I feel it fair to warn you now, that this article contains heavy spoilers for the following games; Call of Duty : Modern Warfare 3, Bioshock and Final Fantasy VII.
The term “ludonarrative dissonance” was first embraced by the gaming media upon the reception of Bioshock; a term meant to highlight the disconnect between gameplay and narrative. Whilst the term is relatively new, it represents an issue that has been around since games began telling more complex stories than “Save the Princess”. Writers have been talking about this dissonance for some time now, but one issue in particular is becoming more and more pressing. With the frequency of combat and death within videogames, how can a player’s life be made meaningful?
As narrative within videogames goes through maturation, problems are being highlighted that weren’t focused upon during its adolescence, especially in regards to story. The idea of the Citizen Kane of gaming is still much sought after by many people, yet storytelling seems to have almost developed separately to the experimentation of mechanics within videogames, leading to jarring disconnects between gameplay and narrative. Modern Warfare 3 provides a particularly frustrating moment when Soap MacTavish, a man who when under player control is able to regenerate health, dies from fall damage, something the player heals from frequently within the game. Final Fantasy VII is another infamous offender; killing off Aerith, ignoring the fact that a simple Phoenix Down can bring party members back from the dead.
On the other hand, Bioshock goes some way to acknowledging the game mechanics present. Respawning is explained by vita-chambers and the fact you follow orders from complete strangers (both the player and the character) leads to one of the most intelligent reveals in recent history. Yet these games all have something in common, death is used to signify failure; it is used as a reset function that brings you back to the last checkpoint, no matter how well dressed up it is.
We aren’t children anymore, but death is still treated in a childlike manner, lacking weight, and any real understanding. Instead, death is used a frivolous reset tool that is completely disconnected from its true meaning. The ‘shocking’ deaths in Resident Evil 4 as a chainsaw decapitates Leon or Otacon crying out Snake’s name in agony as you die in Metal Gear Solid 4 holds little impact with repeated viewings, instead becoming something mundane, bordering on frustrating as you reload up a previous checkpoint to retry overcoming the obstacle in your way. There is something profoundly flawed within narrative when a realistic depiction of death isn’t used to create any vicarious emotion, but simply convey the fact that the gamer has failed.
David Cage stated in a talk at the DICE summit in February that “We need to decide that violence and platforms are not the only way. Now, if the character doesn’t hold a gun, designers don’t even know what to do.” Cage’s Heavy Rain is actually an example of a game that does away with the hard fail states that death frequently introduce. Most of the interactions within the game come with ‘soft fails’, the failure to complete the actions required of the player don’t end with character death (for the most part), and alternative paths often open up due to this failure. Is the game any less meaningful for not utilising death as hard reset mechanic? I don’t think so, but then again, I was one of the few people who seemed to appreciate the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot for the very same idea. (Coincidentally, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time also dealt with death in a unique way, allowing the rewinding to time to avoid death, and when that wasn’t enough, the narrator, who was recounting the events, would intervene and state “no, that’s not how it happened”).
Spec Ops : The Line has been one of the few games this generation that has attempted to utilise violence and death in a meaningful way, creating a narrative that addresses the violent actions of the player, instead of simply ignoring the fact that it has occurred. Yet Spec Ops is in a unique position that cannot be shared with every other game, and writer Walt Williams, recognises this. In a talk at this year’s GDC’s Narrative summit, Williams acknowledged that videogames cannot simply fall back on being a critical take on itself or disregard seriousness in their stories without taking the entire industry a step backwards. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to play these games and look at them critically and say ‘it’s okay,’ ‘this makes sense,’.
Persona 3 utilises death in a metaphorical way to explore your avatar’s own mortality. The teenage protagonists of Persona 3 utilise a device in battles called an Evoker, which looks distinctly like a handgun, and in the Japanese version of the game, is a handgun. The gun is fired into the player’s head in order to summon their Persona. This event is something that occurs several times during a battle, and the characters are visibly shaken by this, convulsing violently after pulling the trigger. The protagonist’s first use of the Evoker is horrible to watch, as he struggles to pull the trigger on himself, evidently terrified. No doubt, the use of the Evoker, the very notion of pointing a gun at your temple, is meant to conjure images of death and suicide. A device which protects and preserves your life is intricately tied to the idea of death and every use feels masochistic in turn. By utilising the idea of death to progress the game, Persona 3 forces us to do something that other games do not, confront the notion of death, without punishing the player for it.
Another game that is particularly effective in utilising death as a mechanic is FTL: Faster Than Light, the roguelike from indie developers Subset Games. Whilst a permanent death can occur if the player’s ship is destroyed, it’s far more likely and frequent to lose members of the crew on the ship due to poor planning and bad luck. The ability to personalise these characters to some degree allow the player to imprint characteristics upon these blank slates, which makes their loss on the ship meaningful to the player. Death is used not to send a player back to a checkpoint, but to punish the player to a degree where they can still continue. Yet these approaches are few and far between, and the majority of death within videogames is meaningless.
So how then should we approach death within videogames? Should all games utilise the idea of ‘perma-death’ or other punishing mechanics as a way of exploring death? Not at all, but there needs to be experimentation in regards to developers approaches to fail states and the player. Creatively, death is simply too easy to use, and we are either removing its impact within narrative if we are witnessing our player’s death hundreds of times every playthrough, or we are witnessing a dissonance between the story being told and the fact the protagonist frequently meets their demise. Death is the common denominator that we all share, so why has it been reduced to such a base mechanic so frequently, in a medium that has so much potential for experimenting with its impact?
*Ben Croshaw of ‘Zero Punctuation’ fame raises an interesting viewpoint in regards to death as a reset for failure. Ben writes in his article that “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.” Ben approaches the mechanic with a viewpoint that each game takes place in a ‘multiverse’, “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”. Just an interesting perspective I felt obliged to include.