More on Death in Games

March 6th, 2008

Dear Bay Area: I’ll be at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in San Francisco in a couple weeks, presenting a paper on protagonist death and failure in video games (which I’ve written about in a few posts here). Feel free to let me know if you’d like to grab a cup of coffee and chat about geeky (and/or academic) stuff.

Here are some links about death in games I’ve been saving up for a while. I figure I might as well throw these out for you as I sort through my materials for this paper.

Escort Missions Suck: Here are a few links—from the Escapist, Kotaku, and a Twilight Princess FAQ—that serve as examples of why many players do not enjoy “escort missions.” [Oh, what the hey, here's one more, from Gamasutra: "Protection and rescue missions ... are historically frustrating, even loathsome"—Ico being the notable exception.] These are game scenarios which you must survive and also ensure the survival of an AI-controlled character (who generally doesn’t seem predisposed to self-preservation). While the first two pretty directly state that escort missions suck, the third describes the caravan defense scene of the most recent Zelda game as “the most frustrating part of the mission” (and I think some other FAQs describe this similarly).

I find the escort mission a fascinating, failed concept in narrative game design. Designers want players to feel emotionally attached to characters, so they force you to protect them. But when the character you’re protecting doesn’t follow instructions too well, or especially when that character dies, you don’t feel remorse—you feel frustration. You might even be angry at the character you’re supposed to protect.

A preferable approach for narrative purposes, I think, is to make the death of supporting characters actually permanent, while the game keeps going. Admittedly, this suggests an entirely different purpose for the game—character engagement versus “winning”—but I think that sometimes games shoot themselves in the foot by working at cross purposes. (And anyway, you get a cooler bonus item for replaying if you beat the game after letting Meryl die in Metal Gear Solid.)

On the Art Games Front: Rock Paper Shotgun has an interesting critique of Passage, a game where the points mean nothing and you inevitably die alone. Nick Montford has argued that the game is superior to recent award-winning favorite Portal, though I think that’s kind of an apples-and-oranges comparison. Still, it’s an interesting example of how forcing a player’s character to die can be used to communicate a message.

The Vestigial “Lives” Convention: In a review of Super Mario Galaxy, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw points out that “lives” haven’t made sense since they served an economic purpose in arcades. Why do we cling to this convention in games? (Short answer: Many don’t anymore, and some of those that do, such as the Mario games, effectively give you unlimited extra lives to play with.)

As an unrelated aside, I find it amusing that the Escapist is the first result that comes up when you google “Yahtzee.” I’d argue that this is some small evidence that geeks still largely control the web.

Raise the (Nearly) Dead: A number of recent, team-based games, such as Gears of War and Kane and Lynch, have used a mechanic that allows teammates to rescue one another from the brink of death. In Gears, you must be playing with other players to make use of this; dying in the single-player game is just dying. In Kane and Lynch, I believe, your AI-controlled “crew” can actually sometimes make it to you in time to give you a shot of adrenaline.

According to Kotaku, a new, Bonnie-and-Clyde-style game has been announced, Faith and a .45, which uses the same kind of mechanic, but with kissing as the trigger for revival. It’s somewhat cheesy, perhaps, but I think the developers are on the right track; making AI that actually helps you, rather than hinders you, seems like a logical step to satisfy the demands of narrative purposes and game purposes. I don’t think this would make up for a terrible story, necessarily, but it might at least take down some of the roadblocks to experiencing a video game as a story at all.

The Sweet Release of Death: A lot of sites (such as this one) are reporting on a recent study claiming that FPS players experience a positive emotional response after their characters die, and a negative response after killing other characters. As the study itself seems to suggest (I have yet to read it), this makes sense in terms of getting a break from the anxiety of playing when you die. I’m not sure I have much more to say on it, but it does offer just one more glimpse at how death in games works so differently from death in traditional narrative media.

Dealing with Death: This post about whether computer games can deal with death seriously may have been written by someone for whom English is not a first language, and I’m not yet familiar with all the theories discussed herein. Still, they sound like interesting theories, and I wanted to remind myself to follow up on them later (and invite anybody familiar with them to speak up).

Suicide Bombing: Clive Thompson reflects on the “sick sense” of “suicide bombing” in Halo 3, in which you stick an opponent with a plasma grenade just before they inevitably kill you. This isn’t really related to death and repetition as an impediment to narrative in games, which is the focus of my paper, but it’s an interesting example of how dying in a game might actually communicate some meaning or understanding to players.

Contemplating the Death Penalty: Elder Game ponders the differences between how World of Warcraft and Everquest penalize players for dying. I may not cite such articles in my paper, as MMOs may be beyond the scope of my argument. (At least I think so, anyway. Does anybody want to make a case that MMOs are as much an immersive narrative experience as they are a social experience, and that death in MMOs constitutes a break in narrative flow?) Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see what considerations might go into making death seem unappealing enough to players to be worth avoiding. (The penalty in Halo, obviously, is rather low.)

