Sunday, June 11, 2006


"In the backwash of Fennario
The black and bloody mire
The Dire Wolf collects his due
while the boys sing round the fire

Don't murder me
I beg of you don't murder me
don't murder me . . ."
-Dire Wolf, The Grateful Dead (lyrics by Robert Hunter)

I'm filled with tremendous anxiety, for on this Round Table must I contemplate the Reaper.

Videogames have been my chief tool for combating the gulf of existential terror I feel whenever considering my own demise.

The immortality of game characters, expressed by extra lives and continues and rezzing, satisfies one of the oldest human dreams - the defeat of death. Even games with limited lives allow resurrections by way of resetting.

In my future, beyond the Singularity, humans will be able to transfer their consciousness to physical avatars and enact countless scenarios without fear of the end. The only death to fear will be, maybe, the sun's red star bloat or the Big Crunch (or Big Chill, what have you).

Every so often permadeath is mentioned in conjunction with games as a good way to ratchet up tension and make things meaningful. Not for me. There is no desire on my part to even simulate the anxiety that winking out of existence engenders. Permadeath reminds me too much of games like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, strikingly difficult ordeals, the likes of which are not so much emotionally affecting as fucking stressful.

Hell, I don't even like timed levels or instant-failure sneak missions.

I can understand the sentiment, though. The drive to exploit such a basic facet of human emotional psychology could make for a powerful game.

In most cases strict death penalties will be considered hardcore fare, pure fiero. At one point I attempted a game design that required avatar death, which would alter the next character created and so on. But the problem with those kind of workarounds is that you can't diminish the finality of permadeath without altering the emotional impact.

I've thought about something similar for MMOs, a way to end the endgame (can it really be an endgame if it doesn't end?). Perhaps tracking your character's history and using it to affect the options for your next character, and so on and so forth.

I left City of Heroes because the debt incurred from death became too much of an annoyance. I couldn't figure out why they thought extending the grind was a good idea. Death was both negligible and increasingly unbearable - a losing combination.

World of Warcraft, on the other hand, took most of the sting from death. Blizzard's method for handling death was a great design point. Upon death, you can either return to your corpse from a graveyard in order to rez with no penalties (which is a variable proposition), or you can bring your body to you by paying the angel in the graveyard and incur penalties. While I almost always did the cadaver hotfoot, it was nice to have another option. Especially if I wanted to logoff posthaste.

When I think of videogame death, I end up thinking back to my least favorite moments of yesteryear. Sure, that Contra code is now grade-A nostalgia, but I needed that damn code to wring even a bit of enjoyment from the title. What would Metroid have been without progress codes? Would Zelda have been such a breakout if it hadn't included a save chip? Games have progressed further and further away from Game Over.

Isn't that what we're all looking for?

The permanent Game On?


Patrick Dugan said...

Yeah, we need to let videogames give people a taste of how things could be, ala a post-singular future. In fact, death evolved as a design mechanic because the economics of arcades, and we've barely outgrown this origin in our designs. I'm going to do something about it, though in the short term it'll be a mere post.

Chris said...

Nice post; I'm so completely with you about how stressful Devil May Cry was... I could find no way to enjoy it, and I have no personal fear of death.

Apropos of nothing...

In my sci-fi tabletop RPG, Outlands, humans can get a wetdrive installed, allowing their engrams to be backed up. However, the law prohibits the growing of a clone to receive the engrams, considering this murder. The net result is that copies of human personalities accumulate at NeoZen temples, where people come to consult the "minds of their ancestors" - the the sheer volume of the dead is so vast, most engrams are just desperate for any attention. I haven't thought about that in ages! I really enjoyed those games.

Something similar is found in Gregory Benford's Galactic Centre novels; when someone dies, their memories and personality are encoded and 'added' to someone elses mind so that their knowledge isn't lost. However, the quality of these recordings varies according to how old they are, since the technology has evolved and improved over time.

I really don't have a point, just being pointlessly nostalgic. :)

Best wishes!

Chris said...

Just an addendum, when I said 'I have no personal fear of death', I meant 'I don't fear my own death', not I have no fear of death.

Best wishes!