Some of the typical themes to indie games, and art games, and deconstructionist games in general, include violence, death, and loss. I find it interesting that the deeper problems of game design, toward which the more thoughtful game authors are drawn, so closely mirror a boilerplate list of human concerns. At least, metaphorically speaking.
Of the three, death and loss, and the association between the two, are the bigger concerns — perhaps because in the short term, with such a narrow communication bottleneck, it’s more worthwhile to hand out monosyllabic verbs for the player to sling around: shoot, run, jump, grab. Let players use the grammar they know, while you precisely sculpt a context to lend the discussion an illusion of eloquence. Thus we have Half-Life 2, and Resident Evil 4.
In classic design terms, death and loss are the same. You either win a game, or you lose. (Early on, “winning” just means you haven’t lost yet.) You lose a game by dying; loss means at least an existential death, in that you’re no longer playing. If you’re allowed several lives, then often death is the metaphor for even a small loss, in that each death sets you back — indeed, it’s often the only setback that matters.
Later on, battery backup and memory cards changed things a little. Instead of games being an all-or-nothing challenge, they were a slow and awkward slog to the top: keep chipping away, keep saving at every opportunity, and eventually you’ll be king of the mountain. A player’s progress became a sort of permanent virtual property, rather than a matter of fleeting skill and experience. And now loss takes on a bigger meaning. Since starting over would mean losing all their hours of “hard work”, games got longer and larger so as to feed the player new “content” for as long as he retained interest — thus further reducing the chances of a replay, as that savefile grows all the more priceless.
Granted, on the surface of it death and loss barely factor into social games like Animal Crossing or certain text or graphical adventures like Myst, but those are specific and defiant structures, with the former laying bare that modern relationship between property and progress (in videogames as in life) and the latter born from the imaginative, exploratory side of role playing games — as compared to the simpler systemic representation (your points, your rules) with its focus on violence, loss, and death.
Today, with so much investment in the content, designers like Hideo Kojima want players to see the whole game — which creates a weird conflict, since the only real fail condition that people are accustomed to in a videogame is death. How can designers tell a huge, linear story if the player keeps dying and getting booted out of the game — or at least thrown back, to replay the same sequence over and over again? The goal and the method don’t match.
Some games, such as Naughty Dog’s later platformers, stick a band aid on the problem by eliminating lives. Others just make it nearly impossible to fail. Others put the responsibility in the player’s hands with unlimited quicksaves. You can find clever examples everywhere in between, from smart checkpoints to the teamwork-focued revivals in Gears of War. Really, though, no one has a clue what to do about death and loss.
The most progressive games — Dead Rising, Pac-Man: Championship Edition — spend their time experimenting with it, and sometimes they find some narrow, specific answers. Gradius V finds an answer that suits its own premise, though it wouldn’t really work in Super Mario Bros. I guess that’s the best that anyone can hope for; a specific solution to the specific problem at hand.
And that is, I guess, where indie games come in — generally very specific problems explored by specific people in a specific way. And gee whiz, do they spend an awful lot of time exploring this issue. Braid exists to undermine the sense of absolute consequences that you’d expect from a glance at its format. Passage is just one long trundle toward death, with a few gamey metaphors for our individual pursuits and hang-ups on our way to the grave.
Uin, which we reviewed last week, abandons the traditional life/death structure in favor of a weird afterlife cycle. When you lose all your energy, you wake up in an unsettling zone far above the normal gameworld. An inscrutable figure, all shadow and flicker, looms over you. Tiny shadows of everything you’ve ever killed skitter around your feet. To the left is an enormous door, with bolts that progressively glow when you exterminate a species. If you jump off the cliff to the right, you wake up by your latest save point. It’s easy to take this area as pure metaphor, until eventually you unlock that door and the lines blur. Evidently this purgatory zone is a real area, in relation to the rest of the game’s space. Or it has a consistent and tangible component. It’s inscrutable, which fits the odd dream logic of Matt Aldridge’s games. It’s also uniquely functional.
