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Greet Death, Our Eternal Companion

By siegarettes08-12-2012

Death and I are old friends. Ever since my early days Death has been there, constantly and repeatedly taking away those childhood friends of mine who brought me so much joy. The cheeky bitch however, always saw fit to return them. Since then I’ve grown familiar to her tricks and dying has become simply a practical joke she pulls every once in awhile when I’m not looking. Once in awhile she also attempts to bring some poignancy and drama along with her. The trouble is she’s spent so much time joking around that I’m more likely to laugh than cry.

Rogue, the original bringer of permadeath.

Rogue, the original bringer of permadeath.

Ah, to laugh in the face of death! Before you run away horrified at my sociopathic psychosis, please note that it’s all a joke told in the blackest of forms: video games. Since the early days of video games, we’ve been inflicting and receiving the gifts of Death. As early as Spacewar! we’ve engaged in combat, been killed, and risen again, as if we were some sort of lo-fi Lazarus. Increasingly, games have less consequences for death, and aside from a select few titles, Death remains our friend within the Killing Joke, content with giving us a conditional immortality that see that we come back again and again. Part of the problem is that for as long as video games have been around, they still remain an immature medium that hasn’t become sophisticated enough to drive gameplay through anything but violent, mortal conflict. Violence is the most direct method of resolving a conflict, and the easiest concept to form a game around. It’s only natural then, that we have death as the failure state. It’s also indicative of the medium that we still require “fail states”. Players still want to “win” and the medium is still stuck with binary win/lose states. Instead of exploring other possibilities that could evolve the medium further, as so many developers claim to be doing. However, that’s an article for another time.

Death means nothing to us anymore, we’ve become comfortable with it. Especially as violent online multiplayer games continue to become ever more popular, where death can occur in less than thirty seconds and only costs a few seconds of your time; the consequences are disappearing. It’s not only our decades of death as players that’s been getting in the way. As game budgets continue to expand and studios keep pushing for ever larger “setpiece” moments we continue to up the body count, a frightening thought considering early games had a bodycount that would put Hard Boiled to shame. Some will protest that this is what’s needed for the gameplay. While that may be true, it’s also true that the gameplay could have been built to support the emotional moments that the creators are attempting. Take for instance, one of the worst offenders in recent memory, the Modern Warfare series. While the first game in the series was still an over the top, Hollywood-esque game about the traumas of war, the following entries ramped up the “atrocities” to such a ridiculous degree that any sense of drama has long since been removed. Why should I care about the death of three pedestrians when I regularly murder entire armies both remotely and personally? The entire city is going to be a corpse heap after this battle anyway.

Some might call this an 'atrocity'.

Some might call this an 'atrocity'.

It touches on another aspect of the medium as well, its continued adherence to the arcade spirit of the medium. Especially as more games attempt to tell a worthwhile story, it creates an incredible disconnect between the narrative and the mechanics. We move from cutscene to cutscene getting to know characters we are to love and to relate to, yet between those moments of story we become the agents of Death, liberating an army of souls from their bodies before chuckling and making a wisecrack. This arcade spirit also drives the need for constant repetition of an event, and the need to create challenge, which again results in regular player death. That’s why it feels like a betrayal when the story calls for the death of the player (a continued sin of the Modern Warfare series); up until that point Death has been our companion, suddenly she turns and takes the lives of our characters. The realization that “this death is different” can unravel the tenuous fiction that surrounds the core of the game.

This is all a consequence of the way games have traditionally been developed. There are few developers who take much time to reconsider or experiment with death and its ramifications. Most of the time it’s left to the mod and indie community, simply because it’s a concern that high risk, high budget projects can’t afford to address. When developers do take the time to think about it the results can be incredibly rewarding. We only need to look as far back as the recent success of the multiplayer mega-mod project Day-Z to realize how emotional death can be. For those unfamiliar: when you die, your character dies permanently. Considering the amount of time it can take to get properly equipped, death can be downright devastating; smart players will learn to fear every encounter and every bullet shot at them if they want to survive. It’s a technique that rogue-likes have been using since the genre’s inception and it adds a constant sense of tension and consequence to your every move.

Is this war, or a football game?

Is this war, or a football game?

Every game doesn’t need to drown you in sorrow every time you screw up of course. Plenty of games have handled it in a less punishing manner, mechanically at least. Cannon Fodder in particular solves the problem by giving you a set number of “recruits” for your missions, who are sent to the graveyard permanently when you fuck up and stick em in the line of fire. By also assigning each of them a unique name, giving you a brief “memorial” for the soldiers KIA after each mission. This gives you a visual reminder of your failure in the form of a hill dotted with ever increasing gravestones. Cannon Fodder cements the consequences of those deaths in your mind. The most clever part of these mechanics is that they don’t fundamentally change any of the arcade mechanics that saturate games. Recruits are a simple tweak of the extra lives mechanic, and the game even records score in the form of a “scoreboard” at the pre-mission screen that simply reads HOME and AWAY with the respective body counts after each “team”. Not only does this warp our view of the way the traditional game mechanics work, but it also creates a pitch black satire of both war and the way war is portrayed in games. This is in a game released in 1993, by the way.

Since then there have been few games that have challenged the paradigm of our mechanical and emotional model of death. Offhand I can recount Patchwork Heroes, which aped Cannon Fodder to a degree, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which frames the game as a story told by the forgetful Prince, Dark Souls, which simply has you start off dead (or undead, rather) and fighting to regain your humanity. Special mention also goes to Spec Ops: The Line, which didn’t exactly deal with death in a novel way, but showed the intense, violent consequences of your death dealing. More on that later, of course.

Max is no stranger to death - both on the giving and receiving end.

Max is no stranger to death - both on the giving and receiving end.

The show goes on though, as a young medium there is still a lot of potential to explore concepts and ideas both technically and emotionally. For now, all us who play the game we shall die, and we shall all continue to live forever.


Comments (2)
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Posts: 32

I'd say it's safe to say about 90% of big budget mainstream games are built around inflicting violence. Its part of bigger problem where we haven't yet built a lot of tools around creating engaging experiences that are not focused around violence. We have a lot of tools for games to create excitement, but not many to create other emotions.

Creating something that is moving and engaging without violence is a difficult task, and it's likely going to be slow path towards since a lot of game companies can't risk their huge budgets on something they don't know will work.

Posts: 596

Not all video games are built around violence, but the majority is. Hell look at the most popular video games out there (CoD), filled with violence. But I wonder is violence a result of the developers/publishers or the consumer? What is the cause and what is the effect ;)