So you want permadeath in your game, hm? OK, try this one on for size:
Not only is the Granny’s death permanent, but it’s so hardcore that you have to buy the game to get the ability for her to die. The demo just lets her linger on, alive as can be.
Or, you could always play Passage, another game where the hero will die, and his wife will die before him.
Or, if your tastes run to the Goth “life is terrible, kill me now” end of the spectrum, you could always try this little beastie that’s been making the rounds:
That one is disturbing, actually. Your goal is to kill your characters. In fact, if you do what you’re told and just go to Granny’s house, you are told in no unclear terms that you failed. I guess it’s better than slitting your own wrists, but it’s certainly a new spin on the whole “The Evil We Pretend To Do” article. It’s also interesting to me that game mechanics (“you failed!” and putting almost all of the dev work into the disobedient paths) can be used to make people try to kill these characters in rather horrible ways. It is designed to make the player do very bad things, and to mess with your head. (If this is what it is to be a Goth, I’ll pass, thanks.)
Call it a funhouse mirror or a “look into the Abyss” moment (which can have value, but only as warnings to illustrate what not to do), but this is exactly the sort of game that gives the industry a bad reputation. (And movies that do the same thing, and books and so on; it’s not just games.)
Perhaps The Path is a deconstruction of the notion that games always let gamers be the hero, perhaps it’s a study on motivations, perhaps it’s a reminder that fairy tales in their original form were far from family friendly, I don’t know. I do give it one thing, though: The Path makes death more than just “killing monsters”, more than just a reason to restart at a checkpoint. It does something to those who play it, by design. Death matters, in all of its terrible implications and unfortunate connotations. Making players be the instrument of that death (and events preceding it) illustrates the power of games as a medium.
I do think that power is abused in The Path. Thankfully, Passage invites a more nuanced, less bleak set of musing on death. I suspect that The Graveyard is similarly low-key.
Still, when MMO devs or “armchair designers” talk about using permadeath to make their world more interesting, or making players “respect the world”… I suspect that the nuances of death that this trio of games dig into are somewhat removed from what is being proposed. While I have no use for The Path and the treatment of death in Passage (and maybe The Graveyard) is far too subtle for use in a sledgehammer MMO world (at least as a major mechanic), I think that far too often, the implications of “permadeath” in design lean too strongly in the direction of mechanics and trying to punish the player (to make victory sweeter or maybe just make people play more) rather than really trying to understand death itself.
I’ll turn it around, then. Game designers, respect death more than you do, even those of you who call for permadeath in your games. It’s not merely a punishment mechanic, it’s not something to toy with in an attempt to appear “dark and romantic”, it’s not Ozzy Osbourne killing chickens and rocking out with the Undead. Caricaturing death does have value on occasion, but if games are to be more than vapid consumer fluff, a nuanced understanding of the implications of death will be part of it, and that will go far beyond the “wicked cool” heavy metal and demonic iconography, far beyond pithy murder and genocide simulators.
Side note: This was written not only because of my allergic reaction to the very idea of The Path, but because some friends and family have lost loved ones lately. Death matters. Satirizing it and trivializing it can be a coping mechanism, but I do think that the sensitivity lost to gaming (what with all of the virtual bloodletting and dark themes glorifying negativity) is something precious that we give up too lightly. Life isn’t all rainbows and marshmallow-pooping unicorns, but neither is it a bleak emoGoth BioShocked Fallout-radiated wasteland. You don’t need to lose a foot in a bear trap to be grateful for being able to walk, and you don’t need to induge in a stream of darkness to appreciate the light. Put a bit religiously, you don’t have to be the Prodigal Son to turn your eye to the good things in life. Maybe I think too much about this sort of thing, but in an industry of vapid counterculture deconstructionist thought, it’s hard for me not to take a stand against what I consider to be troubling, and deleterious to the medium.
Oh, and get off my porch.