- Bad is Good and Good is Bad
The problem with video game writing is that it tends to be written by fans of video games. The corruption and stupidity of games journalism are not isolated quirks of the system but symptoms of a flawed approach to the medium. Fans, by their nature, approach their choice of medium wanting to fall in love: Good games are filled with good things; bad games are filled with bad things. Love the good things. Hate the bad things.
While I think that this approach to art can be intensely rewarding, I also think that it has its weaknesses and the most obvious weakness is a failure to recognise that bad things can sometimes be good. They can be good because these bad and un-fun things make the good bits glow that much brighter, and because even painful and unpleasant experiences have meaning and importance. This is a column about the role of death in video games and how a more sophisticated appreciation of one of the least fun aspects of the gaming experience might unlock the door to a world of new themes and experiences.
- A Brief History of Virtual Death (and Life)
Death has been with us since the very beginning. Back in 1963, computers came in the shape of large filing cabinets and one of these had the name PDP-1 stencilled on the side. Seeing a future for personal computers beyond tax returns and industrial automation, a bunch of programmers working out of MIT pulled together Spacewar!, a game in which two spaceships circled a star whilst trying to murder each other with missiles. Spacewar! was undoubtedly primitive but its science fictional idiom moved video gaming beyond pixelated sports metaphors and onto matters of life and death.
By the 1970s, video games were no longer the preserve of punch card experimentalists. Now, millions of children and teenagers gleefully pumped their allowances into wood-effect cabinets that flashed and giggled in burger bars, arcades and youth clubs across the world. From Pac-Man’s frenetic dash through a maze of drugs and ghosts to Space Invaders’ attempt to protect the planet from a gently cascading onslaught of tessellated doom and Frogger’s brash collision between nature and the world of man, death was now well and truly part of the video game landscape. It was everywhere. Billions died for billions of quarters… but while many teeth were gnashed, few tears were spilled.
At this point in the history of video games, death was essentially a form of rationing: You rocked up to the cabinet, deposited a quarter and in return received three attempts at either completing the game or earning the highest possible score. While some arcade machines (particularly those based upon the Nintendo Entertainment System) offered at straight exchange of time for money, most games had enough sense to offer a skill-based curve that rewarded increases in skill with more time spent playing the game. Indeed, the more money you spent, the better you became at avoiding death and the more extra lives you acquired, thereby ensuring that even skilled players had a reason to keep on playing.
As the market for home computers and consoles expanded, the business model for video games began to shift. When people are paying money in order to keep playing, it makes perfect sense to use life and death as a means of rationing time and rewarding continued investment. However, once people start paying up-front in order to acquire a potentially infinite amount of time with a particular game, the currency of life and death becomes altogether more abstract and psychologically complex.
Throughout their history, video games have proved remarkably resistant to abandoning the burger bar aesthetics of their youth. Despite never seeing the inside of a real arcade, today’s young gamers will nevertheless be very familiar with the language of rationing:
You begin by turning on the game and receiving a ‘go’. This ‘go’ consists of a number of ‘lives’ that can go up as well as down. Mistakes lead to ‘death’ that reduces the number of ‘lives’ while progress through the game results either in large scores or in knowledge of hidden bonuses that allow you to win extra ‘lives’. Deplete your number of ‘lives’ to zero and you end your ‘go’. Some games also possess a secondary tier that treats a ‘go’ in much the same way as the lower tier treats ‘lives’. When your number of potential ‘goes’ is variable, these ‘goes’ are generally referred to as ‘credits’.
The language of video games was created to govern the experience of playing games in an arcade. Even though arcades are now a thing of the past, this language continues to haunt the process of video game design. Indeed, pick up even a recent Mario game and you will find yourself chasing after green mushrooms like it’s 1985.
Of course, I am being slightly facetious…
Once upon a time, film directors shot in black and white because they did not have access to colour photography. Similarly, their tendency to shoot beautifully lit city streets was shaped by the fact that they were shooting on back lots dotted with elaborate lighting gantries. Once upon a time, film noir looked like film noir because it was easier to shoot that way. Now, film noir looks like film noir because directors want their audiences to approach their films with these older films in mind.
Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) looks the way it does because of Frank Miller’s original comic and the comic looks the way it does because of John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941), Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1945) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Formed in the arcades of the 1970s and 80s, the early language of video games has acquired a cultural significance no different to that of any other by-gone artistic era. Players of Mario games do not chase extra lives because Shigero Miyamoto cannot come up with a new way of governing the experience of playing a game; they chase mushrooms because that is what Mario does. While the iconic language of the arcade now forms its own aesthetic, many game designers have tried to liberate themselves from coin-up iconography. This has lead to death being re-branded.
