GameSpite Journal 9 | Conquering Death

I'm sick of dying in video games.

This isn't to say I die often in games, or that losing frustrates me, or that challenge needs to go away. Honestly, in many ways, it already has; few modern games exact much of a penalty for dying, anyway. It's just that, after 30 years of playing games, I've seen enough of them that explore the concept of loss in interesting ways that I find the use of death as a simplistic way to denote failure state (Game Over, press Start to continue) to speak of a depressing lack of imagination on the developers' behalf.

Most games equate failure with the death of your player avatar, and that obviously works; otherwise it wouldn't be the medium's standard. But there are so many more interesting things that can be done with failure in a video game. The forced restarts and checkpoint setbacks you see in most games are a holdover from the olden days of arcades, where the goal of a game was to extract as much money as possible from an audience. Those games toed the line between fun and unfairness to keep you hooked enough to drop in quarter after quarter without making it easy for any but the most dedicated to play more than a few minutes without failing. Few games operate on the coin-op payment model these days, though; why should they continue to be constrained by coin-op thinking?

Granted, one could just as easily ask why death should be a concern at all in video games. Ultimately, it boils down to a natural limitation of the medium. Conflict is at the heart of any narrative, be it film, literature, music, or something as simple as "eat dots, avoid ghosts." The gaming medium is unusual in that it makes the audience an active participant, and as such the rules change; unlike a book or a movie, a game can't simply get along with the player as a passive witness. On top of that, the fact of the matter is that violent conflict is by far one of the easiest forms of interaction to simulate; it's a fairly binary matter of kill-or-be-killed, and the nuances of ragdoll physics or targeted damage are child's play next to the more subtle shading required for convincing human interaction. Developers have to work many times as hard to create an eventuality for the many possible directions and outcomes of a conversation as they do for an armed encounter. Games are violent simply because violence is far easier to render than a convincing facsimile of the less exciting things we do on a day-to-day basis.

A game has to bring the player into the narrative somehow, and even those that suffer from lengthy, non-interactive cut-scenes (you know -- the ones harshly decried as "interactive movies") eventually involve the player on some level. Metal Gear Solid makes you sit and watch as characters talk about nanomachines and super babies for half an hour at a time, but eventually even Metal Gear overlord Hideo Kojima has to put aside his control-freak tendencies and relinquish control to the player. When that happens, the game shifts to conflict and the avoidance thereof. Players can slip around enemy lines and evade notice to reach their destination, but they can fight or sneak their way out of a fight (should it come to that) with an almost pornographically detailed array of weapons. Fail, however, and Snake dies; game over.

Well, usually. Every once in a while, Metal Gear games do something more interesting with death than have Snake's radio operator shout his name as the screen fades to black. In Metal Gear Solid 3, for example, players face off against an elderly sniper named The End. It's one of the lengthiest and most stressful battles in video game history (I spent about two hours on it), but Snake can't actually die during the fight. The End might get the jump on you, and he might outshoot you, but he won't kill you. Lose to The End and you end up in jail -- a setback, but not a complete loss.

In the context of the game, this helps to establish The End as a unique and unusual foe. In the context of the series, on the other hand, it's a surprisingly rare inversion of video game norms. Kojima is a demonstrable fan of subverting player expectations and playing with the "proper" mechanics of the medium, so it's strange to think he's so rarely disrupted the relationship between failure and death in the Metal Gear games. He's even stated his desire to create a game that destroys itself when the player loses, giving them only a single chance to succeed -- not exactly the most consumer-friendly concept, but definitely an interesting one. Kojima's single-use game has been echoed in the urban legend of Killswitch, a purported Russian game that deletes itself from the player's hard drive forever once the player loses.