The Ultimate Death: Again, I might not be referring to this Escapist article on retiring a World of Warcraft character in my paper because of the MMO focus. But still, I thought it was interesting because it implies a distinction between the many temporary deaths in a game and the one “real” death of a character, deletion (not to mention sacrifice of all one’s virtual-worldly possessions).

Incidentally, this article brings back fond memories for me of playing Rites of Passage back in high school. Well, that’s a little misleading—I guess most of my memories of actually playing the MUD veer back toward not being able to keep up with all that text on a 2400 modem, being falsely accused of cheating by one of the moderators, and awkwardness between friends. (Oh, high school!) But I did have a grand time giving away all my gear to newbies, wandering to the neutral territory, and attacking random players on the other side with a hoe that I stole off some farmer NPC. If you’re going to delete a character, might as well throw social norms to the wind, right?


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5 Responses to “More on Death in Games”

  1. Eric Says:

    Suicide bombing in Halo III is in my list of favorite things to do to get other players mad. Also included: dancing on people after I’ve defeated them and betraying teammates with lasers.

    I’d be interested in an article on that, actually. People who relentlessly go after their own teammates. I could be the case study, cause I do that all the time.

    After saying this, I fear Jason will no longer want to play me in halo.

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    My friend Keith likes to team-kill me and then teabag me, especially when we are playing in the same room together. You guys would get along.

  3. Jordan Says:

    Thanks for all the interesting links Jason! I have a few responses….

    Escort missions: I think the general idea of escort missions is sound, but it just doesn’t work with current AI. I’d like to see more of it in multiplayer gaming. Some of the really fun parts of multiplayer strategy games are where you have to “cover” someone while they carry out some important task that leaves them vulnerable. You can see this is FPSs and real time strategy games. That being said, I would suggest Guild Wars as an example of a game where the AI-based escort missions are actually well done (i.e., not frustrating), and that might be because you have a group of players protecting the NPCs, rather than a single player like in the examples that consistently come up. Also, the GW AIs that you escort usually have some assistive role.

    Passage: This was really cool. It relates to your “escort missions” topic too, because the maze is easier to navigate if you don’t pick up the girl, but you could argue that the game is more “rewarding” if you have a companion. Also, in case you didn’t see it, the author made a statement about the game.

    Sweet Release of Death: As I know them, FPS games have very little penalty for death. In some cases death actually gives you a chance to “restock” on ammo or other resources. It’s not uncommon for people playing TF2 to die intentionally so that they can change classes, or get more ammo, or leave metal for their teammates to use, etc. This is in contrast to something like a MUD or MMORPG or adventure game, where there seems to be more “repeated” work when you die. Also, I skimmed the article very quickly and didn’t see whether they compared the subject responses to a case where they kill/wound AI characters, to tease out whether knowing there is a person on the other side has an influence (for example, maybe you feel more stressed about potential retaliation when you know you’re attacking a human controlled character).

    Contemplating the Death Penalty: I can really only attest to Guild Wars as an example, but I definitely felt that death broke the narrative flow in that game. This was mainly because death during a mission often meant that you’d have to repeat significant chunks of the narrative again. Imagine if you were watching a movie and every so often you were forced to watch the same 5 minute scene over and over. It’s like that. There is a mechanism for skipping those cuts in Guild Wars, but everyone in your group has to agree to skip it for it to work. That being said, the majority of players I’ve played with tend to want to skip narrative scenes, presumably because they’d already beaten the game and seen it all.

    Ok. long comment. :-)

  4. Jason Tocci Says:

    I think you’re on target in suggesting that the supporting characters come across as more likable when they’re helpful, rather than a hindrance. I think a real sense of tragedy and loss from death in games currently comes in two flavors:

    1. When your character is going to die or be struck down and there’s nothing you can do about it, but the game forces you to play anyway (e.g., King Kong, beginning of God of War II, other games I don’t want to ruin).

    2. When one of the supporting characters who has been helpful to you, and who you had time to get to know, dies permanently and there’s nothing you can do about it (e.g., Aeris in FFVII, other games I don’t want to ruin).

    Playing through Gears of War on “Insane” mode with you (Jordan) the other night, I got to thinking that the scene early on where your commanding officers gets killed looks like it’s supposed to be very emotional—slow motion, close-up reaction shot with the protagonist, etc.—but I don’t really care about the guy. What would have made that scene really hit home is if he had been the only member of the squad, besides Dom, reviving you when you get shot to your knees. Then, when he’s gone, that loss is reinforced in both the story and the gameplay.

  5. Jason Tocci Says:

    Pardon me for leaving a comment on my own (rather old) post, but I wanted to make note of this in case I need to refer back to it later. Here’s a quote from a recent review of Alone in the Dark which pretty well sums up the problem of death and narrative engagement in games:

    By the time you’ve watched the same bus fall off the same ledge rising at the same angle for the umpteenth time, any suspension of disbelief has long since snapped like overstretched elastic under a flame.

    I also thought it was interesting that the reviewers note that the game actually kind of works better when it’s working linearly.

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