Let's Talk About Death

They tell me that my death will happen something like this: gradually, my genes will be completely unable to process what substances my body should keep, and which ones I should reject. I won't notice it at first, because I've been in the early stages for years already, but gradually, I'll start shaking as I lose motor control. The symptoms, they say, will be akin to Parkinson's. Foreign substances will continue to accrete, and as they do, I'll be able to function less and less. Eventually, some part of my body will cease to function, and I will die.

I still remember being unable to watch my Grandfather's decline. I still remember sitting at his funeral, sobbing uncontrollably for the first time in my life. I don't want to die like that, but unless something else brings about my demise, that is what will happen.

One shouldn't have to deal their mid-life crisis at 24, but I am.

What video games don't tell you about death is that it's serious business. People like to complain about violence, as if it's an issue, but I'd argue that it isn't. Violence is what drives summer blockbusters like The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises. Violence, when it isn't real, is ultimately safe. As films like Drive have demonstrated, violence can also be used to express beauty. Nothing's particularly wrong with the use of violence in games, any more than there's a problem with it in media ranging from Looney Toons to The Thin Red Line.

Death, though? Death is treated with a flippant, flagrant disrespect.

Do you know what death is used for in video games? It's a measuring stick. It's the way people determine whether a game is hard enough for them to enjoy. Death? Yeah! Will I die a lot? Because otherwise, I won't bother. Games get sold with tags like "You. Will. Die." or whatever, like it's a celebration--like having lots of death is a good thing. That's not, of course, to say that Death can't be funny. I've no problem with a badass horseman carrying scythes around, nor have I got an issue if the personification of Death is named Gregg and mutters at how much he hates squirrels while hanging out at the pub.

It's this idea, though, that death's got no real meaning that has me somewhat frustrated. Recently, I beat Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway. The game's got problems, like its broken AI, and high points, like its art design, but the writing is what caught my attention. For a game, it's a superb script. It might even be one of the best. But... it's got a problem.

People died, you see. They died quite a lot. I know, because I often ordered them to their deaths trying to remember the controls (I'd started it a few years ago and only recently decided to finish). Then, when the game ends, everybody talks about death. They talk about all those good men who died, and here I am, getting more and more frustrated, because nobody died on my watch, they only died in cutscenes.

I carried the casket of a good man down the aisle, fighting back tears. The mourners had flooded into the church by the hundreds; everyone had loved the man. He had no enemies. His calm demeanor and intelligent disposition made him the kind of person everyone wanted to talk to. He had recently beaten a devastating illness, and was on his way to getting his life back on track. Surprising, then, that he'd committed suicide.

The tears came as we drove to the graveyard. I couldn't stop them. I didn't know why. I was close--but not that close. It was my uncle, a military man I'd always seen as a stern, no-nonsense sort who never showed an ounce of feeling for anyone, that comforted me then.

Later, I would understand firsthand just how crippling Social Anxiety Disorder could be.

Right now, people are talking about Dishonored, and they should. It is quite possibly the most ground-breaking first-person game this generation, and if not, it's at least the most ground-breaking first-person game since portal. It's one of the finest stealth games ever crafted. It's one of the most fascinating RPGs ever constructed. The game's art and lore and atmosphere are so far beyond most of their peers that it shouldn't seem possible.

They talk about reloading a lot. "Oh, I killed this guy, so I reloaded," they say. "The enemies are extremely good, so I had to reload." I've heard quite a lot of this before, back with the excellent, if somewhat less progressive Deus Ex: Human Revolution. To be fair, the self-imposed challenge of a ghost run is an incredible one; getting past everyone and everything without killing or knocking out a soul is an accomplishment worthy of great praise.

Elsewhere, people are praising the Souls games for their unforgiving nature, and dismissing other games as being too easy because they 'barely even died.' To me, this seems odd. Is death really the only metric by which we measure success? "Oh, well, I died once or twice, so yeah, it wasn't hard." Surely there were other factors that might affect a game's challenge? What about the puzzle of figuring out how to accomplish the next task? What about making hurried choices that might or might not be the best one, because you've only got so many time to make them?

What about everything that makes life hard?

It was a gorgeous fall night. I was flying a thousand feet above the city, admiring the glittering lights alongside my instructor, when our cabin lights went off. We weren't worried, of course, because our engine lights were still going strong. Ten seconds later, however, we started to worry. They flickered, momentarily, and then shut off. Not one to see a glass half empty, my instructor said "well, then, this seems like a good idea for you to show me how well you can fly with an instrument failure." His challenge roused me from my panic, and with a confident "yessir," I took back the controls and set a course for our base of operations.

