A Response to “Is Death In Games Cheap?”
I read a wonderful article by Richard Clark in Gamasutra. “Is Death In Games Cheap” took an engaging look at how video games handle death and I enjoyed every bit of it. I do want to expanded, however, on the last section of his opinion piece titled “The Most Powerful Death is Not Our Own.” He writes there that games do not trivialize death. I’m not sure I completely agree.
Clark correctly points out that the deaths which really matter in video games are those of non-playable characters (NPCs). He uses Mass Effect 2 as his example. Anyone who has read my posts knows how much I love that game and how it speaks to the Human Condition. However the use of a player’s choices to dictate if a character lives or dies is but one option game writers can use to make us care about an NPC’s death.
Writers can also develop an NPC’s character to the point where we care enough to miss him or her. To this day, I still feel sad when I think about the death of Eli Vance at the end of Half Life 2 Episode 2. I cared about him and his daughter Ali and I hated how the game ended with his death, knowing I would have to wait until Episode 3 to find out how Ali will respond to his passing. I ask myself why I liked him so much and I believe it is because he helped me flush out my character in the game, Gordon Freeman. Since Freeman never spoke, I needed the words and actions of others to help me connect with my character. In helping me to get to know myself (Gordon) I got to know him as well. Eli and Ali Vance allowed me move past Gordon being simply two hands and a gun.
A third way game writers can make us care about a character’s death is to attach him or her to another NPC we care about. While I interacted with Eli Vance, I only got to know Maria Santiago through the flashbacks of her husband, Dominic. Through his painful search for her I found myself hoping they would be reunited. I remember playing Gears of War 2 with a friend online and having to pause when Dominic finally found Maria. Their agonizing reunion also caused me anguish and I realized that all my rooting for their happiness was an exercise in futility. I never got to know her, but one of the reasons I look forward to Gears 3 is to see if Dominic can find peace now that she is gone.
These characters are the exception to the notion that video games do indeed trivialize death. Do a few wonderful exceptions mean the whole medium takes a more serious stance on death? I don’t think so. I’ve probably seen and caused a hundred thousand deaths over the years and I could care less about most of them. I still love Clark’s analysis even if I disagree with his conclusion but at the same time I find it sad that game writers and researchers spend so much time wrestling with a 40-year old medium that is still, for the most part, trying to figure out how to tell a good story. With death, we have the one thing that makes us all equal being used as a tool for a “re-do” in gaming. In single-player games, it is a weakness in narrative. In multi-player death is simply a pause in the action.
There is hope however. Clark himself points out with his final words that all is not lost. Video games can provide a richer view of death. Further still, one of the comments to his piece notes how death can also be the goal of a game and not just a simple annoyance. The writer of that post called the idea brilliant. In truth it is a fascinating idea and perhaps as video game narrative evolves someone will be bold enough to embrace such a view. In the meantime, I will enjoy gems like Mass Effect 2 and I will keep waiting for Half Life 2 Episode 3.