De Consolatione Philosophiae

In the begin­ning, there was the quar­ter. The busi­ness mod­el of the arcade inspired games that were designed to vac­u­um up the most quar­ters per hour.  Sim­ple eco­nom­ics and self-inter­est of the gamemak­er: Keep the play­er enter­tained, but also keep him drop­ping the quar­ters into a slot as often as pos­si­ble. The “vir­tu­al death dri­ve” became a dri­ving influ­ence. So we end­ed up with high dif­fi­cul­ty and a set num­ber of lives. It’s not like we had anoth­er way to play our video games — not yet any­way. So Don­key Kong’s aver­age length of play was just a few min­utes.

Death is Immi­nent

Why did I enjoy that game? I real­ly have no idea. Almost no mul­ti­play­er (hey, leader­boards mat­ter) and not much sense of achieve­ment. A plat­former full of raw pun­ish­ment for any devi­a­tion from per­fec­tion. Back then, my par­ents like­ly wished I didn’t waste so much time and mon­ey in the damn thing. But some­how the fam­i­ly finances sur­vived. The invest­ment might even be con­sid­ered to have paid off, in the full­ness of time.

Any­way, unless you’re one of the tiny num­ber of peo­ple mak­ing or port­ing coin-up games, your rev­enue doesn’t drib­ble in with every two bits fed into a slot. Today, we don’t have any finan­cial incen­tive to kill our play­ers. In the abstract, a play­er wants an enjoy­able expe­ri­ence for his or her fifty or six­ty bucks, and death can only dis­turb that. Even if we take it for grant­ed, it’s the most obvi­ous break in the con­nec­tion between play­er and char­ac­ter. And yet… our games rely on con­flict. And thus most obvi­ous form of con­flict: fight­ing. So, death, death every­where. I won­der just how many avatars my fail­ures have sent tum­bling down to the vir­tu­al under­world. It has to num­ber in the tens of thou­sands, at least.

Now, I know there are some good rea­sons why we slaugh­ter our vir­tu­al play­er per­sonas. One, habit. Two, the fun­da­men­tal log­ic of com­bat-focused games. More mean­ing­ful­ly, we need an instru­ment to mea­sure fail­ure, and to allow for game dif­fi­cul­ty. Play­ers want a chal­lenge, or else they will become bored (Far­mVille notwith­stand­ing, appar­ent­ly). Death is sim­ple and easy to under­stand, and so death is our default penal­ty for fail­ure.

It doesn’t have to be. His­tor­i­cal­ly, games don’t sim­u­late death. Con­sid­er: sports and sport games don’t. Card games don’t. Strat­e­gy and puz­zle games don’t. These are the real ori­gins of what we call games, even if we can’t ask their design­ers any ques­tions, if we could even iden­ti­fy who they were. Los­ing just meant los­ing: some­one else got more points, or got to the fin­ish line before you. “You” didn’t die. We can track the preva­lence of death in games to the rel­a­tive­ly recent phe­nom­e­na of con­trol­ling a vir­tu­al char­ac­ter.  We’ve devel­oped this habit in less than thir­ty years, since Space Invaders, etc. (Senet is over five thou­sand years old by com­par­i­son.)  Log­i­cal­ly enough, I think the sim­u­la­tion of death in games can be traced to the widest per­mu­ta­tion of the term “role­play­ing” — any sit­u­a­tion dur­ing which the play­er becomes embod­ied.

Most play­ers haven’t gone aboard the death train that you (like­ly read­er) and I accept. Tru­ly pop­u­lar games — stuff on the web, on Face­book, the Sims, etc. — don’t real­ly involve play­er death. And cer­tain­ly doesn’t sim­u­late it. As much as I love Mod­ern War­fare, Bat­tle­field, and Splin­ter Cell, giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to think about it, I’d like to find a way out of the death trap. Many games of the day no longer both­er to explain death and respawn­ing. The player’s char­ac­ter dies from too much dam­age, and we restart him at a pri­or check­point. It’s a game, and we’re so used to the mechan­ic that the design­er doesn’t deign to explain the log­ic of rein­car­na­tion or time trav­el.

Speak­ing of which, anoth­er option is to adopt a mechan­ic to “avert” death. In Sands of Time, our pro­tag­o­nist announces “that’s not how that hap­pened”, and instead of suf­fer­ing a mor­tal wound, we rewind back in time. Sim­i­lar­ly, in the more recent Prince of Per­sia, Eli­ka inter­venes when fail­ure would result in the hero’s demise. There’s no game­play dif­fer­ence in either case between that and killing the play­er and respawn­ing, but instead of com­pli­cat­ing or dis­turb­ing my rela­tion­ship to the game and its char­ac­ters, the sys­tem behind those two games rein­forces my con­nec­tion. Planescape: Tor­ment, Assassin’s Creed, and Bioshock have their own answers to evade the reaper, though they weren’t with­out com­pli­ca­tion.

The impos­si­ble design chal­lenge would be to take a core play­er expe­ri­ence —  a “real­is­tic” shoot­er, most obvi­ous­ly — and then turn around the game’s fail­ure sys­tem to remove death from the equa­tion. The obvi­ous thing is to hack the sys­tem with mag­ic, imag­i­nary worlds, sim­u­la­tions with­in sim­u­la­tions, or oth­er tricks. And I think we’ll con­tin­ue to do so, to take away the sting of the player’s fail­ure. Hope­ful­ly, with­out annoy­ing the play­er so much that he hates the inno­va­tion so much that he’d rather resort to a fast reload to check­point, log­ic be damned. Step­ping out­side that box would prob­a­bly mean ditch­ing a health-based mod­el com­plete­ly. Stealth games do that, but not that many of our action genre games step out­side of health as a core fea­ture.

Nei­ther Boethius nor I have an unam­bigu­ous con­clu­sion, much less a pre­scrip­tion. The clos­est I’ll come is: Don’t take death for grant­ed. Just because it’s the default fail­ure con­di­tion of the day, doesn’t mean it has to be.

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