- Death: The Reboot
Freed from the need to ration time and reward continued financial investment, most contemporary games have moved away from ‘lives’ and ‘credits’ in favour of altogether more abstract forms of currency such as refillable energy bars and distances between save points. While these currencies are expressed in a myriad of different forms, they usually boil down to punishing unskilled progression through the game by kicking the player out of the game and forcing them to restart from their previous save point. This method is particularly evident in the Halo series, which replaces traditional lives with a naturally recharging energy bar. Halo’s terms of engagement are simple: push beyond your current skill level and you have to start over: Keep fighting when you should be retreating to lick your wounds? Push on into unknown territory without a valid exit strategy? Die like a dog and go back to where you started.
The attempt to limit the player to a fixed number of carefully positioned save points governing their return to the game is very much the product of a home-console environment. Home PCs had vast amounts of storage space allowing PC gamers to save at any point in the game. However, because early consoles tended to have only limited storage space, fixed save points allowed their players to return to games without having to start again from scratch. The move towards using distance-from-save as a form of in-game currency designed to regulate our experience of the game resulted in frustration and anger becoming the two most powerful emotions in video gaming. This is why someone coined the term ‘RageQuit’.
While the experience of gaming is now completely different to that of even a decade ago, many games still continue to use the same basic conceptual mechanics. Given that revolutions in game design are still relatively few and far between, most contemporary game designers who wish to challenge the dominion of ‘lives’, ‘credits’ and ‘energy bars’ do so by presenting these mechanics in terms that make sense according to the game’s setting. For example, Halo’s energy bar is presented as a personal shield, the Resident Evil series manifests damage as obvious wounds and reduced mobility, and System Shock 2 allowed players to exchange in-game currency for resurrection by something called a quantum bio-reconstruction machine.
Though obvious in hindsight, this decision to address issues of game mechanics in terms of game setting has proved remarkably influential. Done well, it not only dulls the player’s tendency to relate to games in purely mechanical terms, it also allows game designers to imbue character death with a different set of meanings. For example, the Assassin’s Creed series presents itself as a game-within-a-game in which a character explores ancestral memories using a machine known as the Animus. Because most of the game takes place in the virtual world of memory, character death is nothing more than a flawed recollection. You start again from your last save point because your ancestor simply could not have died at the point you thought and so you are forced to work your way through the memory a second time. The Prince of Persia series has also shown a continued interest in deconstructing the regulatory language of video game survival. For example, in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, designers realised that death really was nothing more than an inconvenience to most gamers and so they replaced the traditional energy bar with a stock of energy that allowed them to re-wind time and replay a particular section without making any mistakes. Somewhat less impressively, 2008’s Prince of Persia reinvented ‘lives’ by allowing characters to be saved from death a certain number of times.
Playing Sands of Time, one is struck by the game’s lightness of tone. While in-game death is seldom permanent and really never anything more than a minor irritation, it still has meaning and this meaning impacts our emotional response to the game. By reformulating death as a flawed memory, games like Assassin’s Creed and Sands of Time not only make death seem a lot more final and a lot more substantial, they also banish the spectre of death from the rest of the game. In truth, all these games are doing is taking a condition we might previously have called ‘death’ and sticking a slightly different label on it but this label really does affect our experience of the game. In a memorable piece for the PC Gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun, John Walker gave voice to this very concern:
I think that once we denormalise death as a regular part of gaming, it will make an enormous difference. I’ve written before of how Lara’s death at the end of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation is a horrendous narrative choice, not because it – alone – is a bad idea, but because we’ve already seen Lara die twenty thousand times on the way there. We know that death is not the end for Lara. That’s what F9 is for. Having Lara die at the end of the fourth Tomb Raider game, when the franchise was just utterly enormous, was an amazing decision. But one completely undermined by her incessant grave dodging for ten hours previously.
Working out ways around killing the player would give new life to death. It could become a genuine tragedy, a moment of emotional severity, with consequence. It would resonate, rather than make you grumble at load times or poor checkpointing.
I would argue that attempts by games such as Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to ‘re-package’ death go some way to answering Walker’s call. Rather than thoughtlessly parroting the linguistic conventions of yesteryear’s arcade jabber-boxes, these games move the form forward and allow death to acquire a new set of meanings. Yes, twitch-based gaming can still be immensely frustrating and Yes, all designers are doing is changing a few labels — but labels have meaning and meaning is what video game storytelling is all about.
However, rather than simply echoing Walker’s call for more game designers to blur the lines between game mechanic and setting detail as a way of re-packaging death, I would like to call upon game designers to do the exact opposite. I would like to see more games that acknowledge the astronomical body counts of your average action-adventure game. Rather than saying that our characters are forgetting rather than dying, let us explore what it means to have people hurl themselves at a problem until they are scrambling up mounds of corpses. What does it mean to die and die again? Why would you put yourself through this? What kind of world would treat death in such an off-hand manner? The answer to these questions lies in one book and a couple of games.
