Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
November 2009

Play and Let Die

Death in video games is something that most people playing them probably think about in too much depth. Death, in games as much as in reality, is just a fact of life. Even if the most child friendly of franchises, chances are you're going to off someone eventually. Sure, the goomba walking your way may be little more then a mushroom with feet, but in the world of the game it's still alive and when Mario squishes it, it's just as dead as the terrorist you just shot in Call of Duty. Death has such a universal presence that for the most part it's something that we take for granted. Most people probably don't give a second thought about the virtual grunt they just splattered. For that matter, in the realm of video games most probably don't think much about their own lives either. First-person shooters have checkpoints. Role-playing games have save points, and in strategy games your soldiers exist for the sole purpose of being sacrificed for victory. Resurrection is rarely more than a button push away, in turn making death almost redundant; no more than a frustration at best.

The black and white nature of most games doesn't help matters very much. Most games exist in that wonderful land of the 1980s action film, where you're unquestionably good -- and muscled -- and your foes are undeniably bad. When you're facing that kind of scum, why should you care about killing them? Chances are they deserve it. Some games however, play with the idea of morality as something more gray. Shadow of the Colossus for instance, essentially puts you in the shoes of the villain. You wouldn't think it at first. After all your quest has all the trappings of a typical fantasy. You're out to slay a bunch of gigantic monsters and in turn revive the love of your life. That said, as the game goes on, it becomes clear that your foes -- despite being massive, imposing and yes, dangerous when pushed -- aren't really all that monstrous. Few of them are overtly aggressive; for the most part only attack you in self-defense after you've attacked them first. These creatures weren't doing anything wrong, they were just trying to exist; and while your character's motivations are certainly understandable, it makes his actions no less wrong.

Similarly, in Bioware's recent RPG, Dragon Age: Origins you are often forced to make decisions where none of the choices are overtly good. Most games, fantasy RPGs especially, generally run on the assumption that you are the good guy and that your actions will serve to right the wrongs of the world. In Dragon Age no such assumptions are made, you aren't the good guy but rather just one player in a world where many different parties are vying for power and control. Often you don't get a choice between good and evil but rather just different degrees of evil. Having that basic foundation of good removed makes all your actions much more poignant. In killing one person you might be saving another, but who's to say that your enemy was really all that bad?

Outside of just making morality more complex, other games have managed to make death more then just a prelude to a game over. The Fire Emblem games, for instance, are a franchise whose defining mechanic is its treatment of death. In most strategy RPGs, if one of your character is killed, all it takes is a spell or healing item to give them a new lease on life. In Fire Emblem, death is permanent. If one of your characters is killed they're gone for good. The only way to get them back is to reset the game and start the level over which can often means giving up hours of progress. And you'll find yourself in these situations a lot. The enemy in Fire Emblem pulls no punches, pursuing your most vulnerable units with almost mad fervor. Unless you're an insane perfectionist, chances are you're going to lose some people before the game ends.

This wouldn't be so bad if the game's treatment of death were just limited to matters of strategy. Each soldier in your army is a full-fledged character with a background, hopes and dreams. If you put in the time, your soldiers in Fire Emblem can even bond with each other on a personal level, forging friendships and romances that can even result in marriages and children. The knowledge of what you're taking from them, even though they're not real, can make letting them die incredibly hard. Many dislike the Fire Emblem games because of their take on death. It does make the games really hard, but at the same time it makes them better. In Fire Emblem, battles aren't just a matter of winning, they're a matter of life and death.

As video games become more advanced, the spectrum of experiences that gamers can take part in grow. The most ambitious of games have tried to simulate things like fear, sadness, love and yes, death. For some games this means transforming the assumptions we make about video games and for others this just means giving the player a real sense of mortality to deal with. Either way, one can only hope that the future will see developers experimenting more with the way they bring us to our end.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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