Motivation is an important part of characterization. There’s nothing duller than an entirely reactionary character who never acts out of their own decisions, only blind loyalty or automatic response to a perceived slight. With that in mind, what was Death’s motivation for Darksiders 2 again? Help out War who was accused of wiping out humanity without authorization? Okay. Has War’s innocence been confirmed to Death’s satisfaction? How does Death know War couldn’t possibly just go nutbutters one day? I mean, he’s called War, he’d probably get pretty antsy if he didn’t fight things now and then. Or was Death just acting out of blind loyalty to his fellow Horseman? Probably that last one, it being the most boring possibility.
Another lingering question for me is who the fuck I spent that entire game playing, exactly. Was I actually the embodiment of the concept of death? Doesn’t seem like it, since I could only kill people by hitting them with sharp things rather than by merely wanting it to happen, and any asshole can do that. Indeed, in this setting, every asshole. Also, there were no Meet Joe Black-style immortality shenanigans from Death blowing off his duties to do his mates favors. But if I’m just some guy who happens to be called Death, then what the fuck is my job? My assigned role in this grand cosmic scheme? “Horseman of the Apocalypse” is the job title, but the apocalypse already happened and Death didn’t even do anything.
Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be the embodiment of all death, just the death of human beings. In which case, I guess I can see why he’d suddenly have a lot of free time at the start of Darksiders 2, since they’re all dead already. And maybe that’s why he was so cross, ‘cos he’d just gotten back from ferrying 7 billion complaining douchebags to the afterlife. Okay, I guess that explains everything. One last question: why the fuck should I care? You might say I should care because I’m a human and would have a vested interest in the human race being resurrected, but if this is the kind of setting where the human race can be wiped out one day and brought back the next merely by moving the right all-powerful magical bullshit peg into the right all-powerful magical bullshit hole, then I’m not entirely sure it’s worth the effort. The end of humanity is not a card you can play every bloody game, it loses its value faster than the Zimbabwean dollar.
Perhaps this just proves that Death, despite being a morally neutral feature of existence, works better as a recurring Castlevania boss than a protagonist. But it leaves me wondering. What if I had to design a game in which the main character literally was the Grim Reaper? And if I had to make that fact relevant to the game mechanics without falling back on generic killing things? And also do it in a way that players could actually care about? Thought experiments are fun!
(Here I hasten to ask that we don’t bring up Grim Fandango, because I’m talking about organic game mechanics rather than linear storytelling, and besides, Manuel Calavera wasn’t the Grim Reaper, he was one of many representatives of the reaping industry, so there.)
So here’s what I came up with. I picture a game set in an environment where there’s a lot of death going on, say a warzone where two factions battle for control. They’re evenly matched and constantly respawning, so the war has become an ongoing battle of attrition in which people die by the second. The hero is a soldier sent in as one of many infantry units who accidentally kills or injures the actual Grim Reaper through some unfortunate twist of fate. Whereupon some cosmic bureaucrat materializes and informs him that if he doesn’t want to face eternal damnation he’d better take the scythe and pick up where the last guy left off, The Santa Clause-style. What I’m trying to do here is avoid the Darksiders 2 protagonist problems: having no coherent motivation, and being some non-human demigod bullshit thing who doesn’t need to be told how to do his job, so the exposition gets really awkward and forced.
The player has the ability to switch back and forth between reality and the dead world. Every time something dies in reality a soul appears in the dead world, a soul that has to be reaped. In the dead world the player has much freer movement – maybe full flight or teleporting from place to place – and has to chase down those mischievous escaped souls and give ’em each a whack with the scythe. The more time that elapses between a soul appearing and you reaping it, the more troublesome that soul becomes, incentivising you to get the job done quick smart. Maybe they get further and further away from the original body and you have to laboriously follow a trail. Maybe some of them become violent and you have to take them down with scythe-fu.
The story missions would take place in the real world, in which our hero attempts to balance his duties as a soldier of whichever army he’s in with his obligations as the Grim Reaper. If you let too many souls accrue unreaped in the dead world then the celestial bureaucracy nullifies your ability to switch back to the living world until you get shit sorted out, creating the further incentive of locking off plot progression.
Then it gets interesting, ‘cos obviously the player’s human superiors would like him to be killing the enemy, and they start getting big ideas about all these miraculous reaper powers the player is exhibiting and how they could be used to turn the tide of the war. But the souls of ally and enemy alike all look the same under the scythe, and with first-hand experience of death’s hideous finality, the protagonist becomes jaded and his loyalty to his superiors gradually crumbles. This leads into a character arc. One that the player should be able to naturally sympathize with, because they know that the more killing that the human generals demand of them, the more work they’re ultimately creating for themselves.
This is starting to sound pretty good, actually. And it wasn’t hard. I’m not even thinking about it much, it all seems pretty obvious when you lay down the core concepts and jigger them about a bit. Why is it so bloody difficult for triple-A games these days to not be shit? Is trying something new honestly less appealing to developers than getting to chop up monsters with big swords for the eleventy billionth time?
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.