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Tag Archive for Videogames

Death Becomes the Game

Something that every game designer must keep in mind is that the players are going to break all your toys.  That’s part of being a game player.  Take a look at the wealth of “speed runs” on YouTube sometime and you’ll find a whole array of methods by which players jump, skip, glitch through, dodge and otherwise break the game in service of getting to the end the fastest.

I’m bringing this up because as game players, we will find and exploit every mechanical possible in order to improve our success in a game. It doesn’t matter if the game has a win condition or not, what matters is our personal experience, how much satisfaction we derive. The truth of the matter is some of us get as much satisfaction from taking advantage of the game as we do in the objectives that the original game designers laid out for us.

Death as a Mechanic

Not “mechanic” as is the person who repairs your car, but rather in the vein of “deus ex machina”. Death as a mechanic in games serves many different uses. It’s original use was as a “paywall”. A way to get you to pony up another $.25 for another 15 minutes of glory.  Those early games of Pac-Man and Asteroids didn’t need to include your death or destruction as a method of losing the game, they included it for the same reason it works in fiction.  Death adds a ticking clock. It adds drama, conflict.  It is the one thing that every single human (gamer or not) is uncomfortable with.

But once a player gets over that feeling that their mortality (in game) is important, death becomes just another tool you can use to win the game.

Mind Games

The various forms of brain-swapping are particular favorite of the cyber punk genre, that idea that the body might be disposable, but the important thing is the mind.  It’s in this genre, and it’s close siblings, that the idea of death as a game mechanic starts to show purchase.

Although, admittedly, in a very timid form

Richard Morgan introduces us to the concept of “re-sleeving” in his recently-gone-to-Netflix Altered Carbon series of novels.  In essence, every human in this post-singularity world, has a device installed that makes a backup of your mind (similar, in fact, to the identity disks in Tron).  When your body is killed, your mind is downloaded to a new “skin”.  They wealthy can afford clones of their original or favorite bodies, so they can wear the same face for millennia.  People without the cash can buy or rent whatever they can get.  The only permanent death is is when your device (referred to as the “stack”) is destroyed, which can happen in a variety of ways.

The gaming of this system is given to us as the key plot point.  First, we have the client.  A man who, in order to keep his conscience clear of what may be the only crime he thinks he was avoided committing (murder) blows out his own stack, preventing that evening’s download.  When he is re-sleeved from the most recent backup (much like reloading your last saved-game file) everything that happened between the backup and his re-sleeving has been lost.  In terms of videogames, this is one of the most common uses of player death as a tool.  Here as a plot point in a novel, it is a rarity. Essentially it is being used to erase your mistakes and give one a fresh start.

And that may be one of the key differences between death and science-fiction games and death in science fiction novels.  Death in games is rarely permanent (though there are games out there that kill your character permanently), much like reading a Marvel comic. But in science fiction literature, death is an important character motivator, so even in worlds where death is not to be feared, the stakes have to be set high.  There is always a way to die.

Immortality

One of the other key ways death is expressed in both games and literature is the concept of immortality, inability to die what so ever. In games this kind of mechanic is nearly an impossibility. Without the setbacks that going along with the players death (even if it’s not “permadeath”), the game very quickly gets boring. In sandbox games like Minecraft, the player never has to die even if they are playing on creative mode. But in those cases, sooner or later, most players start engaging in risky behavior, they knowingly attract or encourage the presence of monsters for no real reason other than the thrill of escaping them.

Science fictional literature, on the other hand, seems to have no real problem with immortal characters.  They reoccur fairly regularly and often start to exhibit the same characteristics as a bored game player (risky behavior, a lack of care, boredom).  Jack Vance starts this trend back in the 50’s with “To Live Forever”, a novel that points out that being immortal doesn’t keep one from making the same kinds of mistakes and have the same kinds of desires as a mortal.  And while Charles Stross’ “Neptune’s Brood” universe deals with a post-human world, he gives an excellent look into the kinds of mindsets that are possible, and even common, when time-frames stretch into the millennia.

Audience Engagement

We all get attached to our favorite characters, whether they be in literature or in games or television/film.  We are worried when we see our favorites taking on questionable heists, joining a team that wants to blow up the Sun, etc.  We rage when a favorite gets killed off in a series or a show.

