Death from Neil Gaiman's Sandman series of graphic novels.
A common whipping boy theme in the media regarding games is that they are violent. Why must they always involve killing, ask the exasperated. Why can’t games be nice? Games certainly can be nice, but take a step back from the visceral element of the violence question and what they’re really asking is: Why must games be based around death?
The reason is that death produces focus and causes change. Without death (whether symbolically or actually) a game has no purpose, no reason to pick up the gun and no sense of motion. Without death there are no wins. There is only activity.
It may be as visceral as a bloody spatter, as ordinary as a rotting crop or as abstract as a penalty shootout, but death is everywhere in games. Death frames a game. Artistically as well as functionally, death is right at the heart of what games are.
The Focus of Death
Death, according to the Buddha Gautama, is the only true certainty in life. It is the great leveller when set against all other concerns. Everything pales in the face of the realisation that you will die, and hardcore Buddhists (and Steve Jobs apparently) contemplate their deaths in order to see life for what it really is.
The understanding that you might die lenses your focus and brings you into the present. While in our day to day lives that sense of focus comes and goes because reality is complicated, in a game it is much more present. Games are simpler, fairer and more empowering than real life, which by definition implies that the levers of success or failure are considerably easier to understand.
Fail to shoot an enemy and you will die. Make a misstep in a platform level and you will die. Send the wrong troops to face down an enemy and they will die. Fail to turn up on time to harvest your crops and they will die. These problems are binary, much easier than life, and so more focused. The consequences are clear, as are the wins, and so we succeed.
So a significant part of why we get into the zone when playing a game is that life has become clearer. We are entranced by the scenario as we perceive it, wrapped up in the task at hand and utterly aware of our own game existence in a way that we rarely get to experience in life. In a sense this is why games are so compelling: Aware of our deaths, we get to experience our own little garden of Zen.
Death as Karma
In the Tarot, the Death card is often interpreted to mean a sense of winter and spring, or the clearing of the old to make way for the new. Death implies change and cycles of rebirth. Death creates space into which new things can spring forth. The scenario can change and new permutations can arise. In modern business jargon, this is called creative destruction. In game design it’s called winning.
A win is the successful completion of an action, loop, game dynamic, task or whole segment of a game. It is defined by the achievement or victory of overcoming, but also carries with it the unmistakeable sense of change. The storysense relies upon a world in motion and without it, all you have is a static simulation.
So what about failure? The really interesting thing about games is that they offer the chance to try again, to fail and succeed all over. You can save your game, challenge your opponent to a rematch, return to the spawn point, deal a new hand or whatever. You can try again. Game worlds are like little karmic wheels. There are many opportunities for reincarnation, and depending on the game sometimes that reincarnation brings you back in a better or worse position than before.
And this leads to a very interesting sensation (picked up on by John Walker on RPS): that life is cheap. Perhaps the real reason why those who worry about violence in games, the desensitisation of spectacle and the ordinariness of the horrible is because ultimately they sense that the game is implying that life is dispensable. This runs counter to what the arts usually tell us. They usually imply that life is special and capture the individual moments of that specialty.
However games depict change, not stasis, and a key part of understanding change is the perception that in some ways, yes, life is indeed cheap. It is an inescapable facet of existence that we see death all around us every day, and since art is a mirror that reflects existence, death tends to be a game’s inner subject. As love is essentially the inner subject of all songs, and the quest is the inner subject of all stories, so death is the inner subject of all games.
Do Not Fear Death
Developers often tell me that their content strategy is to remove any sense of failure. They have an idealised view of the player as someone who does not like to experience negativity, only reward, and so they are striving to create engagement engines that will reward players with levels and points forever. The game will simply have a great deal of activity within it, but no sense of loss.
And what I often tell them is that that is a mistake.
Imagine a version of Angry Birds where you have infinite shots, and therefore you will complete every level to 3 stars. Imagine a farming game where crops never die and there are no Energy costs. Imagine, as John does, the prospect of playing an immortal character. These are all non-failure scenarios. And you know what? They’re boring. Not just from a fun perspective either. Artistically, experientially and thaumatically they are jejune.
It’s nothing to do with theme, subject, platform or gender. A game with no negative consequence (i.e. no death) is also a game that cannot meaningfully change. Its storysense is empty and the whole thing feels easy. It’s not just that winning needs the sensation of losing to counterbalance it. It’s that the situation of the game itself is without purpose.
So bring death into your game if it is not there. Challenge your players. Give them something to live for and some ways to die. Let them feel that Zen, and make a world for them that lets them sense motion, reincarnation and change.
It’s what they have shown up for.