|Above: How many times did you see this screen when you last played Fallout?|
Throughout the summer there was an interesting thread in the Mobygames forums on the subject of ‘death’ in video games, in response to an article written for The Guardian. The general feeling among players questions the importance of death in games, and why it remains to be such a central part of the medium. I wasn’t satisfied with The Guardian’s article which doesn’t penetrate the issue very deeply, so I thought I’d take a stab at the notion of what death ‘means’ in gaming, and how (as designers) we might start to re-think the rather hackneyed game mechanic and come up with slightly more novel ways of making deaths meaningful for players.
We’ve all had this feeling: wanting to throw the keyboard or controller across the room after fighting our way through 25 minutes of death-wielding baddies, only to mis-time a critical jump and land in a pit boiling lava. And I must admit, when I was 10 years old I was treated to about 35 GAME OVER screens while playing Choplifter! on my Sega Master System in a single marathon; I threw the controller at the TV and called it quits for the night (and then quickly made sure that I didn’t break anything).
According to Pete Hines over at Bethsoft, “Having your character die or fail is important because your actions have to have some meaning in the game, and to you”. That may be, but that’s like saying, ‘The reason I like ice cream is because ice cream tastes good’. If we’re going to penetrate a bit deeper than those kinds of generic statements (which are true, yet unrevealing), we need to turn to a bit o’ history first.
Early Generation Games and Death
If you look at some of the earliest video game systems and personal computers (for the Apple //e, the Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision, Commodore 64, etc) – the majority of their initial game offerings centered around two-player gaming. The earliest games such as SpaceWar! and Pong
were built around a social model that stressed (rather rudimentary) competition between the players instead of the player vs. the computer. The whole idea of “dying” in both games is rather ludicrous when you look at it – nobody would claim that these abstract onscreen shapes would represent a meaningful death for the player beyond ‘You won, I lost. Damn.’ Besides, losing in those games gave us the opportunity to challenge each other to a new match, which is hardly punitive.
The idea of associating “death” with punishment came a little later, with the advent of single-player arcade games. Games such as Breakout, Space Invaders, Galaxian, Galaga and Defender introduced an economic and gameplay model based on loss: players would eventually play to a level that was so difficult that they “lost” and had to insert a coin and start from the beginning. Tempest refined this model by allowing the player to “continue” from the level that they lost, adding even more addictiveness to the model 1. In the end, calling a GAME OVER screen “death” seems a bit abstract compared to the real thing; in that sense “death” simply became associated with losing to the computer and dumping in more quarters – a slightly annoying inconvenience.
Soon after the decline of the golden age of the arcade, the third generation of consoles picked up where they left off. Many of the early titles for systems such as the Sega Master System, the NEC PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16), and the Nintendo Entertainment System (Famicom), were direct ports of games from the arcade with slightly crappified graphics and sound. However, ports of most arcade games (Double Dragon, Ghouls’n'Ghosts, and After Burner) dragged along the model of death-as-inconvenience rather than something novel. It is rather strange when you think about it: the arcade versions of these hits relied upon dying as an economic model, and this model floated across to the home consoles as a bizarre artifact that became common parlance for gamers. We thought nothing of it however, and simply treated GAME OVER screens as a frustrating, punitive challenge. As games matured a bit on these consoles, battery-backed up RAM and save passwords allowed players to continue from their previous positions 2. With few exceptions, this model of death has become a hallmark of video games ever since.
Of course, the word “death” certainly found its way into video games somehow. After all, we would have called it “GAME OVER” if we didn’t somehow associate this moderate inconvenience with death. Without waxing philosophically here, most cultures do not treat the idea of dying lightly, and there is a strong (yet broad) set of personal feelings and emotions associated with death and dying.
