first big heartbreak in front of a flickering television screen...

One of my favorite early games in the 8 bit generation was Final Fantasy, I got a copy from a Western Auto as a boy (yes, they had video games - don't judge me). So, in 1997 when Final Fantasy VII was released I was absolutely psyched! I spent the weekend at my friend Derek's house to play the game as soon as it was released, we slept in shifts until the game was complete (we were dedicated). But this wasn't the normal game of Swords, Gun Arm, and Knights of the Round I'd expected. No, the game hit me in the feels early on when the prototypical baddie Sephiroth crushed my teenage heart, while stabbing Aerith Gainsborough through hers.

Never forget....

I think then and there, it was decided we would play through until we made that rat bastard pay. And pay he did! This however was a new type of death for many gamers, perma death of a narrative sort. Most of us were too emotionally invested in revenge to really question how she could be dead when Cloud has 99 Phoenix Down RIGHT THERE! Well, not all of us. I know Derek and I were incredulous over this very fact through multiple subsequent playthroughs.

It's been a while since I've played the game, so I can't quite recall if there was ever a real explanation given as to why she was dead for serious when there were several ways to bring people back to full HP at a moments notice in the game. Still, the damage was done. Since then it's become a pretty standard trope in games. If the death of said character is meant to be "impactful" then they die gloriously and are left that way. Meanwhile everyone else dies several times per dungeon afterward and it's all good because again, Phoenix Down is a thing.

There are two distinctly different ways that death is handled in games, the short term death. And the permanent death. The permanent death tends to be used for narrative purposes, as with the example of Aerith above. Not only was the death of Aerith a strong motivation for players, it also served a purpose in the greater story. She had to die really to stop meteor, it was a part of the story. Resurrecting her would cause continuity problems at best, at worst it would've caused boom boom on a major scale. This is the first thing I point out everytime someone says something about her death being overrated. If you care about the narrative of that game, you have to accept that her death was important. If you're an elitist who thinks anything past FFII is shit, then there's no point in talking further is there?
"Choke on a bone, you witless ape!"

The other way is the short term death, or death as game mechanic. Early games like Oregon Trail and Pitfall used this as a means of illustrating failure. The trouble with failure in a game, especially a single player game is that on the one hand this isn't a book. When you make it to the end, and trash the last boss you need to feel rewarded. You need to feel the accomplishment of that moment. If the story is linear and there is no meaningful risk of failure, that accomplishment is diminished exponentially. While on the other hand, using death in the way it's been used in some games cheapens it in terms of narrative potential. You end up with weird scenarios like the Aerith effect mentioned above, where a character is sacrificed at the altar of narrative while otherwise death is merely an inconvenience. By this I mean the most common form of death in gaming : You are Die! Continue?

Two years after the release of FFVII though a game was released that informed the way these death as mechanics situations would be handled for years afterward. Planescape: Torment introduced a character that just couldn't stay alive, in fact he begins the game in a morgue with a talking, floating skull sidekick. That morgue would play a pivotal role in the game hereafter, you die you respawn at the morgue. You need to infiltrate this building, die and get taken inside so you'll wake up inside...

The idea of dying, then respawning at a fixed point took off from there. At the same time EverQuest continued with this idea by binding the soul of players to a specific area, so that when they died they respawned at the bind point. This was a major point for those of us playing games like World of Warcraft now. Though there is no more of the binding the soul and respawning naked upon death, we do however bind ourselves to Innkeepers so that we can Hearth (this was another purpose of binding in EQ, though only spellcasters could use Gate spells to return to this point).

And of course, in WoW when you die you respawn as a ghostly version of yourself until you either get a rez, find your body, or accept the Spirit Healers offer to be brought back with a temporary stat penalty and increased repair bill.

Blizzard also attempted to add a more novel approach to death in the game during Wrath of the Lich King, when the raid encounter the titular monarch of Icecrown they would weaken the Death Knight until he pimp slapped the entire group, and suddenly 25 people were staring at the screen with a "Release Spirit" box on their screen. The first time this happened, there were inevitably those who started the long, lonely run back. This was wrong, because for the first time, dying had become part of the fight. After some dialog the raid team would be brought back to finish off Arthas, and then be treated to a cinematic sequence.