- Rogue Moon and The Psychology of Goal-Oriented Suicide
Back in 1960, the Lithuanian-American science fiction author Algis Budrys published Rogue Moon, a novel which tells the story of the human attempt to make sense of a mysterious artefact discovered on the Moon. Placed there by unidentified aliens, the artefacts seems to contain all kinds of technological marvels but every human who sets foot inside it is almost instantly killed.
Aware that unlocking the mysteries of the artefact will require a different class of human, the project’s chief scientist sets out to recruit Al Barker, a veteran adventurer and thrill-seeker with very little regard for life and limb. In an extraordinary scene, the scientist finds himself trapped between the sociopathic Barker and his equally deranged and intense lover Claire Peck. Aware that the scientist is a man to be reckoned with, Barker begins to show off his intelligence while Peck stokes the flames of masculine desire. By the end of the scene, Barker and the scientist are like two sexually rampant elephant seals, throwing themselves at each other in a series of ever-escalating dominance displays. Needless to say, Barker is precisely the sort of man that the scientist needs.
Rather than sending Barker to the Moon by rocket ship, the scientist uses a transportation device that scans the human body and sends instructions to a cloning device on the Moon. By placing the original copy in a sensory deprivation tank, the scientists are able to allow the Earth-bound explorer to experience the life of his Moon-based doppelganger, even his death. What makes Barker so exceptional is not his skill as an adventurer but his capacity to experience death at first hand without going mad. Day after day, Barker passes himself through the machine and experiences a series of grizzly deaths at the hands of the alien artefact.
As the days pass and Barker’s clones inch their way further and further inside the alien machine, Barker comes to realise the horrifying pointlessness of it all. These are not robots or virtual constructs dying to satisfy a scientist’s curiosity, these are identical replicas of Barker himself. Indeed, were it not for the artefact, any one of Barker’s doppelgangers could feasibly go off and live their own lives. These were real people whose lives were shattered against the surface of an indifferent and deadly artefact. In fact, the suggestion is that it is not the experience of death that drove Barker’s predecessors mad… it was the knowledge that all of their deaths were not only real but also utterly pointless. The end of the book reduces Barker reduced from a towering presence to a beaten and shrunken presence. Forced to confront his own mortality on a daily basis, the adventurer realises that nobody cares about his bravery or his skill. The universe, like the artefact itself, is utterly indifferent.
The structural similarities between Rogue Moon and your average video game speak for themselves. In both cases, players experience hundreds of pointless deaths as they work their way through what is ultimately nothing more than a high-tech version of Mouse Trap. In Rogue Moon, characters die over and over again — but these deaths are never meaningless because they are real.
Most video games completely fail to acknowledge the poignancy inherent in having a character repeatedly die for our amusement. Through quick-saves and aesthetic re-framings, game designers have drained in-game death of its meaning and so reduced it to nothing more than a mechanical charade and a linguistic conceit. Officially, falling off that cliff might have killed your character but in reality it just prompted you to restart the level. Your death is a minor irritation… don’t do it again.
However, while the current trend is for game designers to re-package death as something less meaningful, one series of games has chosen to go in the opposite direction by embracing the poignancy of mass digital slaughter. That series is From Software’s Souls games.
- Demon’s Souls: You Are Messiah Number 26,374
Most RPGs make a point of stressing how important you are and how glad everyone is to see you. An excellent case in point is the opening sequence to Oblivion where Jean-Luc Picard singles you out and informs you that, far from being a lowly prisoner (doubtless in prison for the medieval equivalent of sniffing cinema seats), you are in fact a mystical something-or-other destined to do some-such-nonsense. In other words, you are not simply an adventurer… you are a special snowflake and the game is damned lucky to have you! For someone with a background in tabletop gaming, this always strikes me as ever so slightly clingy. Why place me on a pedestal? What is wrong with being nothing more than a kick-arse dude with a magic sword? I am not your Messiah!
With this in mind, easing myself into 2009’s Demon’s Souls was a welcome change of pace. Much like its recent spiritual successor Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls is magnificently indifferent to your appearance on the scene. The game tells the story of a thriving civilisation swallowed by a magical gunk that seems to be spreading out across the face of the world. When a single hero manages to escape the gunk and speaks of a civilisation besieged by demons, many of the world’s most prominent heroes (a gang of swaggering medieval hipsters with ridiculous names and overly-ornate armour and weapons, who pose gracefully for the game’s loading screens) set out to enter the gunk and test their mettle by saving the world. Somewhat unsurprisingly, none of them come back. In fact, by the time the player arrives on the scene, hundreds of potential Messiahs have been and gone and nobody has much faith in your chances.
