Death is a ubiquitous gameplay device. The conceptual “death” of the player requires a certain amount of the player’s understanding that the gameplay falls in line with a narrative (no matter how large or small in scope). From the first explosion of a Space Invader’s ship, the player understands that this event signifies a failure in terms of gameplay marked by death in terms of the narrative scenario.
Traditionally, gamers are forced to understand this gap in by separating the videogame experience into the categories of gameplay and narrative. In order to reconcile this gap, players have attempted to create their own rules for game in order to increase immersion in both the realm of gameplay and narrative, especially through the rise in the “permadeath run.” But as narrative has become an increasingly important part of the videogame experience, mitigating this dissonance between the player’s death and the game’s narrative has increasingly become fundamental in the developers duties to create a cohesive game universe.
Through an analysis of typical videogame mechanics and game narrative methods, I hope to help reveal what it means to us when we “die” in a game, as well as offering a suggestion in how death can be reinterpreted in order to create a better overall narrative experience in gaming.
How do we interpret resurrection?
When one “dies” in a game, the player is forced to understand this event separately from his or her investment in the fiction. Analyzing the experience along a purely “game” dimension, the player interprets his or her death as having failed within the rules of the game. When the player is allowed to reattempt the game, he or she understands that it is important to reinterpret the gameplay space in order to result in winning the challenge that has been created by the developer.
However, when death is interpreted within the narrative field, the player often must leave the universe of the narrative in order to understand his or her sudden “resurrection.” In order to understand his or her death, the player must put her involvement in the narrative on hold and understand the death and subsequent resurrection purely as a function of gameplay. When the player is forced to interpret his death solely along the “gameplay” dimension, a certain level in the narrative’s immersion is inevitably lost, for the player is forced to parse out the videogame’s experience into its separate parts.
What can be done?
In order for a game to better integrate gameplay mechanics with narrative, the narrative must include causal explanations for its gameplay mechanics. Bioshock’s vitachamber mechanic is a perfect example of this type of narrative device. When the player dies in Bioshock, he is able to interpret this within the context of the narrative—it is possible for the player’s (temporary) death and resurrection to exist within a consistent universe. Another game that does this well is the Grand Theft Auto series—when the player dies or is arrested, the gameplay transitions to a hospital or police station, from which the player has been recently released.
While the former example has arguably adheres to narrative at the expense of gameplay quality—many believe that the lack of a gameplay consequence to death hurts the Bioshock experience—the latter has created punishment mechanisms for the player’s death. The mission must be reattempted, the players funds have been diminished, and (if arrested) the player’s weapons have been removed. The reason or possibility of resurrection need not be plausible within the real world—a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is in order. However, the useful aspect of this solution is that the level dissonance between the player’s death and the game’s narrative is reduced. The player does not need to mentally separate the moments when the videogame is being “a game” and when it’s being “a story.”
I propose that the age of “unexplained resurrection,” must come to a end, at least if the developer hopes to form a cohesive game-world that is interlinked with its narrative elements. This imperative is not meant to apply to all videogames—different games have different goals. Some games are meant to be more “gamey”, while others are meant to be strong narrative experiences—and it is in this latter category which the developer must strongly consider the importance of integrating gameplay mechanisms with narrative structure, especially with respect to death as a gameplay mechanic.