The first time this happened, it was a really novel approach and a great way to end a solid expansion. After the 5th, or 10th time you killed him however it became a garden variety annoyance, and of course the part of the raid where we all began to speculate about what items would be disenchanted this week...

This problem is exacerbated when you consider that the internet has made the world smaller. A game like Warhammer might have been primarily available in the US and UK initially, but now it's all over the place. The same is true for digital games, only moreso. Distribution has been improved greatly by the internet, but digital versions of games are available almost instantly, all over the world. With the internet to support gaming communities, the player bases are only stronger and more diverse than ever. That diversity is fantastic, but it also comes with some problems.

For starters, and I know this is going to come as a surprise to some people but stay with me on this one - USA is not the only culture on Earth. I know, I know. Crazy, I know. But I looked it up, apparently we're not the be all, end all of society. This is important because different societies can have widely divergent views on a variety of subjects, but death and it's representation in particular can be a huge hot button issue. Some may recall issues with the WoWs Undead race in China, because of the exposed bones, etc the models had to be changed.

But bathtub girl is okay? Got it...
The Chinese game client in fact includes a variety of changes to models, names, etc to accomodate censors there. As the world gets smaller, cultural awareness becomes more important for large companies (game designers included). For some, the idea of being brought back to life at all might be horribly offensive. As Western Gamers, most of us probably balk at the idea of that being a problem. But for some cultures, especially those with deeply religious citizenry (and likewise, religious governments) this can mean the game won't have a presence there at all.

And why is that a problem you ask? Because less marketability for these games, means less games made. At the end of the day, the gaming industry is a business and that means if the games they make aren't marketable they'll stop making them. Being sensitive to what's going to turn off people in other potential markets and accommodating as necessary just makes sense.

I go back and forth on this, pretty much all of the games I play regularly feature death in some fashion. To tell the truth, I really can't think of any off the top of my head that don't. In Warhammer I won't bat an eye when removing a unit of Warhounds from the table, though I may feel a bit differently about a larger unit of Warriors or Trolls, still it generally isn't the end of the game. Same goes for Magic: the Gathering, big creature dies? Well, he's in the Graveyard now so that doesn't mean he's gone for good, does it? In World of Warcraft I die and glare at the screen for a moment, take a sip of my tea and run back to my corpse. 

That's what death is in games, more than anything it's a gimmick. It's a way to provide consequences of failure without having to think too hard about how to implement it. It's a short hand, it's bad writing, and at best it's a minor inconvenience. But how do we fix it? First, I don't think death should be removed from games, let's just get that out of the way right now. I do believe that it's a very important tool for storytelling. As a narrative device, it's essential. However, perhaps player death needs to be removed.

It's difficult, but consider a group of adventurers hit up a two headed giant in his lair, they fight and the Rogue is incapacitated. The rest of the group fights on, one of the healers then works to revive the fallen rogue... Nowhere in that description was death a necessary part. This presents challenges of course, what happens if the entire group is wiped out during the battle? What if the healers go down and no one can revive them? These are legitimate concerns for someone working on their own game, be it a paper and dice RPG or a multimillion dollar MMO, but considering what's been accomplished already, and considering the level of suspension of disbelief being used already in these games, perhaps this small change could make more narrative situations where a plot character makes the ultimate sacrifice carry a little more weight.

Consequences and Failure an integral part of gaming, death as a default failure state just seems lazy. And really, are you going to tell me it makes less sense for the group to be knocked unconscious before resetting the counter than it does to die a thousand times on a single character, in a single game, with literally no effect other than a thousand instances of your favorite expletive being uttered? So, what I'm advocating for is a shift in focus so that the stories in these games we all know and love will seem a little more compelling. Because it's one thing to suspend disbelief, it's another to totally forget who the rules work in the gaming universe, to forget that Phoenix Down's are a thing...

And that dear friends is where I leave you today, if you have thoughts feel free to share them below. And if you have ideas for future State of Play topics, you can send them to me directly via email.


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