Thoughts About Death in Games

Reading Richard Clark’s opinion piece “Is Death In Games Cheap?”, I got thinking about death in games. Some of the comments gave more stuff for thought, and my imagination ran wild. How can games emulate death meaningfully, why do we care about death – and what is death, anyway?

Let’s start by defining death. When defining something, wikipedia is often helpful, so let’s ask them:

“Death is the termination of the biological functions that define a living organism.” From

Death, in English, is that a living being is gone.

So why would we care? Based on nothing but my own experiences, it seems like when we humans start to care about something, we’re crushed when its damaged or gone. Its clearly the case with other people. As we get to know people, we start to care. As we start to care, we will mourn the loss of him/her. And the longer you’ve known them, the closer they’ve been, the worse it gets. Compare a far-away relative with an old friend, for example. Interestingly, the same thing seems to account for non-living items. Remember that new CD, watch, phone, vase? Or perhaps an old gift? Surely, it’s frustrating when it gets its first scratch, its sad to see it become old and its absolutely crushing when it breaks or is gone. And the closer your ties has been to it, the worse it gets. The suddenness also seem to account. Something that in one second is brand-new and the next one gone (such as the newly-bought ice-cream you stood in line for a half hour a hot summer day, only to drop it on sand the second after you’ve paid for it – before you even got to taste it!) is more emotionally charged than something you could see coming (like, a computer that gets old and one day doesn’t work any more).

But this sorrow seems to not be permanent. Humans have an amazing ability to adapt to current circumstances. Just as the emotional value of something brand new or novel discharges with time (say, a new, or newly cleaned, house or apartment) it also seems to discharge when something bad has happened. As it’s usually called, you get used to it. This seems to be the case with the loss of people or items: Although paralysed with grief initially, it wears off and becomes nostalgia. But the more emotional value invested in the thing lost, the longer this process seem to take. Compare that ice-cream you stood in line for to someone, perhaps you, who’ve lost a close friend or relative. The ice-cream will be an incident of the past within the hour, but the lost friend or relative will take weeks, if not months, to get over.

So why am I throwing people together with items? Am I so cold-hearted and emotionless to not distinguish the two? Well, perhaps, but there’s a really good reason for it. Game characters are a bit of both. They’re people in a fictional way, as people we can (sometimes) relate two. They’re also items in a mechanical way, if they fill a function. So it’s very convenient that the same rules apply to both. And this could be the key to be playing with life-and-death in a meaningful way.

Games are slowly getting to the point where characters are believable enough the invest some emotions in. I’ve written a lot about Bioware’s games on this blog, and the fact that you can have some kind of interaction with and explore the characters are an important way to make that connection. Another example is Heavy Rain, which instead relies on the characters relationships and interactions with another to make that believability. One of my favourite examples is still Knights of the Old Republic II, where the characters of your crew not only interact with you, but pretend to interact with one another when you’re not there. In other words, you have emotional investment in each of them, but they pretend to have so with one another, as well. Another incentive for emotional investment is the game’s “influence”-system, where you by doing and saying things the characters like start to influence them more, progressing their character arcs. Although it shuts you out from people you do wrong things with (unless it’s a cut-scene or important story moment, which is some flaw), they’re so much more rewarding when you get to know them, because you really have to know them to get forward.

Games has also started to explore the importance of death as of late. How do you create a game where the player must be able to succeed and still make death permanent and emotional? Some games, such as Passage, simply doesn’t throw any challenges at you which doesn’t mean any risk of replaying, thus re-living death. Not that there’s much of characters in the game – it’s a pixelated boy and girl growing older – but just because you invest the whole game together the death is strangely meaningful. Mass Effect 2 tries it out with building your connections with each character through the whole game and all that time foreshadow that people can die in the last mission. Which works, if you’re strong enough to accept that the character died and play on instead of reloading and see if you can fix it. Then you’ll have to live with these characters being gone for any post-story play you do (if you do any). Far Cry 2 deals with it in a good way, I’ve heard, but I haven’t had the pleasure to play it. Heavy Rain deals with it the best way I’ve seen so far, however. It follows multiple characters, each could die at any time and the story would go on without them. But you can’t load any auto-saves, because it only has one save-file which saves after every plot-directing decision or action you’ve made. Which means what’s done is done. And if someone dies half-way through, you’ll have to live with it.

I believe that last path is the best way to go. Auto-save often, only allow the player to load the latest save or rewrite their one save file and let characters die half-way through. Allow players to fail, and to live with their failures. This might work well in an 8-hour “linear” experience such as Heavy Rain, but would it work in a more classic game?

Enter: A single-player epic with permanent deaths. Imagine a long game like Half Life 2 or Mass Effect (the first one). You’re on an epic journey to yadda yadda and gather a team of allies. They interact with each other, form relationships with you and with one another, the KotOR2 influence-system and all. You bring a few allies in your fire-team. And any mission could be that character’s last one. Clearly, you can’t have a proper “protagonist” Mass Effect-style, but would have to rely on all these characters being playable Heavy Rain-style or KotOR-style. And if that’s character’s gone, the crew will react. Group dynamics in your crew will change. And you can’t reverse it.

However, the most important question still needs to be answered. Why? Death seldom brings anything but sadness, and we want games to be all about fun, right? Right? No. Games should perhaps be enjoyable to play, but that doesn’t mean all games must be Mario Kart all the time and must never explore the different parts of being human in an interactive environment. Besides, humans have an amazing ability to adapt. You’d get used to it. And the fun would die.

One Response to Thoughts About Death in Games

  1. Pingback: On Violence in Video Games « Tankeflod

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