Wednesday 19 May 2010

The Argument For Game Over

I've written before about player mortality, suggesting 'Game Over' is an anachronism we can replace with cleverer, narratively justified mechanics (in most story-led games; there are always exceptions). It happens that I'm no great fan of Bioshock's challenge-reducing vita chambers, but that's precisely the approach I'm talking about. I'm not the first person to say as much, but today is the first time I've seen a reasonably convincing argument against.

Via the excellent Grand Text Auto (an amalgamation of narrative-focused blogs, founded by the guys behind Facade, well worth a read) I came accross Peter Mawhorter's The Incoherence of Reincarnation. In it, he argues against the theory that mechanics incongruous with the game world or story are necessarily a bad thing.

Modern thinking would tend to suggest, as I have, that any mechanic which breaks the story or world (eg player death or dialogue repetition) is incongruous and should ideally be better integrated into the story. Mawhorter suggests the inverse - that provided a mechanic is clearly signposted as being 'extra-diegetic' (ie outside of the story) it can be forgiven by the player. The parallel here is with something like chapter headings in a book, or time compression in a film. When we read the words 'Chapter One', or when we see a five minute business meeting in a film that represents an entire afternoon, we understand implicitly that this is not intended to be taken literally as part of the story. It's a necessary concession to the medium's limitations.
"The [incongruous mechanic] in a game setting is completely unimportant to the story, and in fact can effectively be considered extra-diegetic. Critically, when the player tells a story of the in-game events (say, to a friend), the [incongruous mechanic] usually doesn’t feature in it."
On this interpretation, it could even be argued that attempting to justify these extra-diegetic mechanics within the game fiction is potentially disruptive. Bioshock's vita chambers bring to the fore a shaky element in the fiction that - in the form of a Game Over screen - would safely have resided in the background. Psychologically, removing repeated dialogue in RPGs wouldn't be affecting character behaviour, it would be affecting character behaviour presentation... and it'd be affecting it negatively.

It's definitely a perspective I can buy into. On one of my unannounced console games not too long ago we discussed how to handle NPC companion death, with the design team busting their guts to find ways to either keep the NPCs alive at all costs, or to somehow handle their deaths without excessively branching the narrative. The solution was simple.

Game Over: keep the fuckers alive next time.


  1. If you're after the flip side there's a very in depth counter argument here:

    What are your thoughts?

  2. If you're going to tie respawning to a in-story element, it strikes me that you would need to explain why only the protagonist alone can use it. In terms of Bioshock, why can't everyone else already living there make use of them? One could counter with they modded their genetic makeup to junk and back again, but then you can begin into a descending set of circular arguments attempting to explain something the player really doesn't need. Death is mostly accepted to be a irreversible process (Even most RPG's only go as far to knock out your characters, not outright kill them even if it doesn't make much sense in terms of the provided mechanics and story) but for a game to continue post death means you're playing The Graveyard or the character didn't matter. (Or any of the other games that try to show the "brutality" of perma-death).

    Since death has pretty much been synonymous to failure from the beginning of gaming our current solution of simply restarting the world is as ingrained as the ideas that treasure needs to be collected, enemies must be killed or avoided, and princesses must be rescued. Since it's such a basic idea, gamers have no issues trying to explain this miraculous rebirth within game logic since at this point adding mechanics and lore to something accepted as fact simply bogs things down.

    After saying all that, I would be amused to see if a game ever ran with the idea of a Buddhist-like reincarnation for dead characters in game. So-and-so has died, but they were reincarnated as a duck! Duck So-and-so has joined your party! Yeah... that would be a mess.

  3. (Just read your previous Devil's Advocate article and that in-depth counter argument as well). You're right that this 'extra-diegetic' argument sounds fairly convincing. It's interesting because I've been tackling many of these related themes in my own mind over the last few weeks and I ended up writing a blog post about it all recently ( [any responses/ideas aren't expected but more than welcome]).

    My feeling is that for the majority of games (at least of the type currently developed) death is not a big issue since they are self-aware of their gameyness, as is anyone who plays them. I think it could potentially be an issue where games deliberately try to invoke a sense of verisimilitude and really try to create that sense of you being the protagonist. I'd even tentatively suggest, for example, that 'Game Over's are less of an issue for 3rd person games in this sense than for 1st person games (but that's not a core argument). Where games are striving for that true verisimilitude I think something can be lost from a death. My best try at explaining why that makes sense in my mind is simply that it breaks the flow of the game. Your experience of the game is no longer this unbroken continuity stretching from the beginning right to the end. The history of that character you've played is no longer this single experience - you have to otherwise hope the player seamlessly stitches that timeline back together in their head from that checkpoint before they died in order for that death to make no difference at all to them. I think the damage may have already been done in the death reminding them that they're just playing a game. The thing is that it only takes one death to disrupt this and since at least one will (almost certainly) always occur I don't know if this effect has really been observed. Maybe I've just started to argue against thin air here, with an argument that doesn't mean anything or hold any value but I have a hunch that no deaths at all could make a meaningful difference to the experience a player has. I'd like to try out that hunch in the short game/mod I'm planning on making at least.

    I realise I started to argue exclusively about the niche case of absolutely no deaths there but I hope some of my thoughts still apply more generally than that. Personally, my current battle is working out how to reduce the no. of deaths a player might experience, while maintaining the freedom and independence the player has to approach tasks in their own way and order despite the fact that they need to feel under threat and with their actions ultimately deciding their survival.