“You are dead. Continue?”

Apparently I’ve placed myself in the center of a divisive issue with the publication of my new article, “‘You are dead. Continue?’: Conflicts and complements in game rules and fiction.” [Note: There are some spoilers in here, including for the ending of Shadow of the Colossus.]

The paper might look somewhat familiar to regular readers of Geek Studies, as it weaves together some strands I’ve been playing with here for awhile. I discuss how the trial-and-error approach to death and failure can be a frustrating narrative interruption in games where the characters, story, and emotional involvement are treated as comparably important to the gameplay mechanics. Some games in recent years, however, have offered different—and sometimes quite emotionally engaging—ways of thinking about death and failure.

So, what’s this divisive issue I speak of? Well, game studies scholars might call it “ludology” versus “narratology” (even if I see it as a bridge between these). Among gamers, though, it seems to boil down to “the way games have traditionally been” versus “the direction (some) games are headed.”

On one side are the “hardcore.” We see this viewpoint represented by a subset of commenters on Kotaku, a gaming blog, where Maggie Green recently linked to the recent issue of Eludamos and remarked upon my article. Several of the commenters on Kotaku seemed receptive to the argument in the paper, and, given some of the games suggested as considerations of how death in games works, I suspect some would’ve been even more receptive if they could actually read it. (I suspect that link drove too much traffic to the journal, as its site has been down ever since.) Some other comments, meanwhile, simply refer to me and my article as “just wrong all over,” “pretentious bullshit,” and “as arrogant as he is ignorant.”

It’s hard not to feel insulted when people go beyond criticizing the work and start criticizing the person behind it, especially when the insults are so off-base. (“Doesn’t have a strong background in gaming”? “Armchair games theorist”? I’m tempted to throw down my glove and challenge somebody to duel. Choose your weapon, swords or pistols!) I see these hostile reactions, though, less as a personal attack or even an informed criticism of the paper itself, and more as a knee-jerk reaction to the idea that the focus of gaming is changing at all.

Much of the protest in these comments comes from gamers who clearly feel threatened that anyone would want to change their medium. For these gamers, the whole point of games is to face challenges and prove mastery, and focusing on any other appeal—like storytelling—is a sign of femininity and weakness among players, or ungratefulness from the industry. (We see similar vitriol toward Nintendo in recent years for abandoning its “core.”) One commenter, for example, suggests that the problem with death scenes has already been answered in the form of “easy mode,” and that other modes are for “old school gamers and everyone who’s done with Easy Mode, where we screw the story and get hair on our chest.” To these players, the story is for “casuals”—those who aren’t real, manly gamers.

Oh well. We’ve already discussed around here how gaming encompasses multiple appeals (as have a number of other writers), but some opinions are set on the issue. Even as some passionate gamers on a blog decry the idea that games should evolve, however, other passionate gamers and developers point furiously at examples of how games have already begun to change, and call for even more.

In a recent issue of the Orlando Sentinel, for instance, film critic Roger Moore strangely extrapolated from the Max Payne movie adaptation that games in general are “emotionally inferior” to film. He then erroneously stated, “Nobody ever shed a tear over a video-game character’s death.” Having just written a paper that I would’ve hoped could put that very statement to rest, I checked out the comments thread of that review, and found I had little to add to what had already been stated. Gamers asked, what about Aeris? What about Shadow of the Colossus? And so on. (Also feel free to check out Kotaku’s comment thread on a post about this review, offering another glimpse at differing opinions about the role of storytelling in gaming.)

Games aren’t inherently emotionally inferior; we just don’t yet have many examples of games that really prioritize story comparably to gameplay. That’s why the same handful of games keeps coming up over and over again in Moore’s comments thread.

This is changing, however, and that’s what “‘You are dead. Continue?’” is about. Changing approaches to death and failure in games represent just one piece of a larger move to create games that give more attention to narrative. The “hardcore” may call me a n00b, and film critics may think that games have no stories to speak of, but I suspect we’d see some different opinions, say, on Bioware’s forums, where the regulars discuss immersion breakers and actions they can’t bear to make their protagonist commit. Meanwhile, the developers of the upcoming PS3 title Heavy Rain pledge that the game’s story keeps going even after the protagonist dies, and urge players not to restart from checkpoints, instead “bearing with the consequences of their actions”—exactly the sort of development predicted in my paper.

These are just a couple examples that didn’t make it to my article before it went online (at press time, as it were). I suspect we’ll see even more over the next several months.

Let’s be clear here: I enjoy wickedly challenging games from time to time as much as the next player. I play my games almost exclusively on “Insanity,” “Legendary,” or “Expert” as soon as I unlock that difficulty level. I don’t mope every time I die in a video game. And, heaven help me, I still enjoy playing NES games like Legendary Wings and Ninja Gaiden.

But some games, like N’gai Croal says, are more about getting from point A to point B, and experiencing that in a way you never could with a movie. My paper isn’t arguing that game developers need to start making these; it’s explaining how this has already started. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing where it’s headed. If it’s any consolation to the hardcore gamers out there, I doubt this will eliminate your favorite genres any more than Citizen Kane prevented Max Payne from hitting the big screen.

