Monday, June 29, 2009

On Death and Waiting 30 Seconds

Francis’s gone. No one ever really liked him, but he was one of us, if not the best of us. We didn’t see the tank coming until it was nearly on top of us. Francis was running rear guard; the damned thing threw him into a train before we could put up any kind of defense. Zoey and Louis were nearly a block ahead picking up supplies, by the time I’d gotten their attention Francis was a blood slick on the tracks. I’ve seen those tanks at work before, seen ‘em tear a man apart at the waist. This ain’t my first time to the rodeo, after all. But man, did that thing do a number on him. Then the witch showed up. We didn’t have them back in ’57, and sometimes when I lay awake at night – Hell, who am I kidding? Ain’t like I ever sleep anymore – I wonder what happened to make ‘em what they are. Everything else about these monsters I feel like I got some kinda handle on: they’re just mouths, I figure, mouths and stomachs and guts without much else to keep ‘em human. But those witches – what kinda thing has to happen to a deadhead to make it cry? So Zoey and Louis are running back, and I’m shouting to ‘em that Francis isn’t much more than a stain anymore and there isn’t much of anything we can do about that and for God’s sake give me some cover, and then I hear that noise, that sobbing that never fails to raise the hair on my neck. And it stops, and I know it only ever goes quiet before the damned thing attacks, and I hear Zoey scream as something knocks her off her feet. I didn’t have time to warn them to shut off their flashlights, it must’ve seen them coming a mile away. Here’s where I’m ashamed to say I started running. Call me a coward if you like, but between a tank and a witch there’s no winning. Everyone’s gotta go sometime, and it’s gotta be said that Zoey and Francis made it longer than most. I just hope Louis is smart enough to make the same call. I made it out of the train yard before I turned around. There were a few dozen of the bastards closing in on Louis from the north, plus another twenty he hasn’t seen yet pouring into the tunnel from the east. He’s doing a fair job keeping ‘em off Zoey, but she’s done for and he has to know it. I can’t help but think that – What the fuck? Ok, Francis is back, I guess. Uh, I think he got better from being, you know, turned into paste. Maybe he had a med pack? Or…pills? Can pills do that? Oh, ok, and Zoey isn’t really dead. She was…uh…hiding inside the switch operator’s office. Ok, so that’s good for her. Louis? Is he still – no, he looks pretty fucked. There are about thirty zombies around him, and they’re working on – scratch that, they are finished tearing off his arms. We’ll have to pick him up later, he might need to walk that off. Anyway, as I was saying, Francis is fine. Here’s where Left 4 Dead went from being a terrifying survival-horror game to a pretty standard multiplayer romp through the woods. I was fully immersed in the pants-wetting crisis before me – seriously, a tank is no laughing matter – and then we found our dead friend hiding in a closet. This is not the sort of development that generates emotional resonance. I’m a little frustrated with games that offer easy re-spawning. We were talking a little while ago about the obstacles still standing between today’s video games and tomorrow’s “narrative engine” (to paraphrase Mr. Guillermo del Toro), and with a little reflection I think I’ve hit upon one of the biggest ones: games want you to live. I think this struck me first as I was playing one of the Resident Evil games, maybe 5. I’d played through one scene about a half dozen times, I’d discovered the glut of uniquely flavored deaths I could experience at the hands of an undead tribe, and I got to thinking: what if this is where my character was meant to die? What if this is just the dramatically logical end to his journey into hell? (Ok, the Resident Evil games probably aren’t the best examples of sound storytelling. Still.) I can count the number of great works of literature with happy endings on one hand, and I’m including Calvin and Hobbes in that estimate. So it’s frustrating that the video game, that narrative medium that is meant to afford us entirely new vistas to behold, has yet to really include any titles where failure is a real, dramatically realized option. What about the elf who confronts his arch-nemesis and finds himself grossly out-matched? The Sith Lord who cannot betray his master? The plumber who gets stuck in a pipe? Who will tell their stories? Romeo and Juliet differs from, say, a Harlequin romance novel in both superior writing and the willingness to delve into tragedy. (To clarify, both belong to the former, though I guess that’s a matter of taste.) So when will we see tragic video games? Games where failure is a scripted, developed option? I’d like to see a game where you can’t re-spawn; where there are not save points before boss fights; where, in short, every challenge offers the possibility of success and the very real chance of failure. I think it’d add a lot to a game’s appeal if the player wasn’t certain of success; I’d worry more about my character’s safety, but be equally pleased if he died and his death was honored with more than a “Game Over” screen. Dulce et decorum, and all. I want to see Link fail once in a while. I think it’s the only way his story can really succeed.


  1. I actually thought that finding lost friends locked in a closet in L4D was a smart way to represent respawn. I guess that in a game like that, respawn is a must-have, for you could say that for the ones who live it's a bit strange, but for the one who returns it's a good thing.
    I don't like online shooters where you have 'only on life per game', like America's Army.

