Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Gaming Death

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about a lot of new media and pop culture phenomena, but not very much about games.  In talking about Portal, she begins to address why:
I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so I’m playing through Portal much more slowly than I’d hoped, but as the levels have gotten harder and I’ve started negotiating around poison moats, I’ve figured out one of the things that kept me from playing games regularly for a long time: I find dying in-game incredibly stressful.
So far, nothing too terrible happens to Chell. If I screw up, I hit some brownish water, and I get a loading screen, and we start over again. But I’m invested enough in Chell, despite the fact that I am her and only rarely see her around corners and through portals, that I don’t have much sense of how she ended up at Aperture or why she — or me — has been left alive and alone. Thomas Bissell in his profile of video games voice actress Jennifer Hale ... talks about how effective she makes Commander Shepard’s death seem in Mass Effect, and the incentive that is to keep playing—you don’t want to leave her there, or leave on that note. My anxiety is about getting there in the first place: I get frozen up by the possibility of harm coming to my character.

I don't remember which one is Clyde, but I always blame him.
I got thinking about character death in gaming, after reading this.  Really, it's an odd concept, because it's a mixed bag of concepts.  We lump a whole bunch of different occurrences and design choices into this one idea.  Thirty years ago, avatar "death" or destruction made perfect sense as a design concept.  You need a mechanism in your game to tell the player that she has lost, or failed at her task.

Beyond just communicating failure to the player, avatar "death" used to be a mechanism that meant the kid behind you at the arcade would get a chance, eventually, to put his quarter in the machine and take his turn after you, or at least a mechanism by which you, yourself, would keep pumping in your change for one more chance at the challenge.  Simple, easy: a time and talent constraint built in.  The more you suck, the more quarters the machine will consume!

In the 1980s, though, the arcade famously went to our living rooms.  Throughout the NES era and into the SNES age, though, we had the convention of game "lives" built in.  By then it was just how we played, and 1-UP was part of the lexicon.  Trying and failing to cross a chasm or fight an enemy meant you "died," and you needed another guy.  (An aside: even if the player is controlling a female character or a completely non-human, non-gendered avatar of some kind, it's still "another guy."  Curious.)

I was always really glad for the collected 1-UPs by World 3.

As we all know, though, games have come a long way since the 1980s.  There was a time when they were all sets of arcade skills that sometimes had stories attached; now, we have a whole collection of stories that also have skill sections built in.

Unlike Alyssa, I don't get stressed when my first person player character "dies" in Portal.  Her death is impermanent; the player's respawn is nearly instantaneous and the game replaces puts the avatar pretty much right back at the site of the player's failure.  I no more stress out about launching myself into a turret (oops) than I do about laying a jigsaw puzzle piece in the wrong corner, or about missing a move in Tetris. Portal is ultimately about solving puzzles and although there's a great narrative framework going on, I don't feel personally affected by Chell's ceasing to be; I only feel frustration at my lack of talent or timing.

To infinity, and beyond!  Wait, what?

That said, there is indeed the frustration of bruised pride to contend with.  I don't feel any more attached to the persona of Chell or to her story in Portal 2, but I take more offense at dying because the game is easier.  It relies more on thinking puzzles through (which I can do, and well) rather than on reflex timing (which I can't do well at all).  When I fail at something that I could physically have done right, if only I had thought it through more clearly, I take personal offense at the failure.  That's part and parcel of the ego of the gamer, right there.  This puzzle -- this story -- must have a right answer, and so I must find it.  Otherwise, I, personally, have failed.

We very rarely have a limited number of second chances anymore.  Our games do still exist along the pass-fail, do-die dichotomies, but our stories, as a general rule, no longer continually penalize failure.  Rather than face a character death, we are instead taking a Mulligan on the last five minutes.  We get a rewind (sometimes literally, as in World of Goo) back to before that jump or that shot or that ambush in the corridor.

Sometimes, though... sometimes, it is still personal.  I got really ticked off on the very few occasions when my Commander Shepard died and I had to reload.  In her case, I did feel deeply invested in that character.  She was important, her story is important, and death didn't feel like taking a do-over on a game mission: it felt like a deeper kind of failure, the kind with some sort of betrayal or judgement attached.  The feeling only got worse in Mass Effect 2, where I had the ability to get other characters permanently killed off.  During the climactic mission of the game, I routinely let my fear of harming others send me into a kind of paralysis, during which I had to pause the game and pace around the room instead.