That's when the oil started leaking.

Losing lights is one thing--it's a bit like losing lights in your car. You should be able to limp home without running into anything, though there's the added stress of wondering whether your airspeed and attitude are all gravy. Losing oil is... quite a bit worse, because it can mean that you're about to catch fire or fall out of the sky.

The "what-ifs" came hard and fast. I was rattled. This wasn't like normal flight training, where the instructor would put suction cups over the gauges in broad daylight to see if you could handle flying without the instruments in the event of a failure, because this was a real, genuine failure. We were ten miles from home, and for the first time in my life, I was scared witless.

My favorite writing instructor once gave our class an assignment: we had to write a short story, at least eight pages in length. Most of us thought that seemed pretty easy, until she added, "but I've got one more rule. No death. Death is easy. It's where our mind goes." Death, we learned, is difficult to write well, but it's something that bad writers gravitate towards, because it's dramatic.

The subtle nuance of all of life's little challenges is a much harder concept to grasp than death. Everyone 'gets' death. We know it's bad, because it means not being with people you care about, and not doing things you'd like to do. Maybe you go to Heaven and things are awesome, or maybe you get reincarnated, or maybe you evaporate into nothing. Whatever the case may be, death is generally a pretty easy way to get drama.

What's the easiest way to challenge someone? Stop them from getting what they want when they don't perform to standards and make them start over. Death, in other words. It's an easy way to create challenge in a video games. Someone fails? Make them start over.

Of course, there are other sorts of challenges.

In STALKER: Clear Sky, you're presented with far more calls for help than you can reasonably answer--a feature early advertising seemed to indicate would be present in Mass Effect, and one also present in games like X-COM. I like STALKER, though, because it's the only game I can think of that assaults you with these calls, and also emulates reality. As I've discussed before, the secret to appreciating Clear Sky is accepting your character's humanity, and accepting The Zone as a real space. Once you stop treating STALKER games (and to an extent, many, many other FPSes) like games and treating them more like something you, the individual are currently experiencing,

Death becomes secondary. The difficulty of STALKER isn't in not dying, though that's certainly an element of the game (nothing's killed me so many times in so many ways, after all). The real challenge is all about making the best decisions. Dishonored is the same--do you choose to infect violent men with the plague in order to increase your own power, allowing you to bring justice? After all, they'll unwittingly spread the disease to the innocent. I'm several hours in, and I still have no idea what the outcome of my choice will be, but I know it's coming.

STALKER and Dishonored are hard because they don't chicken out and say "well, no matter what you choose, it'll all work out well."

I called her name, excitedly. Silly girl, lying in the yard like that, it was ten in the morning! Time to rise and shine! Time to play! The summers we spent together had always been the best. I would often lie on our deck out back, my head on her stomach, and we would stare at the clouds together, she and I.

This time, she didn't respond--not even a twitch.

Worried, I called her name again, and still she didn't respond. I ran to her. She was cold. Dead, the vet would tell us later, of something called gastric dilatation. Something had gotten her attention shortly after she'd eaten, she'd run to bark at it. In the process, her stomach had somehow flipped over, effectively being pinched off. The digestion process had done the rest, poisoning her from the inside. She was gone, apparently, in a matter of minutes.

My golden retriever, my best friend, dead. It would be the first time I ever understood the gravity of death.

I'm not upset that death is treated so flippantly. You'd think that the nearly eighteen-hundred words above might call such a statement into question, but they're all working towards a point which I hope will be a bit more interesting than "lets get serious about death, guys."

Life isn't hard because we're going to die, it's hard because of everything else. It's hard because we can't always get what we want, and sometimes, we don't even get what we need. In treating death with flippancy, life is also treated with a lack of consideration. Things become easy, and creators become lazy. Instead of thinking of interesting and unique ways to present a challenge, difficulty, in the eyes of so many, seems to be little more than something determined by the amount of times that a player must die.

Death is an inevitability. In a way, it's almost boring. It occurs. Life, on the other hand? Life is where things matter. I don't care how many times I died in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, because that's not interesting. Games--the best games--are the ones that encourage people to tell their own stories. "Hey, let me tell you about that one time in Thief where I taught a Burrick to be scared of me! It was really cool..." I grew to love Human Revolution when I gave it the respect it deserved.

People feel as though they ought to play Deus Ex a certain way: stealthy and nonlethal. I remember that on Human Revolution's release, everyone was saying that the proper way to do it was to do it stealthily. Even the designers apparently felt this way, offering multiple solutions through most of the game, but rewarded players who played stealthily and nonlethaly with significantly more rewards.

