161: Indie or Die

Jared Newman

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Aug 30, 2007
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Indie or Die

"The epiphany hit me a few months ago when my girlfriend and I visited her cousins' Long Island home. Their 14-year-old son and his friends were playing Guitar Hero III, and most of the group lacked skill. As the in-game crowd booed another wannabe rocker off the stage, my girlfriend's cousin delivered the stinging words:

"'You died.'"

"Either the audience was particularly bloodthirsty that night, or this 14-year-old kid just pointed out how often death is synonymous with failure in videogames."

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irrelevantnugget

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Mar 25, 2008
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Interesting and well written article, though in Resident Evil, the words are 'You Are Dead', not 'You Died'.
DMC also has a similar take on it, using 'Rest In Peace', by the way. Even though in DMC3, Dante gets shot in the forehead and impaled by his own sword in certain cutscenes, he apparantly IS able to die during normal gameplay. It's quite contradictory, but without these deaths, the game just wouldn't offer any challenge.

Death equals failure in most games, and with a reason. You're supposed to WANT to live when playing a game. When playing Wolfenstein3D, back in the old days, you would be stuck in a dungeon/fortress. Finding your way through that maze, evading death would reward you with B.J. Blascowski (sic) hopping out into the green fields. His goals were achieved, namely survival, ànd freedom.

There's usually a dual goal in most games, one would typically be 'beat the bad guy, because he's up to nothing good/he's done something wrong', the other would simply be, 'survive'.

It wouldn't be much of a game if you could god-mode your way through everything, and frankly, I don't think any game should be like that. Gaming is all about overcoming obstacles. Failure seems to usually be death, but mostly that's just because it would make sense, if you're facing opponents wielding shotguns and/or sharp knives.
 

Shushyne4np2ne

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Jul 28, 2008
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Great article. I will say that it's true: Death=Bad in games, just like the real world. The only problem is obvious: What the hell? I just died then I'm back in this little save point. I liked the point you brought up with the Bioshock Vita-Chamber thing. It's true, but oh well.

The mobster game premise would be fantastic, but you know some players would exploit it and just try to kill all of his comrades, then the Jack Thompsonites would jump all over it for it being TOO real. Oh well... I guess you can't win there. Anyway, I like the idea, personally and share your sentiments, sir.
 

arrr_matey

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Oct 26, 2006
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What about Soul Reaver? Your character couldn't really die, when you reached zero health you would enter the soul world (can't remember exact name) where your powers were limited and the level design changed so you couldn't get past certain points. You'd have to suck down enough souls to restore yourself to your regular state so you could get past these obstacles, although some obstacles required you to go to the soul world on purpose.

I always thought this was a great way of incorporating death into the game as gameplay rather than as an event you had to restart from.
 

BobisOnlyBob

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Nov 29, 2007
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Lots of games have been evading the question, including death by working around it: Prince of Persia's "No wait, I didn't do that, that would've killed me..." or rewinding, and likewise for Assassin's Creed "Your memory has been desynchronised with actual events, that situation wasn't as hopeless as it looked, train your mind to think like Altaïr...".

GTA's always been a funny one, especially in 4. No matter how many floors you fall, no matter how high the explosion propels you, you always end up... at the hospital. Niko curses to himself for screwing up the mission, and then uses his crappy phone's time-travel text message powers to try it again. Yeesh.

Soul Reaver is probably the best game design for incorporating death into gameplay. I can't think of any that do it quite like that.

When it comes to death in games, the "lives" system baffles me. It needs to go. It wasn't in Abe's Oddessy, it's not in GTA, why do games like Mario insist on having it still? It means *nothing*! It just means the inconvenience of dying is an extra minute's travel AT MOST before retrying. Galaxy even reset the life count every single time you loaded a save file...
Yes, it still makes sense in oldschool platformers and arcade games, but that's it.
 

shMerker

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Oct 24, 2007
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I think in a lot of the broadly conceived and highly abstract games where failure ends the experience "you are dead" is a crystal clear way of saying "there's nothing more you can do" that is, "game over", but in more serious narratives the idea of death as a reversible and commonplace obstacle is usually a mistake. Final Fantasy is probably the single worst offender in this area, where items that revive the dead can be purchased for spare change at stores in every town in the world, but the player is somehow expected to care when someone like Aeris or Galuf dies, and there's nothing that can be done about it, and no explanation why except that this was where the writers wanted that character to stop being involved in the story. The net effect is something that feels artificial and destroys suspension of disbelief. The problem is that they're trying to use conventions that belong to one kind of game while trying to make another.

