Playing with Death

Playing with Death

It is an odd thing that video games - a medium that entirely consists of simulation - have so much difficulty doing justice to the one constant in life: Death.

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Sooo... story-heavy, party-based game with strong characterization, permadeath, single save file, constant autosave and no load function?

I'd play that.

Writing and acting would have to be on point of course.

PS. Your comments regarding Valiant Hearts make me want to play it. Sadly I consider it an example of mechanics getting in the way or narrative. The puzzles and minigames were too much of a pain to slog through to get to the story beats.

Wouldn't a game with character permadeath designed carefully in such a way that it seems like you can save everyone, but you really can't? Basically, instead of taking the agency away explicitly via cutscene, take it away implicitly by either making saving a particular character *just* impossible, or by setting up various dilemmas of who to save (though not in a obvious "choose a or b" way).

Making it *just* impossible seems more powerful (the player will try and try again to no avail, becoming increasingly frustrated and determined, until finally they just give up), it's also a lot harder to do successfully depending on how open the design-space is, and it carries the risk of breaking the player completely as a person (very few, but I'm sure someone would take from that that there's no point even trying in life anymore).

Making it a dilemma is kinda overplayed, and falls into the trap of getting the player to evaluate the character on some metric of worth to determine who to save, rather than them trying to save both/all and failing some, but it better ensures there will be death.

You know, games may not deal with death in a realistic way; but players can do something about it. For example, the Nuzlocke challenge brings a little taste of that lack of agency that life and death have, and that most games don't. You don't decide which Pokemon to catch or how many, and if a Pokemon faints, it's dead. Thus, every one of the few Pokemon you catch becomes an irreplaceable member. It becomes a celebration motive when you defeat a Gym leader without the proper Pokemon type. And when a Pokemon that has been with you since the beginning dies in one of the last battles, it becomes an emotional moment.

Shadowfury333:
Wouldn't a game with character permadeath designed carefully in such a way that it seems like you can save everyone, but you really can't? Basically, instead of taking the agency away explicitly via cutscene, take it away implicitly by either making saving a particular character *just* impossible, or by setting up various dilemmas of who to save (though not in a obvious "choose a or b" way).

Making it *just* impossible seems more powerful (the player will try and try again to no avail, becoming increasingly frustrated and determined, until finally they just give up), it's also a lot harder to do successfully depending on how open the design-space is, and it carries the risk of breaking the player completely as a person (very few, but I'm sure someone would take from that that there's no point even trying in life anymore).

Making it a dilemma is kinda overplayed, and falls into the trap of getting the player to evaluate the character on some metric of worth to determine who to save, rather than them trying to save both/all and failing some, but it better ensures there will be death.

The issue with the dilemma is that it lacks an emergent narrative. I remember an article on Cracked by Robert Brockway where he played New Vegas 'realistically', and there was a section of characters dying. At one point, his companion died in a battle, and he chose to keep going and not reload the save (though IIRC, when Dogmeat died in a town accidentally he slaughtered everyone there before reloading). If there's a set moment for people to die, as opposed to it happening organically, it does maintain that same 'gamey' aspect; you can try to disguise the choice, but it will still be there. However, if the death happens within the established game, it would keep the weight of the death directly on the player. Also, I really doubt that there are people who would take the death of a character as a sign that they should give up entirely in life, or at least people who would not have made that same decision anyways when they saw a sad story on the news that night.

OT: I have a long history with RPGs, both as a player and GM, and dealing with the death of NPCs and PCs is a major part of it. It's a challenge when the Random Number Gods decide that the favourite hireling, or the Paladin's apprentice, or the princess they've shed gallons of blood to rescue, is going to be ignominiously cut down by a goblin's arrow. Tabletop games have an easier time than video games in this respect, because the GM can always rework his plans, shuffle around who is the centre of a quest, and hope that the players get attached to someone else in the game, but that kind of redundancy is tricky when the changes have to be programmed and the voices recorded a year and a half before the player has the potential to see it.

However, I still don't think that 'death by cutscene' is the proper way to handle it. When you choose to take that character moment out of the interactive part and place it in a cutscene, you are taking away the very value of playing a game as opposed to watching a movie or reading a book. Shadowfury has the right idea in that respect. If your story requires the death of a character, the best thing I've found from PnP games is to avoid placing them in a situation where they can die until that moment. Maybe it's a belt of stoneskin with an unknown amount of charges, maybe they run out of ammunition or bodyguards at the wrong time, or maybe they just lived at home, far from the battlefield, until one day the characters come home to see the ruins still smoldering. The players are not told, 'No, you can't do anything,' but behind the screen whatever they try is unlikely to work. Managing this is a tricky balancing act to avoid the dreaded railroad, but it's better to put up a couple of shields around people who (for one reason or another) you think should have a better than average chance at surviving and allow everyone else to die as the dice will.

