Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Death in Videogames

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 29 Mar 2011 12:00
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The fact that there's no way to die in Kirby's Epic Yarn sparks the old debate in my mind as to whether or not dying needs to be a mandatory risk in every game (save Cooking Mama, I guess, but one could argue that the look in her eyes when you fail to stir the pot on time implies your impending murder).

There have been several games that have made the connection that, what with players frequently quicksaving and autosaving, death will usually mean nothing worse than using up a few minutes of your time as you're backtracked to a little way before your mistake. So some developers have tried to find alternatives. Prey is one example, where instead of dying you'd be teleported to a mysterious astral realm where you had to shoot bat-like things to get your health and energy back. And then there was Prince of Persia '08, in which you'd be rescued by your nanny an instant before your death. Both these techniques were almost universally derided, by which I mean derided by me.

But why? If the only penalty for failure is a loss of time, why should either of the above methods be considered inferior to the classic death and quickload? Why do people complain about a game being unchallenging because you never die, even when virtually every game in the world supports the bull-headed trial and error response that does nothing but briefly delay you when you die, and being physically unable to continue in a game in this day and age is the exception rather than the rule?

It can't possibly be a gameplay issue, then, because the failure models are functionally identical, really. Time loss, that's about it. It's got to be something about the way it's presented, about the player's sense of being under threat. I've come up with a theory to explain why gamers are rarely welcoming of alternatives to death.

First, let's deconstruct an average death. Let's take Call of Duty for a random example. Your avatar is running about on the battlefield trying to remember which button is for "crouch" when he fails to heed the warning given by the strawberry jam smeared on his spectacles and is fatally shot. He crumples to the ground, one arm cast limply over his head. As his vision fades and he recalls all the bad decisions that brought him to this spot, his last sight on this Earth is the enemy stronghold he was supposed to raid, its sheer distance taunting him with his failure. Then black out. Then the loading screen comes up and we pop back to what was going on five minutes ago.

Now, imagine if instead of that, when he falls to the ground, Private Protagonist's belt-mounted patented Death-Away device kicks in and he's jolted back onto his feet by a burst of pixie dust, needing only to run and catch up with his buddies with a slight kick to his pixie dust ration. How is this worse? Because it's all taking place within one timeline.

When we restore the game, the knowledge that we've had to step back a moment in time to correct a mistake is what's crucial to our minds, consciously or unconsciously. In terms of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, we are stepping into a different universe where events can occur slightly differently. That death we suffered still stands back in the old timeline. In that universe, the goodies will fail, a superior officer brings tearful news of your death to your parents in what little time remains before the bad guys' doomsday weapon detonates. We, the player, opportunistically hopping into the body of our player character's quantum clone, are the only ones who remember the old timeline, but it will still exist somewhere, and that will weigh heavy on our minds for eternity. When we finally beat the game, we are playing as the one Gordon Freeman or Sam Fisher or Lara Croft that got enough lucky breaks to see things to the end, while the multiverse at large is riddled with the corpses of our failures.

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