On the other hand, the idea of death as a setback has filtered back from video games into other storytelling mediums, with interesting results. The short film "On Your Mark" by Hayao Miyazaki shows two men catastrophically failing on a rescue mission, obviously resulting in death or serious injury, and then later we see the scene replayed, but differently, where they manage to escape.

This is one area where I think old style adventure games were way ahead of everyone else. I can think of one way to die in Secret of Monkey Island and it is so out of the way that it qualifies as an easter egg. Progress in the Myst games was always blocked by simply not letting the player advance, and while there were ways to die they all were directly tied to the story and constituted legitimate endings for the narrative, with different outcomes and a complete denouement. (Actually my favorite ending for Riven is the one where you lose and Gehn smugly thanks you for ruining everything after releasing him in the rebel hideout)

I think death as reversible is also, ultimately, part of the appeal of video games. They give us the opportunity to fail without consequence. Death, being the most irreversible of consequences, would naturally be a part of that.
 

Aries_Split

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May 12, 2008
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I like the way Prey handled it. If I remember correctly, you simply went to a spirit world, shot some stuff, and then was back.
 

arrr_matey

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Oct 26, 2006
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shMerker said:
The problem is that they're trying to use conventions that belong to one kind of game while trying to make another.
Exactly!! Videogame "death" is a convention from the arcade days when the point was to eat players' quarters. Now that we buy the games, there's no reason death *has* to be a part of gaming. Developers are just lazy. They say "it's always been done that way, so why change it."
 

Atomicpanic

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Aug 5, 2008
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There just needs to be challenges that fit the moment it the game or just the game in general. Thats all to the whole the death thing, nothing else. FPS's you die if you get shot enough. RTS's depending on the one, you just lose no death you just get anther army together to see if you can beat them again. RPG's anther depending on the situation of the game story line, if you are facing a horde of enemy's and you don't kill them all most likely your avatar is going to die. Just with that I think you can fill in the rest of the type of games your self's. All the big corporations are not just sitting in a smoky room setting down rules that the avatar has to die in every game, Its Just What Fits It.

Death is just the goddamn challenge and possibly the best one, because no one wants to die. I could give you a bunch of examples but I am sure in all you can put in your own because no one can give better examples to you but you, and I don't feel like typing a LOT more.

And Games Will NEVER be like Books fully or any other type of media at that (because it is already better), Because The PLAYER chooses. You Don't do that in Books, Movies or anything else that I can think of. So sorry I just feel that was a pointless thing to read, good writing though I just think you should of used it else where, just so you are sure that I am attacking the subject not you.
 

Atomicpanic

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Aug 5, 2008
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arrr_matey said:
shMerker said:
The problem is that they're trying to use conventions that belong to one kind of game while trying to make another.
Exactly!! Videogame "death" is a convention from the arcade days when the point was to eat players' quarters. Now that we buy the games, there's no reason death *has* to be a part of gaming. Developers are just lazy. They say "it's always been done that way, so why change it."
... or dose it just fit it maybe o_O
 

arrr_matey

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Oct 26, 2006
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Atomicpanic said:
... or dose it just fit it maybe o_O
I think the point you're missing is that the only reason death seems to "fit" into the kinds of games you mentioned is because the scope of videogames is so narrow. Conflict in games tend to be almost always about life vs. death whereas in other media, the conflict can come from almost any two opposing elements. That's one reason why videogames haven't begun to approach the level of quality of other media.

Think of some of the best movies, books and plays of all time. Think about the themes and conflicts that make those works of art great. Let's start with the most obvious one, which is love. How many games are there that are about love, where love isn't just something in a cutscene but an actual gameplay element? Almost none. And that right there is a perfect example of why games are so limited in scope right now.