My indecision had nothing to do with this. By which I mean, had everything to do with this.

Of course, that's entirely by design.  When BioWare can make me pace around the room and ask my cat for opinions on who should lead a team (his response was to nibble on my arm), they've won.  Anyone designing a huge-budget, open-world, cinematic-style AAA game is invested in the player's investment.  That so many of us seem to have fangirled over this franchise is not an accident.

Not all games, though, are so large scale.  This summer's XBox indie darling Bastion has finally made the leap to PC, via Steam.  After watching all of the game criticism circles consistently lighting up about this title for a couple of months my curiosity had the better of me, and this week I did something I rarely do and jumped on a day-one purchase.  I had some time that evening to give it a whirl.

I kind of suck at Bastion.

It's not a game at which one can suck, exactly, and yet I manage to do so.  Still, I can tell that many of my woes are simply clumsiness: the mouse-and-keyboard combination isn't necessarily ideal for titles designed with an XBox 360 controller in mind, and I might need to remap a couple of keys for easier use.  Over time, I will adapt to this system and after a few days, having mapped my muscle memory to this particular set of mechanics and demands, I will cease sucking.

However, being terrible at Bastion for the time being has proven useful with insights on character death.  The gimmick of the game is narration: you hear what you're doing, what you've done, and what you're about to do, and you hear it with inflection and judgement.  Thus: the first time Kid plummets off the side of the path, to his doom, the narrator is patient and understanding.  The third or fourth time, the narrator's patience begins to wear thin.

On the plus side, there are plenty of jars and such to smash with my hammer while I fail to smash enemies.

The voice of the narrator is meant to be kindly and guiding, at least in these early segments of the game.  (I don't know if it will change or not; I've intentionally been avoiding spoilers and reviews.)  When he intones, "And so, Kid fell to his death," you get that brief moment of, "...awwwww."  But immediately -- before you can even feel sad that your inept steering threw this little artistically-drawn smashy guy into the abyss -- you hear, "Just kidding!" and respawn right where you were, right in the middle of what you're doing.

It's an interesting approach to character death.  No reloading of old saves (it's on a console-style autosave system) and not really even any thinking of how you could do it next time.  In a strange way, it's like a single-player zerging tactic: die, respawn in place, continue.

I don't know what to make of this kind of death mechanic in my game.  It's not an MMO, so I don't need to rely on anyone else's help to get up, nor do I owe anyone else an apology for my failure.  It's not the deeply branching story of a cinematic character to whom I become attached, so I don't lament his passing.  It's not a failed solution to a puzzle, and so I don't have to think about how to get it right the next time.

As far as I can tell, the narrator is the crux of it.  After all: he's going to keep telling the story no matter what.  That's what a storyteller does.  By framing Bastion in that way, it might genuinely be the most third-person game I've ever played.  The player doesn't really get a chance to put herself inside the head and body of the avatar she's controlling, the way we are habituated to doing.  There's an odd level of detachment that somehow makes character death entirely meaningless -- while also giving it sort of the aspect of a milliseconds-long mid-season cliffhanger.

I'm not sure what I think.  I'm barely even an hour into the game and that counts the section I had to play twice due to an unscheduled PC shutdown.  (In related news, my next case will have a cat-blocking door or panel over the power switch.)  My first hour, though, has made me feel that I care about Bastion's world very much and its player character not at all, which is an interesting and unusual combination.  But I want to know what happened, and I'm going to need that narrator to tell me, so play on I shall.


  1. death in games is so weird. it can make a game unplayable (hahaha I am never going to finish Child of Eden because a death means 10 minutes down the drain), or it can really blow a hole in the story (how exactly do you rationalize a story where state resets and you fight the same exact enemies in the same exact order until you finally succeed). I'm really interested in games where death is not-exactly-conventional, like Sands of Time and Braid ("That's not how it really happened" / rewind) but even that specific device gets pretty worn out after a while. 