Hero Core also stops counting, and lets you save at any time. When you die, you retain all your progress and simply reappear at your latest save point. When you pass a save point all your energy is restored, and by holding in both buttons you can warp from save point to save point. The effect is that death is only a momentary setback, and that the tools for preventing loss also serve to prevent repetition (a more tangible form of loss, in the form of lost time) by allowing the player to hop around at will and within reason.
Love+ is another two-button game: jump, and set your respawn point. You get a hundred lives, and you can spend them however you like. So you do your own cost-benefit analysis; what’s more important; one life, or — as above –five minutes of my own very real time?
The Feeder Bar
I’ve this mantra that I pull out whenever it’s convenient. The worst thing a videogame can do is assume I’ve got nothing better to do than to play videogames. What I find refreshing about indie games is that they tend to be succinct in a way that games used to be up through the mid-1980s. Rather than assume I’m invested by virtue of the fact I’m playing a videogame (or perhaps by virtue of the fifty dollars I’ve plopped down), they make their point, they elaborate as much as they feel they need to, and then they move on.
And yet 1980s designs are typically overwhelmed by a model of loss dictated by a simple financial model. In the arcades, the most clever games — like Gauntlet, in which you never stop dying — were the ones that got you to keep pumping in the quarters. Even home console games have their heads in the same place; the only difference is that removing the moment-to-moment demand for spare change makes the loss model a little arbitrary.
You could argue that failure and continual replay justify the large up-front investment by preventing the player from playing through the whole game at once. By the time the player has finished with the game, he has practically memorized it. Old-school gamers brag that they can practically play Super Mario Bros. blindfolded. This kind of rote drilling, though — in its way it’s just as much of a time sink as the linear, content-based design that memory cards brought about. And once memory cards did arrive — well, pretty much from the moment that Zelda hit — it became clear that playing at will, in the comfort of one’s home, dictated a different kind of approach.
So until fairly recently, death and loss have been more associated with financial models than with the expressive needs of design or consideration for the audience. Little surprise, then, that the basic language is so eccentric and absolute. Compare with the record industry, and its constant battles against convenience and flexibility. First audio tape was the villain, then it was clumsily exploited. Then CD-Rs were the villain, and then the Internet. The concern isn’t so much about playing to natural patterns of use and modes of communication as it is about constraining the audience, controlling the message so that it fits what you know has worked before.
Granted, game design is effectively behavioral psychology in a can. It’s always about convincing the audience to do what you want, and making them think it’s their own idea. It’s just that the motivation behind that puppetry tends to reflect on the form it takes. So long as the form keeps looking pretty much as it does now, with its limited, black-and-white pings and largely specific and pre-determined pongs, and its enormous games demanding enormous investment from all parties, I’m not so sure there’s a real answer to the problem.
When commercial designers like Keiji Inafune (Dead Rising) start to experiment, the audience tends to look at its financial outlay and balk. If they just paid sixty dollars for a game, why should it keep telling them to restart and lose all their progress? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to milk the game for everything it’s got? What a rip-off. And the people who complain do sort of have a point. By paying such a huge fee up-front, they put a certain amount of trust in the game, and they dictated what they wanted from it.
Shades of Gray
In the circumstances of their design, indie games tend to do give the form space to breathe and to tinker, that isn’t really available in the commercial sector. A person whose only concern in communicating is illustrating his own ideas will tend to speak freely, and more or less as an equal. In design terms, death and loss have been central concerns, often central annoyances, from the start. Give a life-long player a chance to reexamine the form and it’s only natural that those are amongst the first structures under the microscope.
I would say that the first step toward growth, in art as in life, is doing away with absolutes. That means separating loss from death, and allowing the two concepts to breathe. Failure doesn’t mean the end of everything; it’s just a setback. And there are all degrees and types of failure, each with its own unique implications. This is how we learn. In videogames, death is usually our guiding force; the sole way we learn, or the major threat at our heels. In life, death is the end of learning and rarely so much a threat as an eventual fact. In life, our guiding force is our emotions. We act to minimize unwanted feelings and to reinforce positive ones. It’s the secret weirdness of our emotions that makes our behavior so erratic, so strange, that determines our understanding of the world.
Absolutes are facts, and so not particularly compelling. It’s the capacity to make things better or worse — that’s what makes a life, and the lack of it is what makes a videogame a poor model of a life.