Just because the player chooses doesn't mean squat unless the players are given meaningful choices. Right now, it's mostly: kill or don't kill, be "good" or "bad", explore this area or don't explore this area. Compare that to any work by Shakespeare, Scorsese, Philip K. Dick, Austen, Borges, Woolf, Linklaeter etc. etc. and gaming is vastly inferior. Fun like hell to play, yes, but not in the same league as other media.
 

JonnWood

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Jul 16, 2008
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In the upcoming Next-Gen Prince of Persia, the player character's partner will rescue him from any falls or traps, dropping him at the last safe platform. Even during boss fights, she just restores his health-and that of the boss-effectively restarting the fight. It's basically Auto-Continue.
 

shMerker

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Oct 24, 2007
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I think there are plenty of games where failure results in "death" only in the video game sense. For a huge number of rhythm, strategy, and sim titles, not to mention adventure games (You know its a huge number because I'm listing genres, not titles) equating losing with "dying" is purely a matter of vernacular and is more the result of player interpretation than anything expressed in the game.

If this is blindspot among game designers at all I think it's limited to those who are making action and RPG titles, which tend to focus on combat and death-defying stunts. Admittedly this is a lot of games, but problem is biggest for the RPGs, which are generally more story-focused and could gain a lot of narrative depth from treating death in a more mature way.

On a higher level there is the notion of completely removing "failure" from a game's vocabulary, but there are ways that could be really bad for a game's design. Certainly there's no reason something more creative and sandboxy has to have a way to tell you that you're doing it wrong, but I think if games just kept going without ever setting the player back, we'd find players wanting to set themselves back anyway. Part of the appeal of a game is being able to try things without necessarily having to deal with the consequences if you don't like them, so even if you stopped killing the player, I think you'd sometimes find him committing suicide.
 

Atomicpanic

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Well thats the whole point there it will never be to any of there standards, some will maybe because the human mind is never going to stop thinking up of newer and better things but it will be small batches. But humans also want a lot of money and they give what the majority of the gamers want, and right now I don't see that happening any time soon considering its taking longer to make games but in a year or two that will change and even then it will be at least three years with just a shit load of Ctrl + C. So at least ten years be for a lot of these games at a time. And only a select games will be as good as the work you noted. I may not know all of them but I do know that most of the Shakespeare I know has a quite a considerable amount of death, love, and well every thing if you look hard enough. I for got what I was getting at shit. Any ways the fact is that the main charter is not an actor a singer or a star its just you and I don't know how to put it any other way.

Now that I think about it I said RTS in a post be for, isn't that really the answer to the death in games? because you do not die just your army and you just assemble a new army, I don't know this subject is the head hurting one for me so I'm just going to kill a bunch of people in a game or two maybe three.
 

phoenixdk

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Aug 6, 2008
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The issue here seems to be handling failure in games in a way that doesn't upset the "natural order" of things. But that is ultimately a question of realism, or what we might call "believable realism".
It should not be a point of debate that we do *not* want perfectly realistic games. We do however want games with internal consistency, that is - games which do not upset *their own* natural order. As long as the games stick with their own conventions, we are within the realm of belivable realism (it's believable for instance that half-orcs can cast magic fireballs in an adventure game... except if this particular game takes place in a universe where half-orcs cannot cast spells - then it's a mystery).

If we can all agree on this, why should death be an exception? Even if we have an explanation of why death doesn't work the way it does in the real world, it's still death. Unrealistic, but consistent.
If death has to go, what about other unnatural stuff? Where do we draw the line? No more talking bunnies? What about points, unless they are cleverly disguised as "money"? Inventories where a player can carry a rocket launcher in the back pocket? And what about the save function? I mean, how believable is it that you can die, and then just skip back in time?

I take the opposite stance. I don't see why we have to camouflage and disguise game mechanics. Sure, if I was doing a game focusing on the horrible-ness of war and death, the typical respawn system would not be a good idea. But then I would change the mechanics, for instance in a way where you are permanently punished by death, or simply have the game end. Certainly horrible, like war... but then again, how enjoyable would that be?

