Monday, November 3, 2008

More Than Mortality

I can never die. I can take bullets and axe blows, magic blasts and troll strikes. In Fable II, I am invincible, and though it feels strange, I'm loving it.

Of course my new found immunity to the reaper is off putting. It is weird to say it, but I have grown accustomed to dying... a lot. Death has been a staple of character driven games since the beginning. When Mario fell into a bottomless hole, did any of us really think he was going anywhere but the great big cloud level in the sky?

The illustration of our demise varies, from falling off the screen to the more popular dark atmosphere, chimes, splash of red and slowed time portrait. The conclusion is the same, two words we all know so well: game over. Yet Fable II and some other interesting titles deviate from the norm and offer other propositions. What if death in videogames is more complex and holds more narrative potential than we imagine?

Plenty of people die in Fable II, just not you (or children). Two things happen instead of death: you lose an arbitrary amount of experience points and you receive a scar. You can't do a thing about the scar, it's permanent. No make-up in Albion will cover up the doozie my character has across her face.

Personally, that is enough incentive for me to go into battle prepared with plenty of health potions. For one, I want my character to be pretty. There are social repercussions for the unattractive. Secondly, I'm too self conscious of my "l33t skillz" to be comfortable with severe beatings.

Death has become the ultimate punishment for player failure. For the more masochistic gamers out there, this is a good thing. The threat of death serves to ratchet up the tension and test their skills against the finality of annihilation (I'm looking at you Megaman 9 fans). Is this necessary though? Can we have a challenging, serious and tense gaming without the reaper looming over us? Some developers think so.

Take a look at Bioshock for example. Bioshock does not punish the daredevil player with a game over screen. Rather than dying, your character Jack reappears in a Vita-chamber, healing him to full while leaving your enemies' health bar as they were. Whether or not this makes the game too easy is hotly debated. I'm not the only who one believes the game's tone succeeded without mortality. The art design and sound effects kept my tension level somewhere around sheer panic, and I never fought a big daddy eagerly and without preparation.

So perhaps we need not punish ourselves with death to play a suspenseful and formidable game, but can immortality be an improvement? Puzzle solving, not survival is the challenge of Braid. With time rewinding abilities, your death is never permanent. Interestingly, the fact that you both can and cannot die is essential to the game. There is at least one moment where you must kill your character and rewind in order to progress. This puzzle can be difficult for those of us who accept death as a punishment for a fact. The narrative of Braid is murky at best but, depending on how you see the story, this death/non-death is tragic and revealing of the protagonist's fate. I would not be surprised if more casual gamers saw this connection between death and narrative than those of us accustomed to mortality.

Death and the lack therefor can serve a narrative purpose. Why limit ourselves with a "game over" screen that may only serve to break us out of the game or force us to retrace our steps? Sure, dying is a good excuse to put down the game and go outside, but who needs that? Fable II's scarring system serves to personalize the narrative that continues uninterrupted. If you play with a renegade style, dashing into battle without health potions or food, you'll come out showing the signs of battle, intertwining your experience, the story, and the mechanics. At this point in my game, my scars are worn with pride. This lack of punishment is healthy for hardcore and casual gamers alike, but more importantly, it's healthy for narrative innovation.

One last game I want to mention reports to have a very strange approach to death. Quantic Dream, creators of Indigo Prophecy, will be releasing Heavy Rain, a PS3 exclusive, some time next year. Your character can die in the very first level of Heavy Rain, and once she does, her death is permanent, the story will continue without her. A story that continues independent of your survival is, as far as I know, unheard of. Similar to Fable II, death is not a punishment but an opportunity to build upon a personalized narrative that includes your own demise.

Beyond the mechanics of character mortality, I find death in videogames fascinating. How does death in videogames reflect cultural perceptions on the subject? Does the mortality or immortality of a character affect how we approach a game? Does character death still serve its purpose if we have grown so accustomed to it?

It is not my intention to answer these questions, but remind us that these questions exist and they are worthy of contemplation. I also want to commend Lionhead Studios and other developers willing to take a novel approach to mortality, one in which the punishment mechanic personalizes, not concludes, the gaming experience. We should look forward to videogame death with curiosity, not fear, to see beyond "game over."


  1. I too have been thinking about this for some time. I'm reminded of Second Sight, which treated death in an interesting way.

    I have a post scheduled to publish tomorrow morning on the topic of 'failure' in video games, but I want to continue to mull this one over for a while. Fable II has got me thinking.

  2. @ Spencer

    I'm glad I'm not the only one with death on the mind. I was beginning to think people thought me morbid. I'm dying to hear your on thoughts on the subject (pun intended). Death is not a subject people broach lightly.

    ps: I really enjoyed your Guy Fawkes post.

  3. My post is not concerned with death, precisely. Instead, I discuss the treatment of player failure in video games. You can read my post right here:

    Thank you! It's nice to know that someone's enjoying my posts. Obviously, I enjoy your writing too, or I wouldn't be subscribed to Experience Points.