The first, most demonstrative, death I ever saw in a game was in the arcade classic Sinistar. While the concept is mostly derivative of Asteroids – floating around in a tiny ship with space junk flying at you in all directions – the game introduced one of the most terrifying villains I have ever seen since: Sinistar. After a minute or so of playing the game, you would be greeted with the terror-instilling voice of Sinistar ominously declaring, “BEWARE! I LIVE.”, and moments later, “I HUNGER, COWARD!” When Sinistar does appear onscreen, it appears to be a disembodied skeletal spacecraft with dagger-like fangs and a gaping maw. Trying to escape Sinistar is senseless, and only seems to enrage the terrifying creature and encourages it to chase you; eventually it will catch up with you and your tiny space ship will get chewed by its gaping, hungry jaws and explode.
|Above: The painting Saturn Devouring his Son by Goya.|
Sinistar literally eats your spaceship alive while triumphantly roaring a bestial ROARRRRRRRR! The idea of dying in this game is horrifying and terrible, and closely follows many Western societal ideals around death and dying – the fear of being eaten alive. Sinistar is death incarnate – the stuff of nightmares; unfortunately a cheesy YouTube video will not do this fear justice. The painting by Goya, of course, illustrates the same kind of fear that Sinistar draws upon. I won’t go into the deeper psycho-historical mythology behind the Western fears of being eaten, but anyone who had Little Red Riding Hood read to them as a child can immediately remember the menacing fangs of the ‘Big Bad Wolf’. This faery tale draws upon millenium-old fears to give the player an immediate sense of terror in a very similar way.
This might all seem to be a stretch of the imagination, but it surely makes more sense simply claiming that being inconvenienced is akin to dying. So let’s turn to more modern games to see how death is taken up in other genres.
In the realm of console-based role playing games, the Final Fantasy series has typically made strategic use of death during gameplay: the player does not control a single player, but a party, and party members are free to heal and resurrect each other as the battle ensues. In that way, death is neither an inconvenience or a fear of being devoured, but a part of a larger battle strategy. In fact, sometimes playable characters must die in order to survive the battle (ie. if they turn on other PC’s due to a curse spell). In that way, playable characters in the game never really die to the player, they’re only temporarily unavailable in battles.
Furthermore, if you’ve played Final Fantasy VII, you’ll remember that one of the central playable characters is murdered mid-way through the game in a rather dramatic cut-scene. The first time I played the game I was anguished by the character’s death, in the same way I might be anguished by the death of a character in a novel or film that I had grown attached to. In that sense, imagined deaths can of course evoke some of the same feelings as ‘real’ deaths – but only momentarily – it wouldn’t do to have the player go into mourning for weeks on end (after all, it’s just a game!). For this game series, death is both a strategy/gameplay device and has been used as an affective narrative/story device.
Other games, especially in the adventure genre, circumvent the whole sticky issue of death by ensuring that the player never dies. Most of the LucasArts games (such as Sam and Max Hit the Road, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Day of the Tentacle) provide the player with a death-free experiences; players never see a GAME OVER screen through a combination of creative scripting, dialogue and character feedback. Stupid or dangerous decisions are usually rejected by the playable-characters in favor of more creative (healthier) approaches to puzzle solutions.
There do also exist a small number of games that feature what is known as “permadeath”, which usually involves the permanent removal of a playable-character from the game after losing a scenario. While I’ve never played the infamous Sub Mission (which actually deletes your character from the diskette when you die!), I have played the post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland.
|Above: Even Wasteland had an infamous GAME OVER screen after the entire party was unconscious, wounded or dead.|
When party characters are wounded in battle, they quickly degrade into increasingly dangerous levels of wounding that eventually lead to a skull icon beside the character’s name if left untreated. Since Wasteland was originally distributed on floppy disks, it was critical to quickly eject the data diskette from the disk drive before the computer saved the game, and made your 100-hour-old dead party member a permanent gravestone! While this attempt at immersion worked if you weren’t concerned with losing your characters, it certainly broke down if you were ejecting your floppy disk every 10 minutes and restarting the battle (ie. “save/loading”).