    Kill Screen had a review of an iOS game that dealt with death in an interesting way
    "you never die: you simply return to base. The gunner behind the camera feed is still far from danger."

    Which is also along the same lines of Atom Zombie Smasher - failure states exist, they just aren't represented as death of yr avatar. And actually I am way more worried when I play AZS about failure - because it has long-reaching implications for your strategy on the map within the context of the game - than I am about dying in an RPG or anything else ("god damnit I just lost a half hour guess I'm never gonna pick this game up again" - me playing Sands of Time, Lost Odyssey, Resonance of Fate, Outlands... all great games that I gave up on after dying more than once in the same spot)

  2. The trend is toward death/failure meaning less and less and your tale about Sands of Time, etc. Is a big part of the reason why, along with Alyssa's.   

    I think that reactions such as Alyssa's tend to lessen with time and experience, but that's assuming that someone like Alyssa even plays again after dying the first time.There's a crowd of MMO fans that yearn to "bring back the death penalty".    Or even play such that death is permanent.    I don't think that they will ever get it, because it's directly contrary to the game publisher's interest.     Unless you could somehow make death seem serious, but also engaging...You know, "Death is only the beginning."   Or something.

  3. Clyde is the red one. He is the top ghost. I don't know if this is "official" or just something gamers decided. If anyone looks this up I will stab him or her with a Companion Cube.

  4. I like how Braid worked doing over into the game mechanics; rewinding time is something you just do in that (those) world(s), so using it to save yourself is consistent not miraculous. I breath to keep myself from dying, Tim rewinds to keep himself from dying.

    Borderlands, which does a few things very well and a lot of things very badly, applies a financial penalty to death which makes it significant (at least in the early game) but not devastating or discouraging. 
    For heroic storylines like Bioshock 1 (and I imagine 2) and all the BioWare games I can think of where the PC is the most important character in the universe it makes sense to me to quickly get the game back on track because the protagonist's elimination wrecks the story ark - it breaks the world. Jack/Batman/Grey Warden/etc doesn't die, he or she finishes the quest, so any terminal deviation from that really is a glitch to be smoothed over. 

  5. I'm not a MMO gamer but I do think it would be cool to allow player to voluntarily forswear resurrection and play knowing that their character can really die. Or maybe some creepy necromancer picks over your bones and that's how the undead characters are created.

  6. I was thinking about character death while playing Catherine, as I thought dying it in was pretty much an assumed mechanic that didn't jive with the rest of the game. Especially on the difficulty I was playing, I had so many extra lives, that dying was just annoying; it was like I was being punished by a repeating animation. More importantly, this was a game with a strong narrative that weighed in on many characters' personal stories and logged consequences. Shouldn't Vincent be permanently killed off to keep in line with the tone of the game design? For a story that had many people fail at a task and a character taunting you all the way up, it made it very obvious that the storyline had Vincent succeeding and not failing. There is an assumption in games that the ending of the story is your character winning and not failing, which I think should be re-examined. This sort of reminds me of how Chrono Trigger handled dying, showing the result of the story of your death at that moment in time.

    Even though it would completely change the game, I thought it would be an interesting move to jump into the PoV of another sheep each time you failed, carry on with their story until you as a player eventually get to an ending by going through all the possible characters. As much as a lot of people want to see the destruction of 'linear' narratives and games, I think these same people would be frustrated in a game that held their choices and consequences to them, though I would be interested in the experience such a game could create.

  7. It's possible to voluntarily forswear resurrections without any mechanic. Log off, and delete. Lord of the Rings Online used to have survivor achievements that marked that kind of thing as well. (It may still have them, I just haven't played it in a very long time).

  8. Obviously, but that means making the decision after-the-fact, not playing with the decision already made. 

  9. The problem with this is that, in most games, when you die, the story ends. Starting up means a new story. Restarting it seems artificial.

    I saw a meta-game played on top of Minecraft though, that sounded intriguing: You played a game of Minecraft until you died. Then you passed on the game (on a flash drive) to someone else with no comment. If they wanted to figure out what you were up to, they had to do archeology. Until they died, and so on.