Then again, the idea of permanent failure for dying in a game isn't precisely a disruption of the relationship between video game loss and avatar death -- it's more akin to the idea taken to its absolute extreme. A more interesting subversion can be seen in BioShock, a game that (perhaps unintentionally) bears a close philosophical resemblance to Metal Gear. Beneath their action trappings, both series question both cultural morality and the artifices of the video game medium in particular. Yet they each handle death in radically different ways. Death in Metal Gear is simply a fast ticket to a partial reset; in BioShock, on the other hand, death is barely even an inconvenience. The city of Rapture is densely populated with devices called Vita-Chambers, which restore the player's character to life without resetting the surrounding world. There is almost exactly zero penalty for death in BioShock until the final battle, and players can advance through Rapture as carelessly and incompetently as they like. Eventually, they'll chip away at enemy hordes and triumph through persistence, no matter how many trips to the Vita-Chamber it takes.

Many players cried foul about the way the Vita-Chamber defuses the tension of exploring Rapture, which is a fair enough criticism. But eventually, the Vita-Chamber's true role -- a narrative device -- is revealed when the player at last meets Rapture founder Andrew Ryan and is forced to kill him by his own command. Ryan robs the player of the choice to commit murder while at the same time electing to die a true, permanent death: Once Ryan breathes his last and you again regain control over your actions, the first thing you discover in the back of your victim's office is his own personal Vita-Chamber -- a chamber which has deliberately been deactivated, driving home the point that Ryan was a man of his convictions. He died preaching about the importance of making conscious choices knowing full well he had chosen a true death. The Vita-Chamber thus becomes important subtext to a not-so-subtle set-piece; its role in the play mechanics seem almost secondary to this key point of plot- and world-building.

The idea of death as a stumbling block rather than a setback certainly didn't originate with BioShock. It dates back at least as far as Dragon Quest -- possibly even further, though Dragon Quest was certainly the series that mainstreamed the concept. Its version has always been somewhat more penalizing than BioShock's; dying in battle flings the player back to their last save point (generally a church at the nearest town) with half their gold debited from their coffers. In the original Dragon Quest, this was a fairly steep cost; though the player's unnamed hero retained his battle experience and gear, he lost half his gold. In a game whose majority consisted of battling monsters in order to raise the cash necessary to afford essential equipment upgrades, losing a fight at the cusp of having saved up enough to purchase that next sword or shield could be downright demoralizing.

Later Dragon Quests have softened the blow of death -- not by reducing the effect of death itself, but rather by the contextual changes within the series. Gold is far less rare in the more recent chapters, considerably mitigating the loss of half your current coffers. On the other hand, every Dragon Quest after the original includes a three-to-four-character party, unlike the first game's solo adventure, meaning a total party kill has the secondary cost of individually resurrecting your fallen comrades (which grows more expensive the stronger they become). This, too, is mitigated by the existence of the bank, which allows players to store their money safely. Die in combat and you lose half the gold you have on-hand, but anything stored in the bank is untouched; the smart adventurer ventures into the field with all their cash tucked neatly away in a vault, meaning that a combat wipeout only costs the cash earned since embarking on the current dungeon-dive, which is easily replaced in the course of the inevitable second attempt.

A similar game over approach showed up around the same time on NES in the Legend of Zelda, released in Japan a mere three months before Dragon Quest and therefore more likely an example of simultaneous evolution than of direct inspiration. In the original Zelda, defeat returned players either to the starting point of the overworld or the entrance of their current dungeon, with all map/equipment/financial progress retained.

As the two of the very first console games to fully explore the idea of adventure beyond the simple, challenge-and-restart brevity of arcade design, Zelda and Dragon Quest's approach to handing out defeat helped define them as the vanguards of a new era of game design. It's probably no coincidence that Zelda II, which adopted a far more action-driven style than its predecessor, imposed a steeper death penalty than the first game: Players were thrown back to the palace where the game began, even if felled within a dungeon. The Dragon Quest approach appears in many different variants, regardless of genre; the Crackdown series, for instance, uses the premise that the player controls a mass-produced clone to allow instant respawning at the nearest save point, maintaining a high degree of persistence within the most recently activated gang territory.

