You’re a brilliant, roguish individual with plenty of experience evading and disarming traps, but this one is complicated. The timing of the blades is tricky, and you know that a false step means at the least a hefty injury, which, since you’re deep in enemy territory and a great distance away from any proper medical care, is essentially a long-form, suffering version of a more grievous stumble onto one of those glistening spikes. Still, your beloved significant other is on the other side of this trap (and many, many others), so there’s only one option: forward. You trail right behind the bristling wave of spikes, leaping around the spinning pole that some evil man tied a whole bunch of swords too, and come out of a daring roll beneath a swinging log covered in cruel hooks… right into the path of a lancing saw blade that tumbles down from the ceiling, ringing melodically off of the stone chamber’s walls, and straight into you, cleanly separating your arm from your trunk. You scream and tumble forward out of the trap, and as your vision start to go black from the searing pain (because of course somebody had to POISON the saw), your last thoughts are of your beloved Henry. The angle of his smile and the way his eyelids bunched up when he was surprised. The shame you feel, knowing that he’s dead or worse now that your rescue attempt has failed. Or at least, they would be your last thoughts if you weren’t standing right before that same gauntlet of traps, reminding yourself to dive after you get past the log.
There is perhaps no game trope more pervasive than non-persistent character death. Even people that have never touched a controller are well aware of the trope. What are the most common causes of the “Game Over” screen? Health bar is empty. Breath has expired. Bomb went off. And your character is most likely bleeding, diced, drowned, atomized, eaten, insane, turned into a zombie, or maybe just falling off the bottom of the screen upside down and with a shocked look on his face. But Game Over is not the end of the line. You get options, assuming that the game doesn’t just take you back to your most recent checkpoint automatically. But for the most part, you find yourself back in your hero’s skin five minutes prior to the most recent grisly demise.
This week’s Additional Pylons is focused on the traditional punishments games use to illustrate player failure, and we’ll start by asking, “Did you really have to kill him?
Did You Really Have To Kill Him?
Unlike other forms of art, games demand some level of challenge, as Bill has demonstrated in an earlier post. Challenge means that there must be some chance of failure. In fact, the chance of failure makes games all the more fun; if the first attempt at a level or boss results in failure, when you come back the second time and use what you’ve learned there’s a much greater emotional pay-off for your success. You feel like you have: A) learned something and B) vanquished a foe that has troubled and beaten you in the past. Such an experience of failure, as many hero narratives demonstrate, can be a great motivator for improving one’s mastery of the game and one’s ability to trounce a particular foe.
Death is easily the most common way that developers punish player failure. There are of course a great many reasons why character death is so prolific. The first is that it is an easy narrative way to express total failure. There are, perhaps, fates worse than being eviscerated, but they take too much time to present believably and powerfully without subjecting the player to an extensive experience every time they fail, and that (unless it is the point of the game, in which case: How interesting, I’d love to see your game) is counterproductive to experiencing the meat of the game. And so the character gets eviscerated, or suffers a less gruesome, but equally final, fate.
Death is also an attractive option because it is decisive: character death represents a conclusive end to the narrative. The player won’t ask, “Wait, if barbarian lord Grimsplit was just beaten unconscious and captured, couldn’t he then escape and foil the evil wizard’s plan anyway?” if Grimsplit’s organs are laying on the ground. But the quick return to the last checkpoint communicates that this end was the “wrong” ending, because it did not end in the character’s success. The failure that ends in death is discarded as dross, and the game resets to a spot where the player can pursue the “correct” ending. In other words, death enforces the narrative in games that contain a non-flexible story.
Death is also just the natural punishment in certain genres, even outside video games. Zombie games should typically feature character death as punishment, because it is thematically important. There are, perhaps, other ways to punish failure in a zombie game, but there’s no real impetus to seek out alternative punishments when your audience expects character brains to get eaten.
But the trend I’m examining runs deeper than avatar death. What I’m really interested in tackling is the model of punishment that character death epitomizes. The model applies to a wide variety of game-play situations: say you had to take actions to protect an important non-player character, and then fail. Almost every time, the narrative won’t continue while displaying the ramifications of that character’s death or capture; instead, the narrative will end (even though the hero is obviously still capable of action). This is in most cases a good thing; if the game was going to be less entertaining and less effective as art without that character, then the narrative reset is preferable. But let’s take a critical look at this model, which resets the narrative in instances of player failure.