  10. (An aside: even if the player is controlling a female character or a
    completely non-human, non-gendered avatar of some kind, it's still
    "another guy."  Curious.)

    i've always heard "another life", not "another guy".

  11. Line Hollis had a post on this topic on Robot Geek, about needing to redefine failure away from death in games.

    I think the bigger issue is that so many narrative games are written where death is the only reasonable consequence of failure, or at least for total failure. As Red Jenny put it above, Batman literally cannot die. If he dies there's no story, or rather a VERY different story. It might be a more interesting story, but it's not the story we're dealing with. Most games, when you boil it down, are little different from Dragon's Lair in that respect, but that's only because people keep writing games that are stories which require an ending. For all that they annoy me with remaking the same story over and over again, Bioware has grabbed the player-altering-the-world bull by the horns far tighter than anyone else yet has in Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Death in Dragon Age: Origins can be success, as long as you die at the right time. Your first action in Mass Effect 2 is to die. Your actions carry through the games and while there's little effect on the broad strokes of events in either series, it can be argued that those events are just too massive to be affected by the small pushes of one person. Those changes do have a serious impact on the story, though, and the consequences can certainly feel like failure. I was certainly really really sorry that I saved the Council when dealing with them on Shepard's return to the Citadel post-Lazarus. I was conflicted about my choice to have Anderson be humanity's representative on the Council, when I saw how unsuited he turned out to be for the job. On my most recent playthrough I lost Tali's loyalty, and that certainly felt like a serious failure.

    There's something to be said that games like Fable II, in which dying is actually impossible, remove failure entirely from the equation, but I think what's really happening is a redefinition of what failure is in the game. A great example of where this can go is Europa Universalis III and its various descendant games. There is no win condition. You play until you decide you want to retire. Your victory or loss is entirely on your own terms. If you started the game with the goal of conquering America and you don't get there by the time the game ends, you only answer to yourself. For Fable II or its like, you may not be able to fail through death, but you can screw up your interactions with everyone else, and generate permanent changes on the world that you didn't intend, or turn out to be not as good as you thought they might be. Living with the consequences of your actions is what the game is about, not trying to make sure you still live.

    I think achievements, for all their negatives, are the best middle ground through this. Some can be given for insane accomplishments, retaining bragging rights for those that care that you got through Alien Zombie Nazi  5000 on Ultra-Crazy without taking any damage, while allowing the less crazy to experience the award winning story, environments, or whatever they're more interested in. Blizzard really is a forerunner in this regard, with how they have relentlessly made World of Warcraft more casual friendly, while still creating difficult challenges for those that want them. The hardest may not be as difficult as some might want (you know, like crazy people that could wrangle 40 people into doing the same thing long enough to kill the Twin Emperors) but they're still pretty hard when you come down to it. There are always going to be Dwarf Fortresses for those who feel those challenges are a trifle.

  12. Great topic - there are probably almost as many ways to handle death/fail states in games as there are games. I totally sympathize with the agony over the ME2 endgame choices, I really couldn't stand to lose anybody. 
    I definitely think that the way most newer games handle dying (with save games) is preferable to the Super Mario Bros era where you only get a limited number of deaths before you need to start over from the beginning.  It's maybe a function of games being (in general) longer these days - Mario only takes 10-15 minutes if you know the game and use the warp pipes.  Very, very few games, if any these days can be completed so quickly, let alone in one sitting, making save games kind of a necessity.  However, I don't think any game compares to EVE in the sense or dread and loss that comes from dying (well, getting podded), even if it is only monetary/time loss versus a character (though attachment to your ship might count).  EVE has plenty of flaws, but there's hardly anything in gaming like the feeling of flying through low-sec space knowing you could run into pirates and lose everything at any moment.

    Still though, probably my favorite memory regarding gaming death (well, favorite gaming memory period) is one game of Counter-Strike from college (almost 10 years ago now, yikes!) where I went 38-0 (38 kills, 0 deaths).  My whole body was shaking the last round as time ran out.  I think I still have a screenshot of that scoreboard.