Once of the best literary (though not specifically science-fiction) examples of this was the death of Sherlock Holmes, which engendered a public display of mourning and eventually compelled Doyle to bring the character back.  In videogames, we recently had the death of Cade6, one of Destiny/Destiny 2’s main narrative characters, which caused quite a stir (and if you don’t think video-games can cause an emotional reaction the way literature can, I challenge you to play through the Destiny 2 storyline for Cade6 and not come away weeping).

Character Motivation

Death is the oldest backstory fluffer in the book.  Husband, wife, child, lover, beloved pet, the life of a protagonist in both science fiction games and literature almost always involves a dead someone.  Sometimes it is merely an explanation for what drives the character, sometimes it is much more directly plot related.  The characters goal may be taking on risky tasks in exchange for enough money to revive a deceased loved one. So even while our imagined future societies have made death relevant, the ability for death to motivate us does not diminish. It is hardwired in.

Wrap Up

I have to admit, death as a mechanic, either as a tool for the author/narrative designer to drive the story or as a literal game mechanic is not as prevalent as I would expect to see.  The fact remains that death is one of the prime motivators, both of in terms of plot and of player/reader engagement.  It is something that everyone, who consumes narratives in any fashion, is able to relate to on some level.  As such, I feel that cheapening it is a risk.  Turning it into a common game mechanic, rather than something transgressive that players do *outside* the intent of the original game design, removes it’s power as prime motivator.  The same goes for literature.  Once we start seeing “easy” death an rebirth as a casual story mechanic, we lose the ability to add weight to the character’s decisions.

This is not to say that death as a mechanic should not be avoided at *all costs*, but rather it should be a carefully considered choice on the part of the author/designer rather than a commonplace occurrence.

The Road to Get There

Many times a story isn’t so much about what happens at the ending, but rather the journey taken to get there.  In fact the “road trip” movies of the 70’s and 80’s are a genre unto themselves.  Move this genre to science fiction and you have something that remains eminently relate-able to anyone who has ever had to cram five friends into a four-seater and make the run from Tijuana to San Francisco in eight hours OR ELSE*.

Hood cam shot of Musk's Tesla to the Stars
*Your personal road-trip experiences may vary, of course.

Allow me to to step up onto my soapbox for a moment to point out that a win-condition in games is a wildly varied thing.  When you try to describe a sandbox game like Minecraft to someone, one of their first questions is, “Okay, so how do you WIN?” Because everyone *presumes* that game==WINNING.  In the same way that enjoyment of a novel is not really about  the ending (you can have a great book with a perfectly unsatisfying ending and people will still love it) games are much more about the overall experience of play as they are about the win.

In games, the mechanics are the key, making sure that the interaction between player and game is a satisfactory (not even enjoyable, really) experience.  To that end, when we design a science-fictional videogame, the satisfaction of a science fiction audience is what we have in mind.  Not insofar as delivering the perfect fan experience, but rather delivering the same feeling of satisfaction a viewer/reader gets when when the hyperdrive finally kicks in, or when the final puzzle piece of a character’s backstory klunks into place, revealing the plan all along.  Science fiction audiences tend to be a little more patient, a little more drawn into the larger “what if” of a scenario and so those games tend to be a little richer, a littler slower when delivering mechanics to evoke that experience.

The Journey’s the Point

For this weeks article, I’m looking at science -fictional elements in games where the journey itself is the important thing.  In a more traditional media form this shows up in places like television’s Battlestar Galactica , or novels like Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Stephen King’s “The Stand“.  In games, however, journeys tend to appear most often in the independent or “experimental” games categories, often because the overall experience they deliver overrides the game mechanics you might otherwise use to classify the game.

A journey can span neighborhoods or galaxies.

By their very nature, journey stories tend to be lush.  The level of detail in the worlds is heightened, the incidents and activities that the characters engage in are more devoted to character building and growth than plot advancement.  They are more evenly paced and slower overall, allowing for moments of player introspection and world examination that make them perfect for the more existential “what-ifs” of science fiction.  There is often no end-goal in mind other than “arrive at Point B” and as such, the expectations of the audience are different than they might be with an action-narrative or a puzzle.

