My father, being a casual video game player, will occasionally spectate my endeavors into virtual realms. Being interested in game design he will on occasion comment on my game, usually ridiculing it and very rarely praising it. One particular gripe that he has had with many games is in the respawn function in which your character can die and then continue the game. Compared to the arcade games that he would have played back in the 80s, the consequences of failure or death in a video game is no longer a simple and blunt GAME OVER. Players are just slapped on the wrist with a loading screen and then plopped back perhaps a few steps. Essentially, games with narratives are just models of plots in which the players provide some of the exogenous variables as I discussed in my article on Economics and Plot Vol 3. Various models of death have significant impacts of both artistic importance and in the construction of a solid game without plot holes.
To start we could categorize game death models into two categories. The first being permadeath, and the second being some sort of respawn. Permadeath would entail that once the game has decided that you have died, then the game ends and you must start over from the beginning. This would be similar to the arcade games of my father’s era. A respawn would not make the player begin the game again, but would bring the player back at some checkpoint or when they last saved. Most games today function this way. Perhaps because most games are in the home rather than a quarter a play. Respawns can be brought down to two additional categories as well. One being the in-game universe respawn and the other being the out of universe respawn. In-universe respawns give an explanation in the story of why the player can continue playing after death. Out of universe respawns merely let the player continue from a checkpoint or their last save. There are of course some games that fall in between these respawns and permadeath, so they are not all-encompassing. Some examples would be Super Mario Bros. and Contra where they have a respawn model until the player runs out of lives. The permadeath model is fairly self-explanatory and now mostly out of date so I will focus on the respawn model.
One of the most important features of any game is the separation of knowledge between the player and the character they are meant to represent. Both Skyrim and Diablo have respawn models. In Skyrim, the player respawns at the last save. In Diablo, the player respawns at the last town (checkpoint). If a player is in a Skyrim dungeon and dies, they will now replay the area on the path to their quest between the save and the location of death. Since the path will be the exact same that was just experienced, the player then has knowledge that the character does not lead them to make decisions that would disrupt the coherence of the plot, damaging both the player’s experience and the artistic integrity of the game. In Diablo (or my preferred clone, Path of Exile) each dungeon or area is randomly generated every time that the player goes through. If the player dies and re-enters the zone, the player and character have the same amount of information with roughly the same difficulty. If the player is meant to represent the choices of the character then their knowledge must match to allow the game to maintain a coherent series of events.
Subsequently, it becomes quite difficult for the game designer to construct a story that surrounds their death model. The Skyrim or “Last Save” model can be copied into most stories quite easily, but the Diablo model might be quite difficult. A game I have found to have a quite good integration of the death model and the lore is the MOBA SMITE. In Smite, you play as one of the gods of ancient mythology battling it out over various eternal battlegrounds. When you die, there is a penalty period depending on the strength of your character, and then you respawn at your team’s base. This makes total sense in the context of deities fighting with one another as they are presumed to be immortal. The epic saga Bioshock respawns the character in a nearby Vita-Chamber which were apparently reincarnation tools used by the crazed residents of Rapture. However, you still lose the bullets that you used before you died, so there really is no complete do-overs. The popular FPS Counterstrike also takes a hard line as opposed to its
counterpart Call of Duty in that a death is a death. There are no respawns until the next round. This has led to Counterstrike having a much more respected competitive community than COD, but that might have to do with the target demographic for both games.
In conclusion, video games, like any other narrative art form, is to some degree subject to economic law. The player-character dichotomy can likely be further studied and the split is almost reminiscent of the classic problem of mind-body interaction that plagued the modern philosophers. However, in this case, it becomes a problem that the mind knows more than the body ever experienced, and can reincarnate itself after the body has already died. Spooky. The death problem and other player-character problems hopefully will inspire game designers in the future to get ever more creative with their stories and break new ground in the art form of the future.
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