The game’s steadfast refusal to accommodate the player is welcome even in the tutorial level, which is not only punishingly difficult but also remarkably uninformative: It tells you how to hit things, it tells you how to block things and it tells you how to run but after that you are on your own. Oh… and don’t expect the manual to explain the magic system or the stuff about shifting into spirit form. You’ll have to work that shit out yourself. Much like Assassin’s Creed and Sands of Time, Demon’s Souls repackages death — but the new packaging is remarkably similar to the old one, as the game kills you off at the end of the tutorial. You play as a spirit trapped in the eddies of magical horror, desperately seeking a way back home. Every time you die, your spirit is reconstituted and transported back to the level. Like Barker in Rogue Moon, your fate is to experience your own death again and again until your task is complete.
Right from the start, the game uses these setting details to build an atmosphere of hopelessness and fatalism. Every character you meet is either insane or depressed, and many fellow travellers have simply faded away into nothingness, crushed by the thought of yet again hurling themselves into an indifferent and hostile world. Even the world itself is strangely hollow, a medieval landscape dotted with industrial machinery tended by soulless slaves who continue to work despite their labours serving no purpose. One particularly brilliant touch is the game’s decision to fill its levels with crates. However, rather than hiding loot, these crates are invariably empty thereby deepening the impression that the world you are fighting to save is already lost and devoid of things that matter.
The hostility of Demon’s Souls’ setting becomes more and more evident the more you play. Rather than allowing you to sell on your stuff while you slowly become more powerful, the game’s only in-game currency is souls, souls that allow you to repair your weapons, buy healing potions and slowly upgrade your character. There is no sparkly happy Final Fantasy-style levelling-up, there is just the dull glimmer of real-world skill accrued through endless failure. It is not your character who learns to use his shield properly… it is you. You learn how to block because if you don’t then you will die again and have to start over.
Merciless in its punishments and stingy in its rewards, Demon’s Souls makes absolutely no concessions to player vanity. Even the level design seems intended to crush any sense of achievement as each new boss-fight merely unlocks another layer of monsters and another grim procession of character deaths. One of the game’s most inspired taunts is its fondness for confronting you with the scene of your last defeat in the shape of a bloodstain containing all the souls accrued during your previous passage through the level. Even this uncharacteristic moment of generosity seems tinged with bitterness, as though the game were whispering, “You’re only getting these because you panicked and fell off a fucking staircase”.
Though ostensibly single-player games, both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls allow players to share tips over the PlayStation Network. Presented to you as markings etched into the fabric of the world by other heroes now departed, these tips can be as simple as a weapon suggestion or as elaborate as a set of tactics. Even this simple mechanic adds to the poignancy of the series as the games refashion online play (which is usually a source of idiocy and unpleasantness tempered with moments of fun) as messages in bottles cast into an existential ocean:
I don’t know who you are but I died here. I died so that you might not have to… LOOK UP!
Much like Budrys’ Rogue Moon, the Souls series is an intensely morbid affair that dwells upon the psychological impact of experiencing death over and over again. Nearly all video games force you to climb a hill made of your own corpses, but only the Souls series seems to acknowledge this fact. The Souls games are memorable because, rather than seeking to minimise one of the more unpleasant aspects of the video game experience (i.e. the need to die and start over from scratch), they embrace it. They embrace it and use it to lend their gaming experience a wonderfully downbeat and depressing feel. If Demon’s Souls were a film, it would be directed by Ingmar Bergman.
- That Which Kills and Annoys Us Also Makes Us Stronger
Last month’s Blasphemous Geometries column found me arguing that, far from being flaws, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions’ irritating boss fights, cramped level design and expectation that your character should work for free amounted to a cohesive thematic whole. Rather than seeing these features as irritations and injustices that detract from our enjoyment of the game, we should embrace the significance of their unpleasantness. How else could DXHR tell a story of corporate exploitation except by exploiting its character at every turn?
Nowhere is the need for unpleasantness greater than in video gaming’s attitude to death. What was once a means of rationing the time people spent hogging a particular arcade machine has now ossified into a set of linguistic tics that are now completely disconnected from both their real-world and in-game significances. Video games ask us to die over and over again but rather than acknowledging this fact, many game designers seek to minimise the impact of these sacrifices by explaining them away as lapses in memory. By trivialising death, game designers have not only cheapened the lives of our characters, they have also deprived themselves of one of the most powerful thematic motifs in all of art and literature.
Games like Demon’s Souls recognise that they are dealing in death and this recognition is genuinely disconcerting. Like death itself, Demon’s Souls is utterly indifferent to both our presence in the game and our attempts at engaging with it. Demon’s Souls is a game of misery tempered by frustration, and its unapologetic recognition of this fact is what makes it both different and great. While I appreciate Walker’s point, I cannot help but feel that he is looking at the problem in entirely the wrong way: Let us not repackage death, but rather celebrate it as the core of the video game experience.
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK. His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector. He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.