Even the Final Fantasy series, which in many ways reflects a determination to make a console RPG that wasn't a straight-up Dragon Quest clone, has tinkered with softer death penalties: Final Fantasy VI returned players to their last save point, earned experience intact, and Final Fantasy XIII gave the option to restart the current battle. The latter worked surprisingly well, especially given that the party's health parameters were reset to full at the start of each battle; each fight became a self-contained challenge, and the designers were freed to up the stakes of encounters and the difficulty of enemies without fear of alienating players with harsh setbacks for an unexpectedly difficult fight.

Dragon Quest was also the origin point of the console roguelike, which is interesting given the sub-genre's tendency to inflict the video game medium's harshest penalty for failure. Traditionally, death in a roguelike comes with the loss of everything: Gear, items, gold, and even your experience. In the most traditional mainframe-based Rogue descendants, death is simply the end of a play file, a permanent state that destroys a character and all progress they've made. The console roguelike, however, has its origins in Dragon Quest with Chun Soft's spin-off Mystery Dungeon: Torneko's Big Adventure.

This wasn't the first console roguelike -- Sega's Dragon Crystal and Fatal Labyrinth both predate it by several years -- but, like the Dragon Quest series that spawned it, Mystery Dungeon was the inflection point from which the majority of titles that follow drew inspiration. And, like Dragon Quest, the Mystery Dungeon games put their own spin on Rogue's death penalties, retaining the flavor of the networked classic while offering players a sort of clemency to ease the pain of defeat.

The format arguably peaked early with 1995's Mystery Dungeon 2: Shiren the Wanderer, which offered a brilliant balance of retribution and recoverability. Upon death, hero Shiren was flung back to the start of the game with no experience or items in hand. However, players weren't forced to re-roll their hero, and over time a number of long-term changes within the world through which he was forced to travel slowly tipped the game balance -- if not precisely in the player's favor, then at least to something less overtly hostile. Persistence was a feature in the original Rogue, but there it was primarily limited to commemorating the failures of previous adventurers. In Shiren, it gave the hero a leg up. Players could unlock warehouses in which to store valuable items for subsequent playthroughs; help open up transportation services for traveling back and forth between levels; support a restaurant to gain useful items; and even establish a relationship with other travelers who would join your quest from time to time. None of these factors were instant win buttons, but together they went a long way toward easing the difficulty of an otherwise unforgiving game. Shiren made the concept of death punishing yet beneficial, distilling the value of repeated play into factors with a quantifiable metric.

The concept of death-as-enrichment was explored even more thoroughly in Capcom's strange kissing-cousins duo of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and Dead Rising. Though superficially nothing alike -- one is a strategic RPG, the other an action-driven take on survival horror -- both of these games share both staff and death mechanics in common. Upon the player's defeat, both games offer a chance to either revert to the last save or restart from the beginning. The latter isn't a pure new game file, though; instead, it's something akin to a New Game + in which certain experience and upgrades carry over, materially changing the game your second time through and greatly improving your prospects of success. Neither Dragon Quarter nor Dead Rising appear to have been designed under the assumption that anyone would actually be able to reach the end their first time through. Instead, you're encouraged (through these carry-over perks) to restart and try again. It is, in effect, a means to transmute a furious rage-quit into something positive.

Perhaps the finest distillation of both roguelike and Dragon Quest death mechanics can be found in From Software's Demon's Souls?. An unrelentingly difficult game that has no compunctions about slaughtering players left and right, Demon's Souls nevertheless averts sheer bastardry in favor of something more sublime. It's a game where death is practically a given, where you'll die time and again. But death is never the end, and Demon's Souls gives a defeated player a fighting chance. When you fall, your corpse remains with all your collected souls -- a sort of super-currency -- intact. Should you reach the point of your demise, you can regather everything you've lost... but, on the other hand, should you fall again en route, everything your dropped your first time around is lost forever.

