Dying and living to tell the tale

Southbank Centre Festival of Death, 28 Jan 2012
I’m a game designer, and before that I was a game player, and I have died a thousand deaths in videogames. More than that: many thousands. And I wanted to think a little about what that has meant: what those deaths have meant, if anything. And, because games are an interactive medium, not just think about the noun death, but also the verb dying.

What is confusing, when I write this, is that game death is not at all the same as real death.

Death is completely different in the world. Death seems to suck meaning, seems to suck purpose away. Videogame death is nothing like that. It has no cost, no permanence. If anything, I am rewarded for dying – rewarded with knowledge of how the game works, of how to beat it “next time”.

Death in games quite literally gives meaning to life in games.

Permanence and absence are death’s key values in the world. How can games, with their INSERT COIN TO CONTINUE, replicate that?

They can’t. But they shouldn’t necessarily try to. Death in games has always been a metaphor. Has always HAD to be a metaphor. It can’t possibly be real.

Some games have tried, though. Tried to put a cost on all this failure – create worlds where the value of life is inestimably lifted through how they treat death.

Capcom’s mech simulator Steel Battalion directly linked the life of a pilot – a player’s avatar – to their progress in the game. Eject from your walking tank before it takes too much damage and you faced the costly in-game penalty of replacing the vehicle, but lived to fight another day. Fail to eject in time and your pilot died.

When the player’s pilot died, their save file was immediately deleted. No second chances; value given to a virtual ‘life’. The vast controller for the game placed a plastic cage around the eject button: too expensive to hit it by accident. But it was huge and flashed bright red: too important to miss in the heat of a firefight. Some players I know removed the cage to make it quicker to hit. The weight of death in this game is signified through its interface. And it might have been more so: at one point, the development team mooted a glass cover for the eject button that would have to be smashed. By giving life such value – and death such permanence – it begins to take on meaning.

It takes on even more meaning in Zach Gage’s Lose/Lose. It looks like Galaxian: a simple scrolling shooter. But each alien represents a random file on the player’s hard disk. Killing an alien deletes the file; being killed results in the game program being deleted. You might delete a worthless image file; you might delete a critical system file. What’s the point, you might ask?

Gage explains:

“Although touching aliens will cause the player to lose the game, and killing aliens awards points, the aliens will never actually fire at the player. This calls into question the player’s mission, which is never explicitly stated, only hinted at through classic game mechanics. Is the player supposed to be an aggressor? Or merely an observer, traversing through a dangerous land?

Why do we assume that because we are given a weapon an awarded for using it, that doing so is right?”

The game explores what it means to kill in a videogame,” says Gage, and to do that, he has to give death a real value, and murder a real penalty.

How many have I killed? How many monsters squashed, bad guys shot, monsters blown up? But just as games do not feature real death, this is not real killing. It is overcoming obstacles; doing what is asked of me to “win”.

In Uncharted 2 I kill hundreds of mercenaries and not a single character raises an eyebrow. Later, in a non-interactive scene, a single bullet fells an ally and the characters hurry around and mourn. It’s what we game designers call a “narrative bullet”: one that has significance for no rule-based reason, but simply because it makes the story better.

Metal Gear Solid 3 undermines those narrative bullets in the battle with The Sorrow. Rather than an epic boss fight, the Sorrow appears standing in a river, a man in a soggy raincoat. Snake, our hero walks down the river towards him – and coming along the river walk the ghost of every character killed so far in the game. It’s a sneaking game: you’re not meant to kill everyone. (Indeed, set in the mid-sixties, the game juxtaposes its Cold War tale with an anti-nuclear one). Commit a slaughter early in the game and this sequence takes around an hour; a discrete player, that has been sneaking and knocking foes unconscious, might do it in minutes. (And of course, at the end: the Sorrow kills you. But it’s not a real death; the franchise, as ever, wants to remind you that you’re in a game! You revive yourself with your “revival pill” and carry on. MGS3 reminds you that no game death can ever be permanent, but makes you consider what you’ve done – makes the player consider the same metaphor metaphor I’m exploring).

Games are so often about conflict: not necessarily war, nor killing, but struggle – and the outcome of that is catastrophic loss. That might be death; but even when it’s not, it may as well be: chess pieces knocked from a board; a pokemon that “faints” when it runs out of health; a team knocked out of a tournament. They’re a space where the metaphor of death runs deep, even if the reality doesn’t; players will use the words “dead”, “killed” even when the game fiction suggests they shouldn’t.

Tthe player can choose what it means, and make an informed choice. I may be shooting a lot of things in this game, but these deaths are meaningless, like numbers in a spreadsheet. Or: I may choose to sacrifice a character I’ve developed over weeks or months; only one death, but so much more significant to me as a player.

We, as players, choose what to make of the metaphor that we’re engaging with.

When we play, we get to ascribe our own meanings. So don’t underestimate players ability to create meaning where the was none – and don’t undermine the value of that meaning.

One more personal story to end on.

It’s 2001, and I’m playing Resident Evil 2: Capcom’s classic survival horror, a pastiche of George Romero’s zombie movies.

I am fighting off the undead in a city, hampered by limited resources. There’s never, ever, enough ammunition. I have descended to the underside of a train station to fight the corrupted, now mutated scientist William Birkin. I think I’ve killed him for good, but he mutates again, into a new form, and attacks me. I have a handful of ammo, a knife, and no herbs to heal with. He has sucked up everything I brought down here with me. There is no ammunition in the room. I attack him with everything I’ve got, reduced to just the knife, and hack away, but he’s too strong. Leon Scott Kennedy succumbs to his wounds.

And so that was where I left things. I had no chance of survival: I was already too low on equipment in the previous save game. I had turned the game into the classic, 70s horror movie ending: there were no survivors. I rejected the story of survival the game was fixated on, and let my actions, let the rules speak for themself. Leon was dead. He had never had a chance. No-one was coming. The city was overrun.

I left his body there, and I’ve never played the game again. I had made my own narrative bullet.

So close to the end, but deliberately unfinished. For me, Leon is dead, and to try again undermines that. It makes his death less meaningful. And I mean that: this mess of low-resolution textures and polygons means more to me when I can’t play it again.

Death in games is not death in the real world, but it was never meant to be. This is confusing because it shares a name with something bigger, stranger, both more and less meaningful. The purpose of death in games is to tell us about life. To remind us to try things we don’t know. To push when we’re afraid to. To see what we can be. To investigate how things work. To fight for the best path through the one world we have. To understand that to change the past – to have another go – might not always be as meaningful as the single path we chose with no do-overs.

And why do we play these games? To visit other worlds, to live other lives. In that sense every game is an extra life. And in those games we navigate a branching multiverse; some paths are cut short by this thing we call “death” that is not, and we rewind, take another life, and take another path, until we get to a canonical, critical path where the game ends successfully, and another virtual life is well-lived.

To make a medium that is so often about living other lives must be to make a medium that is somehow about death. But not this airquoted “death” I have dwelt so much on; rather, the death when we step away from a game and return to the real world. A little death as we leave a life behind, and are left richer for it.