Finally, the best examples of creative uses for death (in terms of gameplay and story) are in the classic RPG Planescape: Torment. In a sense, the entire game is thematically centered around death and rebirth through a fairly philosophical exploration of what it means to die. The central character of the game, ‘the Nameless One’, is cursed with both immortality and amnesia for the sins of his previous lives, and the player is left to help him discover his ‘true’ identity. Using very creative dialog and narrative techniques, the designers of the game ensure that immersion is never broken. For example, in one scene the Nameless One must demonstrate his immortality to a doubtful NPC by allowing her to plunge a dagger into his heart, murdering him on the spot. When he re-awakens, the NPC provides him with a vital piece of information that allows the story to continue. In that way, death is integrated into the game through the story, and less so through the player’s emotions. I highly recommend reading Ernest Adams’ article on death in Planescape: Torment as it goes into far more detail.
I hope I’ve demonstrated at least a few different uses and understandings of death across different genres. Clearly, death is not only a punitive gameplay hack that forces players into a survival role and somehow makes their gameplay experience meaningful; and if a character’s death is meaningful to the player there are certainly other reasons for it.
So the question for game designers is ultimately “how should death be treated in games?” There is, obviously, no single answer here. However, there is a general standard at which death can be used profitably:
Does your use of death (player punishment, narrative fulfillment, gameplay, strategy, emotional expression, etc.) fit into all aspects of the overall aesthetic of the game?
For instance, if you’ve played Out of this World (which I reviewed recently), character death is featured prominently and frequently using rather gruesome and vivid death scenes. This design choice had two effects:
- In terms of atmosphere and mood, grisly deaths contribute strongly to the game’s dark and dangerous atmosphere and further immerses the player in the story.
- According to many players, dying every 15 seconds (and being forced to repeat the scene) was frustrating and players felt that this distracted them from the gameplay.
Clearly, death had both a beneficial and adverse effect on the overall game experience. If we accept the implicit assumption that the game’s only function is for “enjoyment”, then clearly designers should spend their time tailoring their game to fit the player experience profile of #2 – the traditional (conservative) choice. Choosing to focus on gameplay is neither good nor bad, but simply reflects the kind of audience that the designer intends to please. Games such as Quake do not bother to reflect much on ‘death’, and instead respawn the character as soon as possible such that the player never sits idle; these kinds of games have been the norm for the last 10 years.
|Above: Wonderfully cinematic and atmospheric, Indigo Prophecy (aka. Fahrenheit) features one of the most frustrating and distracting control systems I’ve ever had the displeasure of using: think ‘Simon’ with dual analog sticks during a cut-scene.|
However, as some games move towards the more artistic realm that involve more than simple enjoyment, designers must reconsider the importance of player profile #1. Instead of being easy to play or enjoyable, games that focus more on the immersive aspects that garner a certain mood for the game possibly at the cost of gameplay. These more atmospheric games are the kind that we typically see as the ‘flawed masterpieces’; I think Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy is a good example of this kind of game.
Returning to the original standard, there is a third option that truly gifted and creative designers can shoot for: integrating all aspects of the game (story, atmosphere, gameplay, etc.) thematically through concepts such as death. While Planescape: Torment thematically revolves around death/rebirth and fits almost the entire profile of a truly aesthetic experience that is both enjoyable and goes beyond enjoyment, the in-game battles bring nothing novel to the RPG genre and remain derivative of former Dungeons & Dragons titles. This may seem like a harsh charge against one of the best role-playing games ever released in 25 years (I think!), but underlines the need for creativity in all aspects of a game and might encourage designers to work on more innovative solutions.
Editorial note: This post is included as part of a PJ’s Attic Round Table discussion, in response to a previous discussion held in 2006 on “death” in video games. Follow the below drop-down list for other September ’07 Round Table entries.
Please visit the Round Table’s &amp;amp;amp;lt;a title=”Round Table Main Hall” href=”http://blog.pjsattic.com/corvus/round-table/”&amp;amp;amp;gt;Main Hall&amp;amp;amp;lt;/a&amp;amp;amp;gt; for links to all entries.