Encouraging Ourselves to Death

November 8th, 2009

This post continues a loosely-linked series of posts (including this, this, and this) on how we can find narrative meaning in replayed games. You can re-watch a favorite DVD again and again, but it’s tricky to replay an old game and still enjoy it for the story because the enjoyment of story is so linked with the experience of being challenged and excited by the game. This leads some gamers to force artificial limitations onto ourselves just to maintain a sense of challenge in ways that preserve the story, something most games are not designed to do. In this post, I’ll discuss one such artificial limitation—”permadeath” experiments with Far Cry 2—and what allowing characters to stay dead can do for the narrative experience of a game.

I found out about one such experiment through Nels Anderson, whose blog Above 49 got me thinking about this last trio of posts on the appeals of game narratives. Nels joined in a Far Cry 2 “permadeath” experiment led by Ben Abraham and Michel. Normally, when your protagonist dies in this game, you start anew from a “save point,” losing whatever progress you made since you last slept, completed a major mission objective, or passed by a tin on the wall with a floppy disc icon. The “permadeath” experiment is an attempt to experience the game in a more tense, dramatic way by deciding that when your protagonist dies, you stop playing the game entirely with that character. In theory, knowing that your character will stay dead, death will have some real meaning.

Even more interesting to me, however, is that Nels and company decided that if any of the non-player characters in the game die, they stay dead, too, without resorting to reloading form an earlier save. This is a real risk in Far Cry 2, as your protagonist meets “buddies” who will come to your rescue when you run out of health. Just when you think you’re dead, your vision blurs and darkens, and some associate you met in a bar appears out of nowhere to drag you out of battle, stick a pistol in your hand, and fight by your side. And, eventually, your buddy’s life may well be in your hands as well.

One might argue that this experiment is about making the game more like a traditional story, and less like a game of trial-and-error. Commenting on this experiment, however, Far Cry 2 designer Clint Hocking disagrees, suggesting that there’s a certain irony to this: “It is not the combination of Far Cry 2 + authored narrative irreversibility that is making the permadeath experiment meaningful to Ben and to others, it is the fact that he is able to manipulate the game to create this experiment that is bringing meaning.” (Careful of the spoiler in that link, prefaced by, “I’ll tell you what will happen.”) In other words, according to Clint, being able to fiddle with a game, experience it in terms of the appeal I have referred to as “tomfoolery,” is what makes us appreciate it more, not the appeal of the story itself, the feeling of loss you experience when your in-game comrades die in your arms.

I agree with Clint that this is part of the appeal, but I disagree with the dismissal of the narrative element. Partly, he’s dismissing this because he feels that war movies already handle the emotional “war buddy dying in your arms” moment pretty well already, and thus we may question why we should bother replicating that in games. The simple answer to this question, though, is that there’s a big difference between watching somebody else lose a buddy and feeling like we ourselves played a role in that loss. Movies can make you identify with someone else’s sadness, but, as I’ve heard others point out, games can make you feel guilt, pride, and other emotions based on your own performance. That’s worthwhile distinction in itself, and there’s no shame in stepping up onto the shoulders of filmmakers from time to time to reach greater heights with familiar tropes. It’s part of a process of exploring not just how games can do entirely new and different things, but how games can do the same things as before, but potentially better.

Nels’s and Clint’s posts got me to start Far Cry 2 myself in the last few months, and I’m finding it both fun and fascinating in the few hours I can steal for it here and there. I’m not good enough at it yet (my first play-through) to allow my own death to be permanent, but I have tried it both ways with my buddies, insisting upon irreversibility and reloading from recent saves depending on the situation.

Twice, I found it pretty affecting when I refused to reload, allowing my buddies to die, though I was definitely more attached to the ones who had actually saved my protagonist’s life already. In one case, for instance, I had been getting aid from a fellow who was really a selfish, deplorable arms dealer, but who had saved my bacon on numerous occasions, twice getting badly wounded himself. I didn’t realize then that three such wounds would be all he could handle. When I started pumping syrettes into him, I realized with a sense of loss that I wasn’t saving his life, but easing my compatriot into a peaceful death.