Demon's Souls puts a clever twist on Rogue's bones file concept, too. Classic networked Rogue servers would record where (and how) players died, marking their virtual graves for later players to see. In Demon's Souls, this is taken a step further: The failures of other players are commemorated in the form of bloodstains that appear in the dungeons of a network-connected play-through. It's possible for newcomers to witness brief flashes of their predecessors' demise and get a hint of what deathly traps lay ahead. On the other hand, it's also possible for another player's shade to invade your game and destroy you far more effectively than any AI-driven beast could ever dream. It just wouldn't be Demon's Souls if it weren't out to crush your sense of hope, after all.

Demon's Souls also draws a bit of inspiration from MMOs in that dying reduces the player to a spirit. In fact, much of the game is spent in spectral form, trying to fight your way back to the world of the living for another crack at victory. It's a more robust (and frankly less demoralizing) take on Ultima Online and World of Warcraft's habit of ripping a defeated player's spirit from their body and forcing them to earn a resurrection before their corpse is looted of all their possession. Or perhaps it's more akin to Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, wherein protagonist Raziel could shift between the material and spiritual realms. In any case, it does away with the idea of Game Over by creating a sense of continuity between lives; despite the penalty for failure being effectively the same as hitting 'continue,' the constant stick-and-carrot of possibly recovering your loot makes for a far more compelling incentive than choosing to have another go from the kill screen.

It's even possible to make something interesting of limited continues, that creaky relic of the olden days of home game design when developers were struggling to extend the value of arcade-style titles in formats stripped of the pay-to-play model. Herc's Adventures from LucasArts was a free-roaming action game in which the heroes could effectively continue only five times, yet it sold this rather player-hostile design feature by contextualizing it within the game world. Featuring heroes of Greek mythology, Herc's Adventures sent beaten players to Hades, where they could elect to battle their way out of the netherworld. With each defeat, however, a hero would be deposited ever further into Hades' realm, facing stronger and stronger foes in progressively more grueling gauntlets out of hell until at last they'd be vanquished beyond a point of no return.

Rather than treating the ability to continue as a given right and privilege, Herc's Adventures presented it as a way for players to cheat the system. Within the game's context, it's something that simply wasn't meant to be done at all, and only the brash heroism of its protagonists allowed them to pummel the underworld's legions into submission. And while it was frustrating indeed to at last run out of continues, you always felt like you'd been given a fair chance. Plus, the frustration of fighting out of hell against ever more improbable odds made the end-game -- storming the gates of Hades from the other direction and casting down the ruler of the underworld -- all the more satisfying.

This sort of in-world death-cheating isn't nearly as common as it should be. Both Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Braid take a time-travel approach, allowing players to rewind their failures with the use of temporal powers that are woven into the game mechanics at large. Sands of Time takes this a step further, even, by presenting the game as a yarn being spun years later by the hero; player failure is treated as the Prince messing up his story. Embellishing a screw-up with a bemused, "No, no, that's not how it was...." feels far more graceful than a blaring "Game Over!" screen -- or, worse, actively mocking the player, as with something like Gradius Gaiden or the modern Ninja Gaiden games.

Honestly, all of this is only a fraction of the clever twists that developers have put on the concept of video game death. And yet, the vast majority of games still rely on conflict, and they still take a dull, dated approach to handing out defeat. The medium may never properly outgrow its violent years due to the creative and technical demands of elevating player-computer interaction into something both convincing and unique. But it's not too much, I think, to hope that the industry will learn to explore the nature of failure and the possibilities of death as a mechanic rather than an admonition. The Game Over screen has been with video games since the beginning, but it's grown stale and unsatisfying. In the strange aeons of game design, even death must die.

By Jeremy Parish? | July 17, 2011 | Next: Shattered Expectations: A Lonelier Silent Hill