13 thoughts on ““You are dead. Continue?”

  1. Is there any real difference between dying and not dying? It seems that it’s all just shades of how far you have to back up: E.g., rewind the clock, climb your way out of that pit, restart from a save point, redo the level, etc.

    (Can’t get your article to load so pardon if you’ve addressed that.)

  2. Yeah, I’m unable to weather the torrent of hits and actually read the article myself, Jason, but I think I can grok where you’re coming form. To what extent does the constant death-reload-repeat mechanic serve as a convoluted plot device that kills the momentum of an otherwise engaging game?

    I also find the tendency of some gamers to shrug off palpable artistic merit – like those who would see the tendency of some titles to favor development and narrative pacing over straight-ahead running and gunning as feminine or an aberration within the sphere of “proper gaming” – to be rather telling of the continued role of the chest-beating alpha male in modern gender politics.

  3. Looks like Eludamos is back up within the last couple hours.

    There was some discussion in the paper about trial-and-error scenarios that skirt the issue of death (e.g., rewinding the clock as the Prince of Persia). I think of these scenarios as something of a recognition that death presents a narrative problem we’re still trying to figure out how to solve. What fascinates me most, though, are scenarios where failure != death, or where death != backtracking. I don’t expect to see death disappearing from most games, but for the small but growing number of narratively-focused games, I do think we’ll see more alternatives to trial-and-error.

    One example I discuss in the paper is how failing in your objectives in Splinter Cell: Double Agent might mean letting innocent people die by your hand. The “punishment” isn’t in having to redo the level again, but in living with the consequences of your failure. This wouldn’t work in a game like God of War, where you really don’t give a damn about the other characters and you just want to kill as much as possible, but it might work in games that focus more on storytelling. (And yes, you can still die in Double Agent. I offer this more as an example that got something right, despite being frustratingly repetitive in other areas.)

    Yeah. And from a marketing perspective, this is, after all, why the makers of Bioshock made sure to market their game as a shooter above all else.

    As an addendum to this, I find the resistance to the idea that games could have more depth kind of a fascinating parallel to how some comics fans (especially in the late ’90s) resisted the rise of the “graphic novel” and “alternatives.” The funny thing is, I think the “alternasnobs” and the “fanboys” both got what they wanted in the end, at least to some extent: Comics are now getting reviewed much more commonly in mainstream publications and sold in mainstream bookstores, but the structure of the industry and catering to superhero fans is still in place. “Change” doesn’t have to mean the complete unraveling of everything that came before.

  4. Hrm. Your Splinter Cell example reminded me of the Interactive Text games. You’d finish with a final score (399 out of 450, or somesuch) and would have some incentive to do it again, only better. OTOH, those games tend to be brutal in the ‘death’ consequence. (And in everything else, if it was written by Doug Adams.)

  5. Drat, I’m really sorry about that. It’s not customary to give spoiler alerts in journal articles, but it’s definitely expected when linking to something with a major spoiler. I’ll put a note in the post just in case…

  6. I was a little surprised that there was no mention of Planescape: Torment. It had a death system that was tightly integrated into the narrative, and dying was actually necessary to complete certain segments of the game.

  7. I’ll have to check out Planescape: Torment; I haven’t played it and hadn’t heard mention of the death system before, but it sounds pretty interesting.

    As long as I’m commenting, I might as well also mention that the new Prince of Persia game did away with dying entirely. Your character is accompanied by a helper who rescues you from falling to your death, and being defeated by a enemy means getting revived instantly to fight a slightly healed enemy. (Eurogamer explains how this works, and notes, “For some the absence of death will be a step too far, but we agree with Ubisoft’s designers; having to try again is punishment enough, and the lighter the punishment the better.”)

    And, while I’m yammering, I might as well note that I kind of like the death system in Left 4 Dead, in which you can die, but your friends can bring you back later by finding your character locked in a closet up ahead. Kind of makes no sense from a narrative perspective, but, like zombie movies themselves, that game feels is more focused on individual scenes and well-trod cliches than on an overarching plot.

  8. I thought this was interesting, and wanted to record it somewhere. Didn’t seem worth a whole new post, so I’m just commenting on the most relevant post I can think of offhand. From a Gamasutra interview with Dead Space 2‘s creative director, discussing the protagonist’s gory death sequences:

    We’re doing it to try to really just sell the idea that there are big consequences to failure in the game. The other interesting thing about it is we discovered on Dead Space 1 that failure sometimes became a reward.

    Because the deaths were so entertaining at times, that when people died, it was one of the highest moments of entertainment for them. If you go on YouTube, there are dozens and dozens of little movies that people have made of all the death sequences in the game, which I think is a testament to how entertained they were.

    Personally, I’d rather see more narrative games finding ways to lean less on trial-and-error mechanics, but I do have to agree that this approach does make horror games even more freaking terrifying.

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