  13. Was it Chain World?

  14. Isn't there an online game, a spaceship battle game, where there is no respawn? If your character/ship is killed, it's gone forever? I remember reading about it in an article about internet trolls, and how they would band together and intentionally target hugely expensive ships for the sole purpose of punishing the players for investing so much into them, but I can't for the life of me remember the title. I imagine that kind of gameplay mechanic isn't used too often.

  15. Yeah, that's EVE.  There are high-security areas with NPC guards that prevent nearly all the pirates but outside those areas, you are at very high risk of having your ship destroyed and losing everything in it.  If they are 'nice' pirates, they will let you go after destroying your ship, but they can also 'pod' you, killing your little life-support pod and destroying your clone, which can also have some extremely expensive implants that are now lost. The only real option to survive in the low-sec areas is to be in a corp (guild) and stick to your corp's space and run around in a big group.  

    As you said, there are also hugely expensive ships (titans) that takes absolutely massive amounts of resources and time to create and they do make for equally massive targets.  

    There are also amazing stories of industrial espionage, people infiltrating rival corporations and stealing billions and billions worth of in-game currency.  

    It's a fascinating game, and if I had infinite amount of time to play games, it would be near the top of my list.  

  16. Heavy Rain tried to do this, to a certain extent.  Three of the four player characters could be completely eliminated from the story (some quite gruesomely) before reaching the narrative's conclusion.  And which characters survived had a definite outcome on how the story was resolved.

    That said, it was indeed mainly an illusion of choice and of branching; when you play it more than once, you can see the "choose your own adventure" sort of issues slotting into place.

    As for Catherine, all I know about that one right now is that I'm really, really glad I blog and tweet as Kate, rather than my full name. ;)

  17. It could just be a regionalism.  I know that as kids we pretty much always said "another guy" even when we were playing Centipede or something.  *shrug*

  18. Well, we have games without combat, in which the player character cannot encounter a scenario that would lead to his or her death.  We call that genre "the adventure game" and it's gone rather out of vogue lately. ;)

    It's good timing for me to be thinking about the jumping around, though, as I've just finished a Guy Gaviriel Kay book (Under Heaven) and he uses ensemble casts for diverse points of view and myriad actions taken very well, when he wants.  I do feel like that's an under-used tactic in single-player gaming.  It has been done, but it could be done more often and better.

    I'm still vaguely annoyed at the resurrected Shepard framing of ME2.  I get that they needed a way to make her discredited and to make the events of ME2 an uphill battle for her, but it does have that kind of cop-out feel to it.

  19. Reminds me of the "mans" in Homestar Runner parody games. It's funny because as kids we did sometimes refer to an extra life as "a man." 

  20. Ah yeah, the adventure game is another way out: restricting player actions to a hard-coded set can prevent them from doing dangerous things. Another out that comes to mind: strategy games, where you play a general whose life is not on the line during a battle. 

    And to be clear, I didn't mean there aren't heroic games without combat - there are tons! Games like Rock Band and Harvest Moon come to mind. It's just that a lot of the interesting mainstream storytelling stuff is happening in combat-driven games, for lame historical reasons. Later Harvest Moon games do graft a sort of epic narrative onto the basic mechanic, but there's a lot more that can be done with narrative games about people who excel at something other than fighting.

  21. You could broadly put the old Sierra "City Builder" games into that category. Caesar III, Pharoah, Zeus, and Emperor all had combat available, but most of them had a city management only track you could take. Calling any of them "heroic" might be a stretch, but that doesn't mean someone couldn't do such a thing.

  22. This is constantly on my mind; I really want to play or think up a game that can be as compelling as the usual epic narrative without the constant threat of dying. It has me wondering, is avoiding death multiple times to reach a lofty goal the only thing we really consider epic? I was thinking about games like Harvest Moon that I loved dearly, but they were compelling for other reasons. Not that every game has to be about epic adventuring, but that seems to be what really elevates games to resonate with players. A lot of times I feel very alienated from highly acclaimed games because I don't like using that adrenaline, fight or flight part of me, which is a source of unwanted anxiety. I need to do some digging in the past to find good examples :)

  23. I didn't think of how Heavy Rain dealt with character survival the same way, must have slipped my mind. I guess it is because you have these four PCs and you don't need all of them to finish, and I was think something akin to a remix of an idea to the SaGa series, which had different characters within a world that may or may not encounter each other. However, in that game, choice was always a flavor mechanic rather than anything complex.