There's already a mechanic in a number of games that you could use to give people that extra chance. I don't know what it's called, but many shooters have a mechanic where a character goes 'down' and requires the player to come and pick them up. If the same rules that apply to player characters (where if they are not picked up they die) apply to NPCs, it gives the players the important element of choice. They have to choose whether or not they're going to risk themselves to save their ally, or let them die. It's not perfect, but it takes the death from behind the glass and gives it to the players as something to interact with, play with, and experience within the game. I understand that the theme of this piece is more about the inevitability of death, but if you allow players to sometimes succeed in foiling death they still get to feel like the heroes that 99% of video game characters are, while setting the stage for there to sometimes be deaths that they cannot stop. Hopefully this would add extra weight to the deaths that do happen, instead of it being a case where the player (at least in hindsight) sees themselves as a shuttle service taking the NPC to the gallows.

I am really disappointing that Garwulf's Corner is going away. I've been a big fan of this content, especially since it has not once told me what kind of hat I can and can't wear.

Gorrath:
I am really disappointing that Garwulf's Corner is going away. I've been a big fan of this content, especially since it has not once told me what kind of hat I can and can't wear.

We could probably arrange for hat recommendations from Garwulf if you like.

ffronw:

Gorrath:
I am really disappointing that Garwulf's Corner is going away. I've been a big fan of this content, especially since it has not once told me what kind of hat I can and can't wear.

We could probably arrange for hat recommendations from Garwulf if you like.

Hah! Well I do find Garwulf to be insightful but I usually dispense fashion advice rather than taking it. I may be the only married man alive who's wife comes to him asking what she should wear instead of the other way around. I do admit to being a bit salty about a certain anti-fedora article from a ways back. I have a collection of fedoras which I absolutely love to wear. Granted to I don't wear a fedora with a Star Wars printed t-shirt but I pretty much fit the rest of the stereotype that article was laying the smack down on! I take it all in good humor though, promise.

I guess the closest way to feeling an NPC's death hit home is to characterise them strongly enough, deep enough while making their company an appreciated escape from the terrors of whatever and wherever you happen to be stuck fighting and surviving. So that if or when you do fuck up, you will feel the void that exists in their absence. This would of course require some thoughtful writing and coding that doesn't turn the NPC's into broken-record drones repeating the same lines constantly *cough* Dragon's Dogma *unconvincing cough*. Perhaps with enough effort, their death could trigger a specific death cutscene or choice of actions for you to choose if you want to give them a last symbolic goodbye. That way the agency is still in the player's hands and they choose their own level of commitment to their NPC friend/s.

As for the player character, hmmm, difficult. I have thought about death a lot in life, so not sure how one should experience death in game. I kinda liked the idea from the film Stardust where the king's sons were stuck how they were killed, as ghosts, watching the remaining surviving brothers bumble to their deaths. Perhaps you could put in the game some ability to have all your previous failed lives stare disapprovingly at all your actions, from some magical ghost theatre/museum memorising each death.
An existential belief system implemented, however, would merely just be end of game. No more chances. No option to turn on game again. Even then, you've only lost time and money, not your life. Hmm, tricky.


The last one? Aw, hope to still see you around here in some form. :)

I thought This War of Mine did a pretty good job at making death meaningful and emotional. I can still remember the story from one of my first playthroughs:

Winter was just starting to kick in, and Zlata had progressed to the terminally ill state, with no meds in the house. I sent Pavle to the hospital hoping to pick up some meds, but of course the hospital are desperate for meds themselves. I could only get them by stealing them, and in desperation did just that. The next day Pavle was an emotional wreck, imagining all of the deaths he might have just caused by stealing supplies from a hospital in a warzone. Zlata tried to comfort him that night and stayed up with him, but I didn't have enough fuel on the fire, the temperature dropped severely, and she was still terminally ill so she passed away during the night. The next day Pavle was completely comatose, and whilst I sent out Bruno to scavenge that night, Pavle committed suicide. Those two deaths were way more powerful than any cut-scene death I've ever seen.

The only game I can think of that really confronted me with death was the end of Halo: Reach. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't played it. Even though the game is at least 5 years ago. However, I am looking at a never-played copy of The Last of Us. So, I'll put the ending in the spoilers.

I was thinking about gameplay versus story the other day. While, story based games (walking simulators) having been receiving a lot of praise. However there is no gameplay value from them. Compare them to the games I enjoyed when I was young. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Tetris have no story or characters at all. Yet, they are all classic games that have high game-play value. I guess this is my long-winded way of saying that maybe story is over-rated when it comes to videogames.

 

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