    Maybe what could have been done is to give the one who return a new identity, like: Francis is gone but the players find Ashley in the closet. Then Zoey dies, and they find Truman in the bathroom. Of course the list can't be endless, but 20 characters will do the trick.

    I agree with the general tone of the post though, I am just explaining my ideas on Left 4 Dead.

  2. Daniel and I were actually discussing that very option, a survival horror game with a large and varied "cast" from which new lives could be recruited. I'm not sure if it would assuage my problem - I really think death should mean something in games, and be more of a plot point than an inconvenience - but it might help one's sense of immersion if the same characters didn't pop back up from the dead so frequently.

    Also, the first time I read your idea I thought of President Truman. I really want to find him in the bathroom in a survival-horror game, bespectacled and wearing a linen suit, wielding two assault rifles. He'll kick down the door and yell, "Lock and load, motherfuckers!" It will indeed be on.

  3. I agree that the respawn is a necessary feature in a multiplayer action-oriented game to keep it fun. In fact, it would be pretty difficult to make any game fun when each death is final. It means that you'd have to start the game over each time you wanted to play, unless some other solution was found. I think I'll explore said other solution in a future post.

    Regardless, I think that Valve made a good call when they decided to come up with the closet-respawn idea. It keeps the game moving and fun. Though it would be nice to be able to turn it off from time to time when you want a more immersive, terrifying experience.

  4. I agree in part. Finalizing death in a game would probably just become an annoyance. Even if the story writes itself around death happeneing, the second time you miss that Mega-Man jump, it will have lost its edge.
    Because of the regularity of death in games, I feel like finalizing or putting too much story into it gets in the way.

    At some point, there will be some game that does this in a really impressive way, but the deluge of finalized death games built solely of garbage and cherry bubble gum will wash over us like so many teenage girls attempting to sing Alicia Keyes... Oh... Oh how they would try to sing Alicia Keyes.

    All that said, I do think that failure would be a more fitting candidate for this treatment. If I fail to protect a certain person in GTA, it really takes me out of the mood when I just get flashed "failure" and suddenly the same guy is up and running and annoying me all over again. Of course, even storyline altering failure has its downfalls. Numero uno of these, it really won't work until developers find a way to make a game with so many potential endings that it is more like shading than it is webbing. Good luck with that. No, seriously, good luck. That would be awesome.

    p.s. Link did fail, just not IN a game. If you pay attention to Wind Waker, that is a character named Link, but it is not a Link. Some crappy Link descendant must have screwed up somewhere, resulting in the Link family line dying out to be replaced by Lonely Island Jimmy.

    p.p.s Lonely Island Jimmy might be my favorite Link. Lonely Island Jimmy rules.

  5. I guess (without thinking too much) that the only good death that doesn't break immersion I have seen is performed in World of Warcraft, where you are turned into a ghost and sent back to the graveyard. Then you can (and must) walk all the way to your dead body to be revived. This is a good and efficient way to explain resurrection, but of course they could do it only for the fantasy setting, which accounts for a huge number of resurrections... For instance, in Bioshock, the life chambers... I don't think they are as much as good in explaining resurrection.

  6. For those of you who played the Wing Commander Series you may recall that failure in a mission didn’t necessarily mean your complete demise. In fact, you could fail mission after mission and the game would just keep on going until you either got it together and flew a few successful missions to get back on the main story line or blew it so many times that the earth was destroyed. I liked that aspect of the game. It was much more satisfying than a simple “Game Over”.

  7. Sir Doom, I totally agree with a lot of that. I don't think dramatic failure belongs in every game; there are tons of platformers that would be weighted down by such an idea.

    Sweet Jesus, I can't count the number of times I've died in Megaman. If I had to start over every time...yikes.

    Just like I enjoyed the new Star Trek movie despite knowing that Kirk would inevitably win, I can enjoy plenty of games that similarly assume victory. I'd just like to see a few games explore different territory. We discuss "open ended" games a lot, but most games are still sufficiently closed to make failure an untenable narrative option.

    One game I think handled it really well was the underrated Blade Runner PC game. Death was pretty rare - you had to REALLY try to get yourself killed - but the wrong choices would make victory impossible. You sometimes needed to start the game over to progress any further. This was more of a learning process than an annoyance, though; you'd typically only do it once before you got your shit together.

  8. @C.T.Hutt:
    I see your point, but in Wing Commander you have a fleet of starcrafts (I think). This way the loss of a mission is very like the loss of a life in Super Mario Bros. You lose a life, but no one cares. If you lose too much, it's game over.

    In an avatar based game, such as first person shooters and action games the matter is more complex... With this I don't want to say Wing Commander is bad, it's just that it's not the same situation.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.