So with this in mind, I wanted to take a look at how science-fiction shows up in games that follow this more “experimental” format.  Game genres are identified by the primary mechanic the player uses to engage with the game.  We have the “First Person Shooter” or FPS, the “Real Time Strategy” or RTS and so on and so forth.  In a meta-game fashion, you can slot some of these AAA style games into the idea of a journey (Horizon Zero Dawn, after all, is all about Aloy’s journey from outcast savior of the world and there is a lot of road-travel in between those two points). In a real-playable terms fashion, these games often end up in the “experimental” game category, in large part because that’s where players looking for innovative experiences start looking for them.

Experimental Games

Experimental games in general are where a lot of concepts or mechanics can be tried out, especially if they are riskier.  Experimental games promise that, above all else, you’re going to be asked to take a leap of faith, to trust that the designers and engineers are going to deliver you an experience that is worth your time, even if you have never seen the mechanics anywhere else.  It’s a bit like ordering off the “degustation menu” at a high-end restaurant.  You don’t know what you’re going to get up front, but you know it’s going to be very good.

Key Concept: Cantankerous vehicle

“Far: Lone Sails”  is an independent game developed by Okomotive, originally for the PC, but it has since made an appearance on PS4  and is headed to other platforms as well.  The game takes advantage of one of the classic elements of sci-fi travel stories, the vehicle with a personality of it’s own.  Science fiction is full of vehicles that have some level of sentience.  In some cases they are fully aware, whole characters, in others they display moods and opinions through their own form of mechanical pantomime.  Sometimes the protagonist alone drives the impression, treating and speaking to the vehicle like a friend or lover.  But rather than the vehicle serving as a plot device (a-la the Tardis from Dr Who) or a fully realized character (such as The Ship Who Sang) the care, feeding and cajoling of your sail-ship is an integral part of the gameplay mechanics.  Your goal, after all, is to travel the dried-up seabed left after a civilization’s collapse.

Screenshot of your sail-ship in Far: Lone Sails
The care, feeding and maintenance of your ship will carry you through.

By taking this science fictional element and meshing it with a maintenance mechanic, the game has tied your survival, and ultimate success, directly to the ongoing health (and presumably happiness) of your cantankerous machine.

Key Concept: The Migration

The idea of the journey as a means to saving one’s village, or culture or civilization, crops up again and again in science fiction.  It might be a simple annual migration, as we saw in Homeward (Star Trek: TNG) or it might be a larger, more complicated trek and we are seeing just a small piece in a thousand year journey, as reflected in a work like Heinlein’s  “Orphans of the Sky”.  One of the best examples of this kind of story in videogames is Journey.  Very experimental in terms of not only it’s gameplay mechanics but that it was developed by indie studio ThatGameCompany and published by one of the big AAA publishers (Sony).  Much like Ecco the Dolphin did years before, Journey drove home the idea that the experience of playing the game, the journey itself was the best reason to play.

One of the most interesting aspects of this game is that, after a certain point, it becomes a multiplayer experience.   There’s no matchmaking, no signups or character creation tools.  Even more interesting, there is no method of communication, outside of pantomime and the ability to emit a PING.  As you work your way through this alien world, you simply… encounter other players, all traveling the same kind of journey as you, all with similar goals as you.

But, you may find yourself asking, how to you collaborate without words? How do you compete without a way to keep score?

And this, interestingly enough, is one of the key elements what makes the experience of playing Journey so unique.  It’s rather like being a stranded space-farer on an alien planet. You may know what you want, but the outcome when you encounter someone else is entirely dependent on you sharing similar goals.  You can’t make deals, you cannot rely on conversation or cajoling.  You have no common language to speak of. All you can do is PING.  It brings to mind films like The Arrival, where communication is the focus, but is frustratingly elusive.  But, at the end of the day, you all have the same goal, to finish getting from Point A to Point B and without a good reason to get there first (i.e. “winning”) it seems that many strangers are much more willing to work together towards that common goal.

