Archive | April 2015

On Death and Dying

Death is an essential part of conflict, and in some way all games rely on conflict to tell a story. As such, it’s no surprise that death is a major component of almost every game – even those without fail states often use death in some way.

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I plan to start all future posts with a reminder of your mortality.

Like last time, I plan to spend most of this post bitching about things I don’t like in games. In this case, it’s how many of them handle death and dying. Most games lead you along a strict linear narrative, even giving you some real influence over the plot, then you die. Tough shit. Narrative broken. Try again.

This is jarring, annoying and extremely counter-productive. It’s true that many games rely on a fail-state to enhance or create challenge, but dying really, really sucks. Most of the time.

To anybody who knows a thing about games, you won’t be surprised to see me mention Dark Souls. (And Demon’s Souls, and Bloodborne). This game used death as a major component, both as a mechanic and as a part of the narrative. You play as the “cursed undead” – someone who can’t really die, but loses their mind a bit each time they’re “killed”.

Mechanically, death is the core of the entire game. It all boils down to trial and error – you explore, you die, you repeat. Or if you play like me, you die, you die, you explore a tiny bit, then you die a few more times. It sounds a hell of a lot more frustrating than it is, but when death is cleverly worked into a game, the entire product is better off as a result.

I’m not trying to claim that similar death mechanics would work in every game, though I wish more would make a decent effort to change how death works. Whether we like it or not, games are still largely stuck in the arcade era where death was a way to force the player to insert more coins. I often wonder how games would change if they’d started on home consoles, though I imagine if they were much improved I’d just complain about something else.

This is especially jarring in difficult sections during narrative-heavy sequences. I enjoyed the Uncharted games, as well as The Last of Us, but dying was awful. It wasn’t something the team had considered at all, because they just went with what every other game does – you restart at a checkpoint. This problem is especially evident in narratively-driven games.

Some games do make an effort to change things up, like the aforementioned Souls series, or Heavy Rain. In Heavy Rain, a character dying was permanent. This doesn’t mean that you’d restart the entire game again if you died (as you would in say, Hardcore mode in Diablo); rather, the story would continue despite that character’s death.

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Regardless of what you think about Heavy Rain, you have to admit it was pretty neat. I can’t recall more intense action scenes, precisely because the narrative wasn’t going to ignore my failures. Sure, I could reload and bitch my way around it, but that would defeat the point. Death wasn’t a punishment, it was a result. Admittedly Heavy Rain disguised some potentially lethal situations by letting the character live despite failing, but if you weren’t aware of this the entire game was exciting and often tense.

Having briefly mentioned it, I think it’s only fair to talk a bit more about games with a “Hardcore” mode, in which death is permanent. This means that if you die your character is gone for good – no reloading, no reviving, nothing. You can sink 100 hours into building up your character only to have them trip on an imp and impale themselves, and that’s it.

This definitely makes the action more exciting and involved, but only because it makes actually dying all the more frustrating. In my mind, this isn’t a real fix to the problem – it’s a simple brute force work around. By making dying even worse, they make living that much more interesting.

Admittedly, there’s no easy fix. Interesting death mechanics are very difficult to create (apparently), and just slapping them into existing genres or templates isn’t likely to work. I may take the time to come up with some interesting ways that games can handle death and post them here, but until then – leave any ideas or thoughts in the comments.

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On Morality and Decision Making

Don’t worry – this post is much less intellectually adept than the title may suggest. It is, of course, about morality and decision making in video games, not in the (terrifying) real-world.

Games often present us with difficult life-or-death decisions, often forcing us to make them quickly – when trying to pick somebody to save in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, waiting too long will result in everybody dying. Decisions in some games are more mundane, or lack far-reaching consequences; though I’m speaking strictly from a narrative standpoint. When it comes down to it, all games are essentially about decisions and decision making; choosing what structure to build in Animal Crossing is as much a decision as choosing when to reload in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But this post is focusing on narrative decisions, made famous by games such as Fable and Fallout (and some earlier than that).

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On the whole, I consider these to be a colossal failure. Fable’s always had more fun with these decisions, making them black-and-white evil or good, rather than trying to introduce complex morality. Unfortunately, this renders all decisions moot (a problem with almost all morality systems, which I’ll talk about more in another post) – you essentially make a single decision at the beginning of the game, and that’s it. How many players decided to be ‘good’, and as such never once chose an evil decision?

These games often literally show you which decision to make, by colouring decisions as either blue (good) or red (evil). As such, these games boil down to two real options; good or evil. Players are basically making one decision before they play, and that’s it. This is made worse by systems found in games such as Knights of the Old Republic, where you gain or lose powers based on your “morality score”, discouraging any decisions that step outside your chosen path.

In the unhealthy amount of games I’ve played over my life, I only consider a handful to have any kind of interesting narrative decision making, one of which I just recently got around to finishing; The Witcher 2. By the end of that game, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever made the right decision at any point. I’d ended up killing one of the only characters I considered to be righteous, while letting all the awful people go – and that’s not a spoiler, because none of those moments are predetermined. There were solid reasons for this, but I’ve been tossing each decision around in my head ever since. CD Projekt Red has really realised the concept of “grey” choices.

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An interesting example is Spec Ops: The Line, though I do have some problems with the choices the player makes in that game; mainly that you don’t really know what the decisions mean until you’ve played through it once, but the game chastises you for it anyway. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling what makes the game so great, but while your decisions do have impact, it’s not in the way you think – which makes it feel less like real decision making and more like random bullshit.

Decisions are imperative to games, because they’re what separates this form of media from books, television and movies. You can decide to stop watching a book or punch your TV, but all you’re really doing is putting a premature end to the story. In games, you’re constantly faced with decisions that affect the narrative and as such, affect your experience – an experience you paid for (unless you’re a jerk).

This is partly why I think developers try to steer clear of decisions that affect the story too much. A lot of care is taken to craft the experience of the player and I can say from experience that we try to do as much as possible to mitigate freedom. I know how that sounds, and it certainly isn’t always true – but even in the most open-ended games, the developers have tried to craft a specific experience.

Each path and area in Morrowind has loads of crap to do and see, but they’re all been designed with a specific path in mind. It’s true that the player can randomly stumble upon and explore some of this stuff, but they can only do so because the game has been designed that way.

So maybe it isn’t fair to say we try to mitigate freedom, but we do try to optimise the experience of each player. Unfortunately, players have “free will”, which fucks up everything. Throwing in world-changing decisions is a nightmare on top of what you bastards are doing normally.

There’s also the cost of developing extra content that comes with these decisions, which I believe to be another huge turn off. If you have a story that can go in two completely different directions (as The Witcher 2 can), it means that you have to essentially make each path half as long, or double up on the project budget. What makes this worse is that players tend to only play once and not give a flying shit if the other half of your game was incredible, because they didn’t and never will see it.

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Make the game twice as long and twice as awesome, even though I won’t play it!! – Players everywhere, apparently

It’s a huge amount of effort, time and money to add interesting decision making. I’ve met many players who ask me why they’re so bad in game X, and I usually just punch them in the face. Making games is hard, it’s expensive and it makes everybody involved violently angry (so I guess games do make people violent). So when you ask them why they didn’t just add amazing decisions and double the length of the game, I imagine it’s a bit like asking cancer researchers why they don’t just up and cure it.