In another case, I brought my rescuer back from a mortal wound, after scrambling around a guard post to restock on syrettes to inject her with. Enemies were still shooting at us, so I tossed off a molotov cocktail as I made my way back to her crumpled form. My ally was saved, but only for a moment. She wasn’t quick enough to follow me to safety. That molotov spread faster than I expected, and she started screaming as the grass and trees around her were engulfed in flames. I tried to get close, but there was no button to drag a person out of a brushfire even if I thought I could withstand the heat. I watched her die, and I felt sad and frustrated—not the kind of frustrated from when you have to replay a level, but the kind from feeling helpless. And, reflecting on this, I found that really interesting.

I’ll admit it: The way I related this story later to my friends was told in the form of, “Oh my gosh, this was bizarre and hilarious.” That’s because it’s amazing that the game allowed this level of variation, detail, and disturbing content. As Clint says, part of the appeal of retelling these stories is in admiring how much variation the game allows for—but a great piece of the appeal of playing these stories, refusing to turn back time, is in the emotional experience itself.

That said, it would have been even more affecting when buddies died if I had been able to interact with them through any means besides taking bonus missions and being dragged out of fire fights. After one of them rescues your protagonist, you don’t even have the option to offer thanks. They just kind of stand there, looking vigilant, while you drive off in a truck. They are a tool, and it’s sometimes easy to treat them that way.

On one occasion, I did opt to reload from an old save to “protect” a buddy from my own carelessly thrown grenade. This one had never actually pulled my fat out of the fire, but I was hoping that he would start saving my life, rather than just giving me bonus missions, if I kept him around. He never did. When I had the chance to save him again later at the expense of others, I opted just to leave him. What’d he ever do for me?

In retrospect, I realize that it’s probably pretty telling that I only reloaded for the one I was emotionally unattached to. Before saving me, a “buddy” felt like a potential tool, a thing; after saving me, however, a “buddy” felt somewhat more like a comrade-in-arms. And if there had been some way to interact with them with greater depth, I suspect it wouldn’t take a life-saving situation for me to care just a bit more.

If Far Cry 2 does have some limitation in offering an emotional experience, then, I’d say it’s not through anything lacking in the ability to play with it like a toy, but with the depth of the narrative design. As Clint says, they are a “limited resource […] ‘disguised’ as a real human character”—much like in Grand Theft Auto IV, as observed by Duncan Fyfe. And, as a resource, there’s some expectation that they should be an asset, somehow rewarding to us. But good stories aren’t necessarily about winning prizes. Sometimes, we can feel encouraged to do something for narrative purposes without necessarily involving a reward (a distinction that probably deserves its own post, now that I think on it).

I don’t think that authorial irreversibility is the only way to encourage a more emotionally narrative in games, but my own experiences with Far Cry 2 suggest to me that perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss it so quickly. Some gamers are very concerned that irreversibility is what will drive Heavy Rain; the best David Cage can do is assert that he hopes to “convince” players that they should keep playing. I think that the trick here may be in making sure that wherever you lead players, you end up at something meaningful, purposeful.

Watching a buddy die in Far Cry 2 can feel poignant and meaningful, and it may even fit into some overarching game mechanic that I have yet to discover, not having finished the game. Letting your protagonist die in Far Cry 2, however, only has the meaning we ascribe to it ourselves, with nothing more than a “game over” screen offering to reload from our last save. It is pretty anticlimactic if you’re not doing the “permadeath” thing—and even if you are, as Nels points out. Any meaning that results from the death is entirely what we bring to it, not in what the game offers.

Irreversibility in narrative game design should not be something that players feel forced to do, but something that feels more emotionally satisfying to allow to happen. If the main emotion a game shoots for is “the thrill of victory,” irreversibility will not ever be desirable. Games need to reach for something more in order to encourage us to let our characters die.


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3 Responses to “Encouraging Ourselves to Death”

  1. Nels Anderson Says:

    “As Clint says, part of the appeal of retelling these stories is in admiring how much variation the game allows for—but a great piece of the appeal of playing these stories, refusing to turn back time, is in the emotional experience itself.”

    This was one of the things that surprised me most about Left 4 Dead. A lot of these issues with permanence are made far easier by adding more human beings, of course. But how satisfying it was to discuss L4D, even with people you weren’t playing with, was very intriguing. I think there’s something there that could be mined a lot more.

    Thanks for the links Jason, btw. Great post.

  2. Ben Abraham Says:

    This was a great read. I have really nothing to add, but thank you for thinking about the permadeath exercise with such depth and thoughtfulness.

  3. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks for the comments, and thank you both for writing stuff that encourages me to think about the games we play.