    If it's any consolation, I thought Katherine was the better of the two ;) Except that in my ending, she took Vincent back, which I wish she didn't. I had a really strange experience with that game, when my game choices and progression totally betrayed my feelings. I was being forced to motivate Vincent to a satisfying ending when he deserved his 'Love is Over' screen (which I saw many, many times). I felt compelled to do the 'Lawful' choices because Katherine is the victim in all of this, though honestly, did I do her worse by making Vincent seem appealing again? >.> And lets not get started on the poor gender stereotypes that were forced on her, that's a whole other post. Strangely enough, I think everyone was just expecting Catherine to be a horrible representation of gender, so it's mostly assumed everyone sees that and is only mentioned in passing.

  24. Little free association here. One major portion of classic epics that are exciting without the threat of death are those that tell stories about the gods. Often they involve failure states like death with resurrection, or losing powers temporarily, or mortal consorts dying. But the gods never die permanently. So it's definitely possible, but also doesn't inspire quite the same emotions as the mortal hero struggling against all odds. 

    That said, there's also updating. You could do an O Brother Where Art Thou thing and do an epic structure with more metaphorical battles and monsters. Just means you'd have to come up with a good con artist gameplay mechanic which good GOD why hasn't anyone done that yet.

  25. Yes, that's it, I haven't seen that article before, I saw video of his talk.

  26. I will admit that I tried to find an appropriate Strong Bad clip to embed but gave up after about ten minutes of not succeeding.  ;)

  27. It seems like you would have to readjust the mythology that the game is based on in order to find an epic quality that doesn't involve dying. Or, maybe, not use mythology as a basis for the game. The games that focus on the 'everyday' seem to be less about violence as the only means to win, however these rarely have that 'epic' feel. It's possible that the gaming community has conditioned itself to only be roused by a very limited amount of things in extremes.

  28. Interestingly enough, tell that to the arcade game developers. Under that technology model you DO want the player to fail. Not permanently, but more-so than under this home console model. You can actually fail so much you MUST stop playing, that is, until you return with more quarters. You are right in that permanent death can really never (though prove me wrong, industry!) be true beyond loss of that particular avatar, otherwise you have lost a customer. But yeah, arcades, designed to make you die THE MOST. It was good business. 

  29. Shit. There is a game out there that lets you volunteer your save file if you want to "do the right thing" under the game. Cannot for the life of me remember what it is, especially since I think it wasn't very good despite doing that very, VERY interesting thing with player choice and consequences. Hopefully someone more on the ball than I will supply its name.

  30. I left my NES turned on for a month straight to beat SMB3, because I didn't have 8 hours a day at my disposal.  Given that it was already 1994 and the thing was used, I'm amazed it didn't overheat and keel over.  The save file is definitely the only thing that makes most games playable, heh.

  31. It's funny, I never felt particularly bad when Shepard died in my Mass Effect/2 playthroughs--usually just an "oops" or feeling frustrated if the section seemed hard--but I became quite stressed during the suicide mission, worried that I'd get my favorite characters killed with my poor decisions (I DID, and I totally re-did my ending, I admit it).  The run up to the end of Dragon Age 2 was even worse, where I literally felt sick to my stomach just thinking about the game while I was at work or otherwise away from the console because I was so worried I'd get somebody killed.  Mass Effect was my first BioWare game, so having these stories with choices and characters I really care about it still kind of new to me.  But I love it when a game can actually make me care that much.  It's so very rare.

    What's funny about it is that the other characters dying because of my poor decisions is not any more permanent than Shepard dying because of my poor fighting skills.  So what's the difference? I'm not sure, I'll have to think about that some more.

  32. It's odd - I've felt the same kind of detachment from the character in Bastion. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it either.

    I think the game makes you care about the NPC's more than it does about the character himself. I'm also pretty sure the game doesn't focus a whole lot on the player character's story, either, so it may have something to do with that. In a world so story heavy, the main character of the game has very little backstory (at least at first), which I think makes the technical detail of his inability to die a little less impactful.