Death in narrative and story

To make things clear, I’m going to be using the word “narrative” to refer to the context and sequence of events pre-programmed by the game designer (villain burns down protagonist’s village, vengeance is sworn, protagonist kills underling and gets new information, kills main villain). Meanwhile, the word “story” is going to refer to the sequence of events that ultimately become the player’s experience (skipped initial cutscene, spent 40 minutes jumping around, death by butterflies, went back in time through a quickload and killed a giant boar).

Also, “error space” is referring to all of the possibilities for irredeemable failure. If the player where to fall into this space, (i.e. commit a fatal failure) he/she would effectively terminate the experience (were it not for external systems such as checkpoints).

Random caption time! Now this is a story all about how my life got twisted upside down and I'd like to take a minute just sit right there I'll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.

It’s something we no longer think about when we play, it’s something that we notice from time to time and it’s something I’ve talked about in the past: Death has become meaningless in videogames. But I don’t really believe that it has become meaningless. It’s just that in comparison to the early days that we can say that relatively, death carries no meaning anymore. Today, having failed means only that the game goes back in time to the last moment recorded before the failure. In the arcade age, a failure meant that the player wasted an opportunity to play more. He/She wasted their money. But that was way in the past when cutting the experience short because of a player failing a challenge was considered acceptable, if not the expected result.

After arcades, games were no longer considered a service and passed on to become a product. So now you pay up front to get the whole experience. Cutting the experience short is no longer acceptable and so we, game designers, needed to find ways to lower the punishments for failing. The thing is, sometimes failure is narratively impossible to come back from and the only way to resolve the situation is to ask the player to suspend his disbelief and suddenly go back in time to a point where the failure hasn’t occurred yet.

This, of course, is the lazy solution most games have utilized since save systems were invented because it doesn’t require any special thought or design to implement. It’s sufficiently generic that it can be a universal feature. It’s just something videogames do.

So, rather than meaningless, nowadays death has become a synonym for repetition. To go back in time before the goof was made. To go back over and over again until the player finally overcomes the obstacle or just gives up.

The main problem with this whole thing is that there’s a very distinct disconnection between story and narrative. You may even call it a form of ludonarrative dissonance. The narrative of any Mario game doesn’t recognize the possibility of Mario dying at any time, so when such a thing happens the game returns to either the start of the level or a mid-level checkpoint. That’s it. No explanation needed, no reason why Mario is still alive, no sense to be found anywhere. Still, we understand that this is just a game and this is just something games do, so we forget about the reasoning behind the sudden time travel and continue on with the game.

Gregg, the Grim Reaper
Sometimes a little humorous hand-waving is all it takes.

That’s how most videogames deal with player failure/death, but that doesn’t mean there’s no examples of the contrary. Many designers have found ways to avoid the sudden disconnection between narrative and story. For example, some designers have directly integrated time-travel mechanics into the narrative (Braid, Prince of Persia Sands of Time), others have developed a death system and narrative where the player is not going back in time but is permitted to return to some starting point (Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls, Assassin’s Creed) and others have poked fun at the issue and handwaved the whole thing (Conker’s Bad Fur Day).

The sad thing is, most* of the examples I’ve mentioned focus on a narrative that supports a checkpoint system … and that’s it. There’s no connection between narrative and story besides a really good excuse for having a character die and then go back to the past. The story and narrative don’t play off of each other.

That’s perfectly serviceable, mind you. It’s way better than just having narrative and story clashing into each other without any rhyme or reason. What I’m saying is that there’s lot of room for improvement in this area.

What I’d like to see is games designed with this issue in mind, with mechanics that support low punishment for complete player failure. Mechanics that resonate with the narrative. Mechanics that play into the narrative of the game. A narrative that not only excuses the use of these mechanics but actively makes use of it.


* The other ones don’t have an error space in the first place: In Braid you can always go back in time at any point, so there’s no failure that you can’t come back from. That’s an elegant solution but we’ve already seen game systems were failure with no return is impossible (graphic adventures, puzzle games, etc). Mmmhh, maybe I should delve into this on a later post.

First image taken from here.


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