TEA & DEATH is a talk/ discussion I did at the first Bit of Alright game conference. It was about death in games, served with a lovely cup of calming tea so that no one got too freaked out about their own mortality. I think it went really well; I’m glad it wasn’t just me talking for half an hour or so, the audience were interested and engaged enough that we took up a whole hour, and could have gone on. I had loads of people come up to me during the rest of the day to continue the discussion, so I think I’m on to something.
[CAVEAT: I’ve kind of cut this down, to make it readable. Not that it was coherent in the first place, of course. But just so you know: no, I’m not saying ‘this is how it should be’ and no, I haven’t necessarily ‘thought it through’ like a grown-up.]
Here’s the core of it: I’m increasingly aware that death in games is an outmoded concept. It served a purpose in, like, the 1980s because games were short enough that death worked well as a fail state. My argument is that these days, all it does is ruin narrative and frustrate the player, and that surely as designers we can come up with something better.
I’m not saying no death in games. Clearly in some places it works well; VVVVVV and Super Meatboy, for example, which treat death-as-gameplay in a gleeful, short-fired bursts.
This all started because I was trying to work out how to handle death in The Swindle – it’s essentially an open-world platform game that sees you breaking into buildings. Each of the levels will, I hope, wind up being quite large. So quickloading/ checkpoints aren’t really going to be ideal, and sending the player back to the start of the level if they die just kind of felt archaic.
Which brings to mind Alien vs Predator. The first one. Remember how you couldn’t save, and if you died you had to restart the entire level? What that meant was you simply very quickly learned precisely which air vents the aliens were going to spawn from in the opening, and got annoyed at how far you had to sidetrack to grab the Smart Gun but, God, it’s kind of necessary isn’t it? For the well-trodden opening quarter of the level, you were the badassest Colonial Marine ever. And actually, thinking about it, we all know aliens have a penchant for dragging the important characters away to an antechamber and gluing them to a wall. Couldn’t you do that, and take away my Smart Gun instead? Make me escape?
Just a flippant example, of course. That’d probably get annoying quite quickly, too.
I love Uncharted, it’s amazing, but unfortunately it’s the game that during the talk seemed to best solidify my main problem here – death ruins narrative. Uncharted is a beautiful, well-acted, stunningly-designed game that they’ve taken a lot of care over the script to produce a funny, well-crafted story. Unfortunately, it’s a story that’s seemingly being told to you by a confused, crack-addict uncle:
“And then, after solving the riddle Nathan was attacked by mercenaries! He dove left out of cover, but was shot several times in the face, and died a horrible death, slumped in the sand. ‘NOOOOO!’, Sully cried, as Drake’s lifeless corpse slid off a cliff.
“NO. Wait. Sorry, that’s not what happened. After solving the riddle, Nathan was attacked by mercenaries! He dove RIGHT out of cover, but messed up throwing a grenade and it bounced off an idol and exploded at his feet, sending his lifeless corpse cartwheeling across the ruins while Sully shouted ‘Oh God, Nate! NOOOOO!’
“No, wait. Sorry, that’s not what happened. After solving the riddle…” etc etc.
It’s mental. What a weird way to ruin your otherwise-excellent narrative. Quite what the solution is, I’m not sure. Anyone who’s played DooM with IDDQD on will attest it’s a pretty dull affair, so there needs to be some risk, or there’s no tension.
The audience brought up several good examples of games that deal with death differently, from Bioshock’s Vita Chambers to Soul Reaver and Prey’s ‘spirit realms’, which all solve the ‘breaking narrative’ problem, I guess, but in doing so do they really keep the tension up?
I think the sum-up was this: maybe we shouldn’t unthinkingly fall back on convention. As game designers, we’ve got the tools to make anything happen upon death to explain why the player can carry on. You’ve got everything from time travel, clones, parallel dimensions, freak storms, right up to having God turn up, stuff your ghost back in your lifeless corpse and telling you to buck your ideas up. We can penalise death in-game (by removing score, coins, weapons, powerups etc), but instead we’re locked in this cycle of frustrating the player in the real world, by inconveniencing him while the game reloads. Surely there’s a better alternative?
I just don’t know what it is.