That's missing the point of Deus Ex. It's a game built around the promise of letting players behave as they see fit. It's a sandbox with a plethora of tools. If you want to play stealthily, you can. If you want to beat the entire game with a pistol, my understanding is that you can. Deus Ex is about empowerment tailored to personality.

When I realized this, I decided to go with my instincts. Instead of playing the way everyone told me I ought to play, I decided to become Adam Jensen. I killed the sense of genre savviness that had been ruining the story for me. I stopped trying not to kill everyone. I became a man-turned-machine who wanted revenge for the woman who he thought he'd lost.

I killed those who deserved to be killed, and saved those who needed to be saved. The people responsible for the slaying and kidnappings of my coworkers were killed. Some were subjected to particularly cruel--even inventive--deaths. Others, like policemen, were avoided, while the victims in the final level of the game were rendered unconscious to ease their suffering until I could save them all.

Then I faced the villain.

I talked him down, like a good nonlethal player. He sat down in a chair, horrified at what he had done. I pretended to leave the room, snuck up behind him, and put a bullet in his brain. Cruel, perhaps, but I was playing the game on gut instinct, and my gut told me that, if he were allowed to live, the villain would try to implement his plans again. Not only that, but he'd turned me into a monster. He had to die.

Anyone who has beaten the game knows who I'm talking about, and you know that he wouldn't be able to implement his plans again, because the game ends. But I wasn't thinking about that. I wasn't thinking about the 'rules.' I was thinking about the experience.

In games, death is just another rule. "If you fail, you die and start over." If a player adheres to the rules and systems, the game stops being interesting to her. The true potential of the medium--to create complete, virtual realities, is wasted if death is just another system. If a developer makes death the only challenge in a game, he's created just another game. It might kill players with more or less frequency, but that's nothing special. If, instead, the developer considers other challenges, then he has the power to create a game that is far, far more powerful than just another game where people die. SWAT 4, for instance, is a great example of a game with a difficulty that isn't determined by how many times the player dies. In SWAT 4, it's all about the perfect execution of a play.

Soon, I will be playing Far Cry 2 again. The talk on NeoGAF about how terrible it is has got me pretty excited, actually. I've ranted about it elsewhere, so I won't do so here again, but let me tell you what I intend to do. It's called a no-death run. The idea is that you must beat the game without dying once. Far Cry 2 has a nice buddy system to support that as well. I've been told that playing the game in such a way is transcendant, and I think I know why. The people I know who hate the game are the same people who played it like a game. When game death is treated like real death, the experience becomes an incredibly powerful. Players stop foolishly driving through checkpoints and start avoiding roads altogether. They start using new tactics, rather than simple "find guy, point at guy, shoot at guy" standbys taught by other games. When they respect Far Cry 2's Africa as a world, and accept their character's life as their own, it becomes a beautiful experience.

I was afraid to die, once, as if dying was the thing to be afraid of. Now I have a new fear--a better fear. One of the world's oldest stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, tells the tale of a mighty king, whose friend is killed by the gods. Upon realizing his fate, he seeks his immortality, but he is foiled at every turn. As a man, he cannot be immortal. Like everyone else, he will die. By the end of his journey, he finds peace because he realized that he would still find immortality. Others would remember him, for all time.

My new fear is that I won't have done anything worth living for. My illness makes physical activity something of a challenge, so most of my former skills are now useless. For years, I've been treated like a burden, by family, friends, and employers alike, because they have a hard time grasping the concept of a debilitating, nameless illness. If I could put it in a box like "cancer" or "MS," to give people a frame of reference, I would, but I can't.

My mind works. I'm terrified of wasting it. I'm terrified of leaving this world not having mattered. I'm terrified of being irrelevant. So, here I am, at 4:20 in the morning, editing a three thousand word essay because I'm in too much agony to sleep, and because I couldn't bear to tell my sister that I was too sick to visit her. I've spent a year now attending a school with a game design program I helped rescue; its unfortunate collapse meant that I learned very little in the time I've been a student. I don't know where to go from here--how to change people--when just about all I can do is write.

But I do know this: I will die having lived a life worth living.

Death is an invaluable element of video games, but all too often, we let it define how we perceive our experience. Are we dying a lot? If not, then supposedly, the experience must not be a very good one. We must reject this notion. A game, and its challenges, should stem from what we do while we're alive. If we die, we die. The real value of a game experience--the thing that should define our every action--is what we can do while we're alive, not what we can do to avoid dying.

Value what time you've got to live, and maybe you'll appreciate everything a lot more.


And, to germinate discussion: How would you make a game challenging without killing the player?