Nobler in the Mind?

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I was playing God of War this weekend; I've been playing quite a lot of it lately, because I'm finding it a very interesting and radically different experience, and I want to get through it before I'm overwhelmed by the fall lineup. I'll post some general thoughts on the game a little later, but the sections where the gameplay flips from brawler to platformer have gotten me thinking about death. On two occasions yesterday I played through an extremely short segment of the game between twenty and thirty times, trying to get past difficult platforming challenges, which unlike the rest of the game are unforgiving - a relatively minor misstep kills the player character - and do not scale well in difficulty. Kindly, God of War autosaves the player's progress just before these sections of the game, so the cost of dying is relatively low. Still, repeating the same actions twenty times - and being met, every time, with the words "You Are Dead" thrown up on the screen in blood red - pushed me to the limits of my patience. And rather suddenly I realized that I had entirely lost emotional connection with the game.

The issue of player character death is one of the most fundamental in modern game design - perhaps because modern games are so disproportionately focused on violence and death. In more general terms, the death of a player character can be equated to a game state from which it is not possible to complete the game. Placing fourth in Mario Kart is not not equivalent to dying, since it doesn't prevent you from completing the race; scoring too low in Elite Beat Agents is more or less equivalent to dying, because it prevents the player from continuing the game to completion. Whether or not it literally takes the form of a character's death, the way a game handles this sort of state has significant consequences on the narrative of the game. Some of these consequences are positive, and some are negative.

First of all, death is a great motivator. Competitive games have failure states built into them, providing a player with a clear goal ("win" or, alternatively for some games, "don't lose") and continual motivation to progress. Non-competitive games lack such an inherent motivator unless there is a constant threat of imminent failure. Of course, there are other ways to motivate players. The games of the Monkey Island series are prime examples of design that doesn't include the concept of character death or an equivalent failure state, and keeps the player motivated by rewarding progress with humor. Death is also a powerful narrative tool. The notion that the player character is risking their own life in order to achieve a goal amplifies the significance of their actions and can increase the player's emotional involvement. Some party-based RPGs, such as Knights of the Old Republic or Final Fantasy VII, even add emotional drama to the plot by using the death of a member of the party with narrative effect.

But the inclusion of player character death can also have negative consequences on the narrative, especially if it is implemented thoughtlessly. A character's death frequently breaks the continuity of the game, and triggers an extra layer of user interface (like God of War's "You Are Dead" screen) that prompts the player to try again. Trying again generally means restoring an earlier gamestate saved at an explicit or implicit savepoint - frequently at the beginning of the level or just before a particularly difficult section. The act of restoring the game's state effectively erases any progress the player had made past the savepoint, and implicitly asks the player to pretend, for narrative purposes, that the experience never happened. This disrupts the player's experience and forces them, to some extent, to disengage from the story, frequently at a moment when emotional engagement is especially high. If the cost of dying is low and it happens infrequently, then this disruption may be easy to ignore, but the effects are multiplied as the player grows frustrated.

I think it's fair to say that most games include some sort of death-like design element somewhere along traditional lines. But it's worthwhile to consider the many games that have taken a different tack, finding alternative ways to motivate the player. The new episodes of Sam & Max follow the same paradigm as the Monkey Island games, rewarding progress with humor. Puzzle Quest utilizes the inherent motivation of leveling by making level progression relatively rapid and providing a magic system that encourages the player to try out different play strategies. Animal Crossing relies on heavily on the collecting paradigm, and also draws upon social relationships to inspire the player to continue playing.

One of the most interesting examples of games that break from the traditional paradigm is Prey, in which player character death is presented in familiar terms, but doesn't actually represent a failure state or necessitate a break in narrative continuity. Contrast this which Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which attempts to mitigate the disruptive effects of death by integrating a narrative segue. In Prince of Persia, death still represents a failure state, and the game returns to a previous state and the player is required to try again. Myst is another extremely interesting example, in which the failure state can only be reached at one specific point in the game; throughout the rest of the game, there is no concept of death or death-like failure. In this game, exploration, imagery and story are the primary motivators, and death is used only for dramatic purposes.

I'm of the opinion that the games that don't include this sort of failure state tend to give the player a smoother and more accessible narrative experience. Of course, the issue whether or not to include player character death in a game, and how to handle it if it is included, depends entirely on the context of the game. God of War, while it does have a story and certainly puts a lot of energy into creating an absorbing narrative experience, is at heart an action-oriented, ultra-violent brawler. Death is an important aspect of the game and the traditional model is entirely appropriate. There are only a few segments where I feel the narrative disruption becomes especially problematic. The traditional model of death and failure is valid in many cases, but it's important for designers to recognize that it isn't universally implemented, nor is it universally applicable. These sorts of examples remind us that there are alternative ways to structure story, player motivation and gameplay, when death is not desirable.

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