Wrap Up

In purely narrative forms, the elements of the journey are often reflected in the development of the characters themselves, serving as a  way to reinforce and reflect.  For videogames, this often puts these kinds of stories into the Experimental Games category, not because they are less worthwhile than, say a FPS, but rather because when gamers are looking for an experience that is more introspective, that shows them something truly new and weird, that’s where they are going to start looking.

Those that came before

Science fiction is littered, quite literally, with the corpses of long-dead civilizations. Forerunnersprecursorselders, the generic-ness of the names suggests that we can’t ever know the reality of them.  At the same time, we cannot resist the idea of a vastly advanced race that came before us. Adding the relics of a long-ago culture to your science fictional video game gives you the opportunity to add depth and mystery to your world without the expectation that it will be resolved… Ever.

One of the differences between games and literary science fiction is the active presence of the player. In games (much like film or television) every little thing costs. It costs time, sure, but you’ve also got your designer, concept artist, sound engineer, gameplay engineer, texture painter, environment designer all involved trying to bring a story to life. Game players learned a long time ago that anything in a game is there with deliberate purpose.  This is one of the reasons easter-eggs are so precious. They are a deliberate action, a gift, if you will.


Image credit: comicvine.com

This “every polygon has a purpose” mindset means that, like toddlers at the Louvre, game players will poke, prod, shoot, roll over, kick, pray to, finger, collect and carry about in one’s inventory for months in the (possibly vain) hope that an object will reveal its secrets. If, as a game designer, you failed to make it clear to the player that the forerunners are just part of the backstory, they’re going to burn hours on tasks that do nothing to advance the gameplay experience (or, these days, just head to the internet to see about a walkthrough).  As a gameplay concept, this can work well in a sandbox style game, but if it’s something more immediate and mission based (say a FPS), it’s going to be rage-inducing.


Image credit: R. Martone

In fact, where science-fiction videogames are concerned, I would go so far as to say that probably 80% have a forerunner civilization involved somewhere in the narrative. Sometimes you’re simply fighting your way through the ruins of their cities. Sometimes they have left behind a technology that is essential to finishing the game. Sometimes they are the reason given to all the incredible technological advances (like flying cars and full-body regenerations).

This gives us a loose “trope-y” framework on which to classify the presence of forerunner races in videogames.  By and large, you’re going to see them pop up in one of three forms.

Set-dressing.  Things like ruins with mysterious glowing lights or miles of dimly lit metal corridors.  Sometimes even the ground itself is an artifact, like the ring-world in Halo: Combat Evolved (widely considered to be one of the best videogames of its era) and it’s sequels. Under the set-dressing heading, I would include elements like backstory, architecture and non-useable technology.  Essentially, this focuses on elements that are used to deepen the world, but that are not essential or active participants in the playing of the game.

Excuses. Ray-guns the size of a BMW that you can yank out of your hip-pocket? Doomsday weapons that can wipe out all life on the planet? Flying cars (okay, maybe not that one) but any kind of handwave-y improbable technology is often attributed to the existence of a precursor race.  The technology might be useful (even essential) but any hard sci-fi fan is going to peg it as a stretch. This kind of use is different from set-dressing in that it is often integral to the gameplay itself, The players need to interact with and.or use the technology rather than it serving solely as a worldbuilding element.

Game mechanics. These elements are *essential* to the way the game is played.   Sometimes it is a technological tool that allows the player to complete the game, sometimes it is a literal change in the way you think about solving problems.  Players may be asked to memorize musical notation or computer code, they may need to remember that the forerunner race had no single central brain and therefore headshots on the robots they left behind will never succeed.  One way or another the game itself revolves around the player’s ability to understand and problem solve around a race that’s been gone for millennia.

Last time I talked briefly about the Anthem of Creation, a prime example forerunner technology and a core piece of that particular game. This week I want to take a look at Halo: Combat Evolved which showcases two out of the above three themes.  The final theme: Game mechanics, I will cover in the next article in the series.

