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A Death Is For Life, Not Just For Quickload

Featured post He doesn't like it when people keep coming back to life.

People often discuss the importance of “immersion”. It’s a pretty silly word. But while we at RPS like to tease those who claim their game will have “more immersion” than others, the core concept makes sense. It’s wonderful to get lost in the moment, carried away by the fiction. To physically dodge as the fireball comes toward you. To groan in pain as you land on a spike. To care when an NPC friend is in danger. And it’s obviously a widespread frustration when that “immersion”, that suspended disbelief, that embracing of unreality – whatever you want to call it – is broken. So I have a question. Why are we so quick to accept death?

Of all the things you’d imagine would break our concentration the most quickly, it would be death and resurrection. We scream in horror when there’s a logical inconsistency, when an NPC walks through a crate, or when the physics AI bugs out and a chair wobbles insanely in the corner of a ceiling. But when we get shot in the face, see the screen go red, and collapse to the ground, dead – meh – hit quickload. I’m the last to campaign for bloody “realism” in games (I find going outside offers me quite astonishing levels of realism), but I do like a notion of congruence in my games, and I think dying might stand out as an unlikely thing to get better from.

But we’re a community of nonchalant Lazaruses, unsurprised at our returning mortality, happy to leap back in time to before our mistake and carry on, slightly the wiser. It strikes me as a tad silly. It has, of course, always been the case. In fact, if anything it was more starkly daft in the early days of gaming, where we had “lives”, a finite number of reincarnations before we’d finally snuff it for good. At least there was some degree of finality back then, I suppose. No more. At a certain point all of gaming entered a cosmic cheat code and added infinite lives to every game ever.

I’ve written before, almost three years ago, about my desire for a game in which I’m immortal. However I notice that in the ample development time since publication, no such wave of games has appeared. I’m very angry about this, obviously. But while such a game would completely address my issue with death, today I want to think about something slightly more nuanced.

Clearly there are some genres that lend themselves well to leaving your character unharmed. Adventure games, for the most part, learned the lesson of the early 90s and try to keep the protagonist’s heart all beaty. Those that don’t are inevitably being stupid. And there are of course games where death is a valid game over, such as epic RTS battles, where your army being wiped out is obviously crucial if you’re to simulate war.

But, you politely point out, surely death is similarly crucial if you’re going to make a game about people who shoot bullets at you. Well, yes, that sounds right. What use is it if there’s no threat of failure, right? But what I want to argue is that failure does not necessarily equal death. For example, I failed my A levels pretty spectacularly, but I’m almost certain I’m not dead. It just turned out I was rubbish at things like chemistry, and my failure was a necessary consequence of my staring in confusion at diagrams of benzene molecules with the same level of coherence you might expect from a gerbil. Admittedly my chemistry A level teachers were not openly firing at me during the exams, but my point is so far lost by this late stage in the paragraph that I’m not too worried.

I want something more imaginative than: YOU ARE DEAD. DO IT AGAIN. Heck, I’m really open to even the most haphazard avoidances of it, like the game telling me I’m actually a hologram, and getting shot means shorting out my current projection, and having to be re-projected at the last Projection Station, which just happens to be moments before this dangerous battle that killed me. While some might argue that that’s not entirely realistic, those picky pedants couldn’t disagree that it wasn’t at least internally consistent.

I’m entirely open to a game that recasts me as a new character each time I die. In fact, if you take that idea further, it becomes a far more evocative message of the horror of war and the disposable nature of soldiers than even the earliest Call Of Duties evoked. You’re Private Simon Fodder, plucky 17 year old recruit, sent to the trenches. He’s got a face, a badge with his name on it, a mother back home. And when you run him rather over-eagerly into the path of a stream of bullets, he’s not temporarily set back from his single-handed saving of the world, but dead. Sadly, tragically dead. And he won’t be coming back. But now you’re in control of Private Andrew Targetpractice, whose wife and newborn son hopefully wait at home for the return of their loved one. Unfortunately it will be in lots of individual boxes, since you just walked him over a landmine.

You see, the point isn’t that I want a mechanical change. I’m not asking for games to let me live. I’m simply asking for them to acknowledge the permanence of being dead, however artificially that may take place. I’m not bothered by artificiality, even if it sticks out awkwardly.

Clearly there are those who call for games where death means death, and you have to start over. I think that’s madness, beyond experimental projects. Fun is far more important than that degree of so-called realism. A sense of continuous progression is essential in gaming (until I decide to write an essay saying it’s not), and my desire for the sanctity of life to be taken into account should not get in the way of that.

I think that once we denormalise death as a regular part of gaming, it will make an enormous difference. I’ve written before of how Lara’s death at the end of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation is a horrendous narrative choice, not because it – alone – is a bad idea, but because we’ve already seen Lara die twenty thousand times on the way there. We know that death is not the end for Lara. That’s what F9 is for. Having Lara die at the end of the fourth Tomb Raider game, when the franchise was just utterly enormous, was an amazing decision. But one completely undermined by her incessant grave dodging for ten hours previously.

Working out ways around killing the player would give new life to death. It could become a genuine tragedy, a moment of emotional severity, with consequence. It would resonate, rather than make you grumble at load times or poor checkpointing.

We’ve done something pretty terrible with death – we’ve made it meaningless. I want my mortality back.

I think fixing this is easier for some genres more than others. But I would love to see a global rethinking of fail states. It’s just so utterly mad that we immediately resort to termination, and then unhesitatingly undermine it. So what’s the solution? I don’t know – I just pay myself to moan. Maybe you know?

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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