It was stated in this thread that games have not reached the same literary greatness as other, older mediums... this is probably not because there are no great "writers" for games, but rather that games are expected to be enjoyable... and so the real question is, "how do make failure enjoyable?"
 

Galduke

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Jun 6, 2008
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While the topic is interesting, the examples of games that handle death in an unconventional way seemed unimpressive. Now I know my argument can be easily debunked having not played any of these games, but right now I just feel like throwing in my two bits.

Passage just sounds like a timed roguelike, so why not use REAL roguelikes as an example instead, where death has been permanent for decades!

Karoshi seems like just another platformer/puzzler/crate pushing game but instead of getting the magic key or whatever you just die, which is the ONLY thing that makes it different. It's like having an action game let you play as a velociraptor and hailing it as a revolutionary prophet in gaming (though it was fun on the Genesis...)!

In Urban Dead there's no NEED to respawn or anything because you can still play and (presumably) enjoy yourself. Back in the days of Mario Kart 64, sometimes me and my cousins would rush to die first in 3 or 4 player battle mode matches simply because we got to become bomb karts and harass the other players (We had FEAR. We had POWER.).

My Karoshi argument is likely going to be the easiest to debunk considering how society reacts as a whole to even the simplest oddity, resulting in people perceiving something as taboo or innovative, but to me the death goal is just some tongue-in-cheek dark humor and really shouldn't warrant any attention other than for a quick n' short giggle (and some decent puzzles, of coarse).

Look at me bitching about nothing, nit picking like a school nurse with a grudge (see what I did there). I apologize for my behavior. You know what? Don't take anything here seriously. Remember what I said, but without the piss and vinegar spillage.
 

SlayerGhede

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Jan 13, 2008
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"BioShock had its Vita-Chambers, a kind of respawn point that was part of the world's technology, but some gamers rejected them because it made dying in the game seem pointless."

No. The outcry was because they made LIVING pointless. Why bother with traps and careful planning to take out a big daddy, when you could go at him with a wrench, get killed, come back, go at him with a wrench, get killed, come back, go at him with a wrench, and so on until you finally wore him down? Nothing was frightening, every victory was hollow.
 

stompythebeast

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May 6, 2008
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Prey was my first experience with a game where you did not "die". When you "died" in the real world, you were sent back to the indian spirit world, where you had to fight spirit daemons for a minute or two. The more daemons you killed, the more health you would have when you came back to the real world. It did also helped the story and your attachment to the protagonist, since you could experience his extreme desire to save the human race from becoming alien fertilizer.Awsome game.
 

Human Bomb

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Sep 29, 2007
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Galduke said:
While the topic is interesting, the examples of games that handle death in an unconventional way seemed unimpressive. Now I know my argument can be easily debunked having not played any of these games, but right now I just feel like throwing in my two bits.

Passage just sounds like a timed roguelike, so why not use REAL roguelikes as an example instead, where death has been permanent for decades!
I think this article is either to broad or narrow in scope. Galduke makes a very important point. There have been more than just a few games where death is not only permanent, but woven into the story.

Sweet Home had permanent death for the characters. If one of them died, you just had to make due. Fire Emblem, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and others have had you risk your acquired characters to garner victory and if they died, they died. Also, the game Baroque has death as a story device. Character death can propel the story forward and make it more interesting.

On the other hand, there are games like the Lego series that you can die almost constantly in and be fined studs. Or there's the Wario game where you don't so much die all the time, but instead your injuries have to be used creatively.

Even in MMO's there are punishments for death that make it more serious than a minor setback. Loss of loot and equipment in Ultima Online was a pain in the ass, and loss of reputation, honor, experience or even time is a death toll that hits people a little harder.

I understand your point. Failure in games = "death." The loss of a few guys or lives is pretty trivial when there are re-spawn points and 1ups. There is something worse: untimely death after you've put hours into a game without saving -an ironic term for what is essentially giving your characters resurrection to an eternal life- becomes a deterrent to wanting to finish the game.