Sunday, October 24, 2010

Redeeming Dead

Death is a fairly pedestrian experience in most modern video games. It's like waiting at a stop light. It's a delay or an annoyance at most, but it doesn't really cost you anything. Saves and checkpoints can be reloaded. More lives can be obtained. Dying is a mere hiccup in the emergent narrative of your play session. In most cases, failed attempts aren't even addressed by the game's given narrative. Mario will inevitably beat bowser. Nathan Drake never really dies. That time you used your face as a catcher's mitt for a Bullet Bill? Those leaps of unfounded faith? Your brilliant idea to charge the a platoon of fortified enemies? Don't sweat it slick. They were bad dreams. Outtakes. Omake. Life is cheap, so waste it as you see fit.

That's part of the charm of video games, obviously. Real-life is much stingier with second chances, and  it's incredibly liberating to be able to leap off the highest cliff you can find without fear of consequences. But there's also a helluva lot to be said for games that allow you to die an appreciable death. A meaningful defeat that gives you cause to pause and reflect on what just happened is an incredibly valuable experience. It's also hard as hell to balance. If you make losing too costly, players won't have the will to start over. Make it too mild and... actually, many players don't seem to mind at all, hence the recent trend of games that mitigate the cost of death, or do away with it altogether. But it's a sore absence if you ask me. So today, I'd like to take a moment to address games that redeem the value of death in play, either by having it significantly influence mechanics, giving it appreciable narrative gravity, or just doing something interesting with it. Mega spoilers abound, so take caution.

Now this here is how you do a Western, I tell you wut. Hats off to them Rockstar boys.

Red Dead Redemption is a game I've been meaning to talk about for some time. The most frequent indictment brought against RDR is that it is simply GTA with horses and this is largely true. When friends asked me what the biggest difference was between RDR and GTA4, I said it was the way horses control versus cars. It was an off the cuff the answer, and looking back I realize that "the environment" would have been a better answer. The frontier Rockstar presents you with is the most impressive digital landscape I've yet encountered, and it is teaming with flora and fauna that you can interact with. At some point in the game, you will be killed by a cougar. Wolves will attack you in packs. You will hunt bears and skin them. You will pick wild flowers and herbs and sell them to buy bullets and whatever. The extent to which you interact with these elements is still mostly elective however, similar to GTA's Taxi/Police/Ambulance mini-games. There are a few missions where you hunt plants and animals toward the end of the game, but the vast majority of the game has you completing missions by riding horses and shooting fools, similar to the way you drive cars and shoot fools in Liberty City.

So what does this have to do with death? Nothing. I just wanted to talk mechanics for a little bit. The game does do something interesting with death, however.

After hundreds of shoot-outs, fetch-quests, horse-chases and other decidedly western trials, John Marston meets his end at the hands of the US Army in the final mission. Some context is necessary to appreciate the significance of this death. Marston is an ex-gangster who has been pressed into tracking down his former gang members by the US Government who is holding his family hostage as collateral. You complete this task about three quarters into the game at which point you are reunited with your family. The last few missions have Marston simply acting as a husband and a father. John's son Jack, is particularly ambivalent toward his father. He realizes that his father did not leave him out of choice, but he also struggles with abandonment issues and does not know the full details of his father's past or his service to the government. The game has you reconcile John with his gentler, slightly bookish son. After John dies protecting his family, the game allows you to continue playing in it's world, as traditional of RockStar titles, but you continue to play as Jack instead of John.

By continuing your father's legacy, the legacy of the character you have played throughout the entire game, the values of the old west are validated, and John's questionable life is redeemed through Jack. Video games rarely consider what happens after a character dies. Usually, they simply imply that evil wins and justice is not served. The fact that Red Dead Redemption goes farther, is refreshing and interesting. That said, Marston's ultimate demise doesn't cut as sharply as it could, seeing how you will have likely seen him die several dozen times before his canonical death.

Reach offers solid gunplay and good times online, 
but it could do more with its premise.

Another recent game that nearly does death justice is Reach. It's not quite as poignant or novel as RDR, which is a much longer, more emotionally involved affair, but you do adopt the role of a marine fighting in a military campaign doomed to failure. Reach is by no means the first title to put you in this position, but it's still fairly fresh territory for video games, and watching your squad mates die one by one, until you are finally left to your own last stand makes for a novel experience. More can be done with this premise however. Halo has never been a series for subtlety or ambivalence. It's monotonous rhetoric of duty, teamwork and sacrifice has always reached propagandistic proportions, and the game never once has Noble Team question their orders or consider their own chances. But showing the losing side of a battle, where even when you win the game, the good guys lose, is an interesting jumping off point for future titles to tackle.

This is a great game and you should buy it.

As I implied at the beginning of this post, death is used most impressively when it gives players cause to pause and reflect. To that purpose, few titles are as effective as Minecraft. When you die, you drop all of your items, and you only have a few minutes to collect your belongings. "That sounds like corpse running," you might point out. Very good. It is corpse running. But unlike the corpse runs of MMO's where reclaiming your belongings is a forgone conclusion and running back to your body is just a hassle, you very often won't be able to retrieve your lost goods in Minecraft. Loss is painful and consequential. It makes you think twice and weigh risk against reward. The game also introduces Creepers; easily the vilest new video-game of the last decade: hissing, walking bombs that can destroy your house as well as your body. What is valuable about having your house blown up you ask? Like the rest of Minecraft, a minimalistic gem of a game, the risk of death scales to your aspirations in play. The deeper you dig, the more you stand to gain. The deeper you go though, the harder it is to reach the surface and reclaim your loot. The grander your architectural schemes, the longer the shadows cast by Creepers. When you succeed, the triumph is not at all artificial or forced, but organic.

Finally, an oldie but a goody that I've been looking for a long time. Planescape: Torment, recently resurrected and available for purchase from Good Ol' Games. I'm not too far into the campaign yet, but I've played enough to tell you that it is superbly written. The game was created at the end of a magical era, where people still used written description to supplement game narratives, as opposed to relying solely on graphics and cinematics. As for how the game handles death, it marries your ability to come back to life with the narrative: you play as an accursed soul caught in limbo who cannot die or return to life as you know it. From what I have gathered so far, your ultimate goal may be to die once and for all; a fascinating quest to say the least.

I know there are hundreds of titles that handle death in innovative, inspiring ways which I have not addressed here. There are even several recent titles that deserve to be examined, Demon Souls being chief among them. But I won't weigh in on a title I haven't played yet, and this was never intended to be a comprehensive list of any sort. If you have ideas of games that work with death in interesting ways however, I would love to hear them. My thesis may work along similar lines. I realize this update has been a long time coming. Hopefully the length compensates for it somewhat. I'll try to have something on Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell up before October is out, but I make no promises. Check back soon!

No comments: