DEATH in Video Games
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DEATH in Video Games

September 11, 2019


Hello, wonderers.
The playable characters. What do most of them have in common? Well, they die. A lot.
It’s the most common manifestation of losing a game. So, yea, it happens pretty often.
But it’s not a big deal, right? You can always start over again. And it works. So
dying in videogames is a simple and perfect tool, right? Well, it’s simple, that’s
true. Most developers and players don’t even think about it. Like it’s something
very obvious. But despite that, it also has some downsides. First. The value of life.
You see, the death of the main character is actually a big deal. But the problem is that
it isn’t what it is. The death of your character doesn’t really mean that he died. It means
that you have to restart. So it just devalues the concept of death. But there are games
out there, that have a different approach. For example, Darkest dungeon. So, how to bring
some value in your character’s death? Well, character’s death should kill your character.
It’s easy, right? This approach leads to some very interesting outcomes in terms of
your perception of your character. Just imagine. You found a character you liked. You gave
him a name. At some point after lots of difficult battles after, everything you’ve been through
with your character, there is some chemistry starting to develop. You are starting to feel
attached to your character. You give him the best equipment, you care about him, you listen
to what he says, because you experienced so many things together, you explored this world
together. It’s okay to love your character, there’s nothing weird, right?…RIGHT?….
But then, there is a boss who turned out to be much stronger than you thought. And in
the hard battle your character dies. And that’s it. There is no plot armor for him. There
is no way to bring him back. The only thing left of him is a little gravestone at the
cemetery. And the point is that you FEEL something about it, because Someone who meant something
to you actually Died. And it affects your experience. You see, usually in videogames
when your character faces some life-threatening circumstances, you don’t worry about his
life, no matter how close to death he is. And even when he finally dies, you probably
think something like “oh cmon it was so close, where was the last checkpoint?” because
your character didn’t really die, because he can’t really die, unless it’s inscribed
in the scneario, the plot of the game, and in this case you won’t feel responsible
for his death , Those were not your actions and choices that lead him to his death” anyway.
Let’s get back to darkest dungeon, another interesting point is that your character’s
ability to die may also change your perception of your character. It may be a bit ironic,
but this ability to die makes your character more “alive”, he feels more alive to you,
because that is what living creatures do, you know, they die sooner or later. And don’t
get me wrong. I don’t say that darkest dungeon is a good game or anything, that’s not the
point. What I say is that it has something in it that may (and may not) give you an interesting
experience. And of course, it’s not the only game in which you character can permanently
die because of you. There are other games like Xcom. X COM is a bit different also has
a save-load feature. And it changes a lot. The god of time problem. That’s what I call
my invention. This problem has many manifestations in videogames. Sometimes it’s not a big
deal, but sometimes it can be pretty crucial in terms of your immersion into the game or
even gameplay. For example in XCOM you are playing as a commander, you control your soldiers,
managing your ship and stuff like this. And yes, your characters can permanently die in
this game, but usually if one of your soldiers die you just load the save where he’s still
alive and you change your decisions in order to save him. So basically your character can
die only if you let him to, only if it’s your conscious decision. You are in total
control of your character’s life. Because here you’re not a commander of your soldiers
/despite that you are/, but a god of time. And that’s the difference between darkest
dungeon and X COM. Plus it also does no good for your immersion and in-game logic. Because
of the conflict between being yourself, being a commander and being a god of time. But it
goes even further than that. You see, X COM is a turn-based game which relies a lot on
RNG aka random number generator, like chance to hit, chance to dodge, chance to apply some
effect and so on and on. Almost everything here relies on probabilities. And when the
ability to save and load your game meets RNG, it will likely cause some problems, because
all these numbers lose their meaning. For example, here is the situation in which I
really need to kill this guy. But it happens that my chance to hit is too low. But instead
of being what it has to be, the low chance to hit means only that I’ll need to load
the game more times in order to finally kill the enemy. You don’t worry about your soldiers
getting killed, you don’t care much about missing, you don’t need to think your actions
over because they won’t have any unchangable consequences. So usually it will go like this:
“mhm, it seems to be a good idea, okay, oops, no, it wasn’t, LOAD THE GAME!”.
And if you end up in a difficult situation here, you will load your turn many times,
living it over and over again like in the groundhog day, until you finally find the
right decisions, relying on the knowledge your characters wasn’t sup It becomes a part
of the gameplay. So you can finish the game not only without a single soldier dead, but
even without a single damage taken. And it harms your gameplay, the flow of the game,
the logic of the game, it harms many things. But is this what the game was supposed be?
I mean it’s a turn based tactics game afterall, it even has a special place for your dead
soldiers memorials. So is it really okay to abuse the quicksave system?
Well, seems not. It’s considered a bad thing among many gamers. They call it “Save-scumming”.
So it seems like I have to restrict myself from save-scumming, because game doesn’t,
and not only it doesn’t punish me for save-scumming by any means, but it even creates an autosave
before every turn for me. And this whole thing is just strange, I mean it’s pretty much
the same thing as if they gave me some overpowered gun with an unlimited ammo in some shooter
game and said me not to use it just because it’s considered bad and it will harm my
experience. And at the same time the game was designed the way, where I need to use
that overpowered gun. And even if I am to restrict myself, how do
I actually do it? Where is the distinct line between normal saving and save scumming?
I don’t say that XCOM is a bad game. It’s just an example. And pretty much all I said
can be applied to almost every game that has the RNG-mechanics and quicksave feature. In
some games it’s more crucial, and in some less. But how to fix this problem? Well, usually
there is NO way to remove this problem unless the game was designed without that problem
from the beginning, like darkest dungeon. But there are ways to fix it a bit. For example
you can make checkpoints instead of quicksaving or like special places where you can save
your game, like in japanese rpgs, for example. But let’s get back to the topic and look
at other manifestations of “the god of time problem”. Here I’m playing a stealth game
called HITMAN absolution, it’s a primitive example, but you’ll get it, so I am sitting
here in this room and I know, that there is a guy behind the wall, so I won’t go there.
But the reason I know about that guy is that he is the one who killed me. So I started
over again and here I am. And it leads to the situation in which I am right now, where
my character relies on the experience he never had. Because I was the one who restarted the
game. My character from this game session has never seen that guy, he can not know about
him being behind the wall. And it breaks the logic of the game, the logic of what’s happening
in the game. It also breaks the connection between you and your character and distances
you from him. And it can be even more crucial if the game emphasizes stuff like immersion,
self-insert or something like that. And again, it’s just a random example.
I mean just imagine you beating some game like I don’t know let’s say crysis 3 without
a single death. It was intense, the game keeped you on the edge of your seat, nothing distracted
you, it was hard, you were close to death multiple times but you made it. And the guy
who killed the final boss is literally the same guy that completed tutorial. It would’ve
been a different experience. Let’s look at the games with some other
approaches to a death, to the death, screw you english!
So if dying is such a handful tool in videogames, then how to make the process of dying the
way it doesn’t conflict with common sense, the logic of the world, the way it doesn’t
make your character a some kind of visionary which he’s not, and the way it doesn’t
break the flow of the game and gameplay. Well, for example you can make dying a natural thing,
like a natural part of the local world, where the death is not the end. Like in Dark Souls.
You see, dark souls is the game where you will probably die a lot. Plus, it’s a game
with pretty high level of self insert and immersion. And from software, the developers
of the game, realized it. So they came up with a different approach. Here when you die,
you don’t really die, because you are an undead. A Chosen undead to be precise. Each
time you “die”, you are reborn near the last bonfire. And it doesn’t reset the world,
it doesn’t reset your character. It’s the same character who experienced everything
you did. So there is no conflict between you and your character. And the world also aware
of everything you’ve done before the death. And there is no such thing like loading your
previous game here. So your whole experience is a continuous flow. Pretty much the same
thing we have in most of MMORPGS. But probably just because there’s like no other way,
because it can’t reset the world every time you die because that world exists not only
for you, but for all other players as well. Or in Assassins creed where you die in protagonist’s
“ancestral memories”. Or even in GTA /I feel like I’m gonna burn in hell for these
words/. In this game you don’t die. After being lethally injured, you will be recovered
in the hospital. So yea, it means that you can go on the mission make some new friends,
get shot in your head with a shotgun and you will still be ok after recovering in a hospital.
Oh, and when you go on the same mission again those guys will act like they’ve never seen
you before. So yea, it doesn’t make any sense, but well, better than nothing.
Or you can even break the fourth wall, it will probably lead to some totally different
outcomes, but it still can be a very cool option for some cases. Phew, that’s pretty much it. But again,
it doesn’t mean that all games that ignore those problems are bad. It’s not something
that crucial especially in some cases. But still, even some little things can actually
have some real weight, and I found it interesting to research and to discuss. Before I go I
want to leave you with an interesting quote from George Martin’s Interview. I’m not
a huge fan of the game of thrones, but it’s topical. And Thank you for watching. Oh, wait, wait wait. There is some breaking
news here, and I just can’t ignore it. After I finished working on the video, I read Kojima’s
interview about his new game. Death stranding. According to Kojima, his game will have some
totally diferent approach to death, considering all things I’ve been talking about here.
So it seems to be good news and I’m looking forward to see what he will come up with.
And yea, if I had released this video earlier, I could’ve make a joke about kojima watching
my videos, but now, the joke is dead before it was ever born. So let’s mourn it.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Single Player games need to gate progression. A simple means of gating progression is to allow a certain number of mistakes, but require the trial be reattempted if too many or too severe mistakes are made. To this end, death is a simple metaphor. The times when a player character dies are taken implicitly to be non-canonical or semi-canonical, only the character's successes are remembered in canon, where their failures are forgotten, or only vaguely remembered by the player as part of the story sense of the game.

    Fuck the value of the concept of death. We have a useful abstraction.

    Darkest dungeon isn't a game that follows the adventures of specific characters. It follows a bunch of randomly generated and dispensible characters. You don't feel something for the darkest dungeon characters, you fear losing resources. You're not afraid in other games because you aren't losing anything, except time and an attempt. People feel a lot about death in the Souls games because they could lose all these precious precious souls they have on hand at the moment.

    I mean, lets turn this on it's head, a death in a cutscene is not a real death, it's just a cutscene. Only changes during gameplay are real, if something is different after a cutscene, you could imagine it as being the same as something changing after a loading screen. Like think of all those games where you get bonked on the head, then the loading screen comes up, and you appear in a prison without your armor. You can picture it that way. Oh, a loading screen came up and Aerith isn't in my party anymore.

    How about we pull this out a bit, analyze it from a mechanical perspective? What's the real argument here? I think it could go something along the lines of, "failures in video games could be more impactful on a player's psychology if they are coupled with massive losses in non-renewable resources, ideally ones that also correlate to bigger losses of time than merely the checkpoint they are sent back to."

    Then you bring up the god of time problem, which is all, "sometimes it can be pretty crucial in terms of your immersion". To which I say, fuck your immersion. Save states are bad because they allow you to forgo building consistency. Instead you can roll the dice until the result you want comes up, and keep the favored result. Save states allow players to bypass the challenge by only saving good results and forgoing bad results. Checkpoints need to be spaced out to prevent save scumming because save scumming deskills players, creating a reliance on save scumming as the difficulty curve increases and they become less capable of coping. This leads to an increasingly frustrating, but also boring, pattern of saving good results and retrying many many times through bad results across shorter and shorter intervals instead of the more enjoyable experience possible through building competency the hard way.

    Don't give me these bullshit arguments about "what it does for your in-game immersion" or making up phony dichotomies like the "conflict between being yourself, being a commander, and being a god of time" You're a player. The game has abstractions, even ignoring the save state god of time part of it. Darkest Dungeon has abstractions too, many of the same abstractions. There isn't a conflict between these different roles you imagine yourself in, that doesn't cross most players' minds. Most players are just thinking of how they can get the win, and how annoying it is to reload so often, but they know it's the most efficient path. And given an guaranteed way to victory, they'll take it even if it's irritating and frustrating.

    Every game is like that. Every game, including roguelikes, is about screwing up and learning from your mistakes until you know enough to get it right. You're not playing a character. You're mastering a system. It doesn't matter what the "character's supposed to know". Your commitment to immersion is actively harming your ability to enjoy games, and to recognize what actual issues games have where they arise.

    Solving save scumming is easy. Just disallow saving at any time. Only allow saving at the beginning of missions. Games don't need to be designed around this type of thing, fixes are extremely easy to implement. Pick an arbitrary point, and save right then and there. This introduces a useability issue in that you can't quit the game at any time, but that is solved with temporary "suspend state" saves, which are made only when you quit and deleted by the game when you load them.

    Stop getting hung up on "characters" relying on experiences they "never had". Ignore the character. In splinter cell, YOU are relying on an experience that YOU had. FUCK the logic of the game. FUCK the connection between you and the character. I'd love it if games got rid of characters completely if it meant we could avoid ever having a conversation like this again.

    If I beat a game like Crysis 3 without a single death, I'd call it boring! I'd call it easy! Games should kill us MORE, not less! You're not the character. We shouldn't compromise the game experience just for the sake of some sort of narrative consistency. Does this mean that if I replay a game from scratch and beat it without a single death that the narrative is now consistent because the guy beat the final boss without dying once? Give it up. Games are defined by a pattern of inconsistent success. If there is no failure, then there is no triumph in winning. We're only able to contextualize success with regards to all the failures endured on the way. Success has no effect without an equal measure of failure. If we succeed in all things effortlessly, then it becomes boring.

    Wow, I knew you'd bring up dark souls some time. What about the issue that every single enemy is in the same exact positions every time you die and exhibit the same exact behaviors? Isn't this harming your immersion? How come some characters and enemies will die permanently but others won't? Active lol at how you say, "it doesn't reset the world" when it literally does exactly that. It doesn't matter what game you bring up, I can point out some type of gamey inconsistency in it, because abstractions are necessary for games to function.

    And then you bring up Asscreed and GTA, and how they choose to contextualize the death abstraction in some other way. Is this supposed to be the answer? Are we supposed to just come up with excuses for why the character didn't really die and be on with it? Do we really need to devote such ludicrous amounts of effort to reconcile such a small thing as character death when honestly displaying how many lives you have left and starting you at the beginning of the level is more than enough? Who cares?

    Kill the magic, kill the immersion, keep the game.

  2. you possess the ability to blow my mind everytime i watch your videos XD thanks man! you're the coolest of the beans it's really helping me to think broader

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