Now, let’s be clear, Halo is a first person shooter, or FPS. The general perception of these games is that they are light on story and heavy on the “pew-pew-pew”. While may have been accurate in the earliest days of the genre, at the AAA level everything has a story.  How much of that story makes it into the game is up for grabs, but I guarantee you that somewhere in the design chain, somebody has a fully realized narrative that they are developing from. “But why bother writing the story if you’re just going to shoot everything anyway?” you may ask.  The reason is simple enough. Games (almost every game, but there are always exceptions) are the product of multiple people. That means different experiences, different ideas and different styles. At the AAA level it can be tricky to streamline communication and production under a single visionary.  So the story, the high-concept of the game is laid out. If a decision needs to be made on something small, or something that has to happen rapidly, it can be checked versus the story and the existing design to see if it will fit.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Dyson ring)

In the case of the first Halo game, we are delivered onto a larger-than-planet-sized Set Dressing referred to as the Halo ring. It is an artificial ring-shaped world built for an unknown purpose by a long vanished race. It is, essentially, variation on the Dyson sphere. A ring-shaped artificial habitat surrounding a power-source (like a star).  But, in the case of Halo: Combat Evolved, we are not here to examine the structure. We’re not here to figure any of this sh*t out. We are a super-soldier in an exo-suit being guided by an AI that’s a h*ll of a lot smarter than we are. It is merely the closest place for us to crash a broken spaceship. And so we do, quite spectacularly.

Of course, since we are in the middle of a combat scenario, and the guys who punched a hole in our ship are coming to finish the job, it is up to the Master Chief (our player avatar) to clear a path to what’s left of the command section of the ship.  Bring on the pew-pew-pew!

But about halfway through the game, the Halo ring (which is one of seven that form the Halo Array doomsday device) goes from being Set Dressing to an Excuse.  The ring itself is a tool, much like the Anthem of Creation from last month’s article, and direct intervention with this tool is key to the winning of the game.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Doomsday Weapon)

As we power through the narrative via a now standard set of shooter game mechanics, more of the world gets revealed to us and we come in contact with the immortal maintainers of the Halo ring. These are not precursors or forerunners themselves, but rather they are stewards and as such form another piece of the overall gameplay puzzle.  The ring is being overrun by a parasitic organism called The Flood. The stewards are responsible for keeping the infection under control. The arrival of the survivors of the crash and the enemies that are hunting them has provided a fresh new source of hosts for the Flood and, of course, the clock begins to count down. You (as the Master Chief) and your smarter half (Cortana, the AI) are engaged to help activate the Halo ring, which will eliminate the Flood and save the day.

So, through the discovery of these stewards and the reveal of the ring as more than just a big, dumb, object, the forerunner technology takes a step forward from Set Dressing to Excuse.

Why Excuse rather than Game Mechanic? Because you, as the player, still don’t get to work with any of this technology. It doesn’t require you change the way you think or the way you play. You don’t get bigger, fancier shields or bigger, better guns. You now have robot friends with improbable beam weapons and have been told of some kind of super weapon you can use to save the day, but you don’t really get to use much of anything the elder civilization left behind. As a gameplay element the precursors and their technology are still just a way to explain not only the structure of the ring world but the presence of the new bad guys (the Flood),  the robot friends and their beam weapons and ultimately a doomsday weapon that only a human can fire.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Busted by humans)

In Halo: Combat Evolved, we never get to the point where the forerunner/precursor technology is a central to the gameplay mechanics themselves. In games that is a much more rarified event.  Here are the technology serves as a threat, it serves as a location and only very occasionally serves as a tool. In fact the climactic moment of the game involves, not the use of the advanced race’s technology to win the day, but instead the oldest trick in the book.  Blowing up the remains of your crashed ship. This cracks the ring world and defeats the forerunner/elder civilization technology without the player ever really engaging with it in a meaningful fashion.

THE WRAP UP

So while Halo: Combat Evolved does a reasonable job of using the science fiction concept of an elder civilization as an underpinning for the game, it never makes the final jump to having that experience being a more intimate part of the game experience.  That is reserved for other AAA titles on the market.  However, within the greater context of Halo’s climactic moment, this makes perfect sense.  After all, it is by reverting to the technology that the main character (and through them the player) has at hand that the the day is saved.  The story of Halo at the end of the day, is that humanity’s current state, their will to survive, trumps the rationale put forth by their ancient ancestors.