As mentioned above, the narrative reset functions to enforce games with a single story-line, and the trope is so enmeshed with video gaming as a whole that calling it a dominating theme isn’t really doing the trope’s proliferation justice. It’s a trope that is totally unique to video games, since it only enters the experience as a result of player failure. But what are the ramifications of the narrative reset model?
First, the emotional and artistic impact of the failure is stripped away by a narrative reset, which is rather obvious, but it can also alter the impact of the scenes that follow the reset. A narrative reset can make the last ten or fifteen minutes of game not count, and any emotions evoked in those ten or fifteen minutes will be evoked again the second time around, but naturally with less intensity, like watching a movie scene twice in a row before moving on to the next. Repetition of a scene can kill dramatic tension and continuity, and the narrative reset model has the potential to screw with the impact of an immediately following scene that depends upon the themes and content of the repeated scene.
Second, it removes the narrative risk of the death of a main character except at the very end of a tale. The character will only really die if the game developers want him to, and everything else is reset. Other tragedies may occur as the developers wish, but there’s a virtual guarantee that the main avatar of the player is going to survive until the end of the game, at least. It creates an even greater expectation that a main character will survive than even other forms of narrative art. This trend has some roots in logistics, since killing off a main character before the end of the game requires a large amount of extra programming, assuming that the developers actually introduce a new character and not just a palette-swap.
This trope is not necessarily a bad thing; artistic tropes become tropes because they work well and fit the genre. And a game need not subvert this trope in order to be entertaining or good art. However, subverting tropes is a great way to tell diverse stories that the trope itself can’t support, and there are often stories that spring out of the subversion of a trope.
Don’t Fear The Reaper
Some of the best games I’ve played have subverted the trope of character death to a greater or lesser degree. Prince of Persia, for instance, merely calls attention to the trope, and incorporates it into its own overarching narrative by rewinding time and, even when the character DOES actually die, explaining it away as a slip-up in the Prince’s storytelling. The more recent Prince of Persia does away with character death completely; there are still minor penalties for failing, but the narrative is never interrupted. Braid pulls a similar trick; the character can die, but time can be rewound indefinitely. In Planescape: Torment, death would set you back, but it was part of the narrative since you couldn’t really, truly die; you’d just wake up in the mortuary, feeling stupid for trying to take on a whole flock of vargouilles.
All of these have a rather straight-forward treatment or subversion of character death, but they do maintain a similar model of punishment; even if the reset is justified by the narrative, it is still a reset. Because of player failure, the narrative was interrupted, and so the player is returned to the same situation and given another chance to assert the proper narrative. Is there the possibility of a different model of player punishment?
I propose this out of my experience with role-playing games, in which player failure can be expressed in a multitude of ways and can serve to enrich the narrative instead of interrupting it. I realize that this would probably be intensely difficult to build, but what if a game doesn’t threaten the character’s life directly? What if a character becomes injured, with all the penalties that would imply, and a character’s goals or affairs become victim instead? And if the narrative continues, the punishment for player failure continues to haunt the player as the story continues. This could allow for really rich narratives. Failure is occasionally something characters have to deal with, but it’s almost always a part of an inflexible narrative, and so the player doesn’t feel as invested in the failure as he or she otherwise might. If the player’s failures are combined with the character’s, that means a huge decrease in distance; when the hero accidentally lets the villain escape and that villain starts to kill people that the hero loves, the player will feel those deaths more acutely if their failure played a role in letting it happen.
Games have begun to reflect player choice in the narrative, to a greater or lesser degree. BioWare games are particularly good examples of making player choice matter. But I’m suggesting something else entirely. What if player skill became a deciding factor in the narrative? What if the punishment for player failure played out in the narrative? I suggest that such a game would realize narrative possibilities that no game has before.
Character death and the narrative reset model is found in the majority of video games, and as I’ve tried to explain here, the trope has some distinct narrative ramifications, and I doubt that I’ve exhausted the concept. So, what do you think? Do you think there’s something to my suggestion of a game that explores the narrative results of player failure, even if it is a nightmare to program? What other possibilities do you think exist in subverting the narrative reset model?