Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Death and Games as Art

I realized how poorly death is dealt with in games.

I've just had the most depressing gaming experience in my life. I've been playing Fallout New: Vegas. Early in the game you can talk townsfolk into fending off a gang of bandits. Because it's early in the game, you haven't built your character up very high and you are lacking money and equipment. Unless you have the perfect character build and even if you kill all the bandits and survive, a bunch of the villagers die. Including several main NPCs which I personally had became fond of. Normally this wouldn't be too big of a deal. It’s a game. It’s a bunch of digital puppets. It’s not real. But the AI doesn't deal with the aftermath, no one comes to mourn or bury the dead.

I didn’t want to leave the bodies all over the street, especially because I would likely be visiting the town again. So I moved all the bodies. Probably a dozen or so. I dragged them out of town and "buried" them with crates and barrels. I realized that this was similar to what it would actually be like to drag away your friends and family to be buried after a violence incident. You couldn’t just leave dead bodies all over the streets. No one would do that. In reality, you’d have to move them and arrange funerals. And if that wasn’t an option, if you were very poor, you’d likely be burying them yourself. Burying these digital puppets was starting to feel a little too real.

In fact, it was incredibly depressing.

I’m not saying every game should try to run players through an emotional wringer. But, no one has even tried, unless you count Modern Warfare 2’s notorious “No Russian” mission. But that’s a blip. In all the death an destruction wrought in games, that is the best (worst?) developers can do? This is a big missed opportunity and a massive hole in the argument for “games as art.” The developers of the Fallout series had an opportunity to make a statement about life and death. It wouldn’t have to be over the top and melodramatic, it could have simply been friends crying and behaviours built in to mourn and bury the dead. They blew it.

It’s all fine and good to be a hero. And hell, it’s even fun in games. But in reality, playing a hero, doing the right thing or even the necessary thing, when violence is a likely outcome, can have awful consequences. There is mourning, there are emotional breakdowns, there are people scarred for life and there are faces you will never see again. Except when you are carrying them away to be buried. And unlike a game, you don’t get to just shut it off and walk away.

Games have a lot of growing up to do.

1 comment:

  1. You make a good point; when I think of Half-Life 1, and DooM 3, games in which the prime emotional engagement is, for historical reasons, paranoia it was an interesting experience for me to see the edges of my habitual liberal tendencies fall apart (HL the soldiers were killing the scientists). In short, such games can act as mirrors; in my case I saw my shadow.

    Id's stereotypical deathmatch style isn't the only way people play. Now and then I used to find people subverting the rule of frag or be fragged (one guy making light-castles from trip-mines! People who wanted to role-play etc).

    Warren Spector famously called games a liminal space. Deus Ex was supposed to expand the possibilities.

    Doing the right thing by our fallen AI buddies, is one thing. But the idea of re-creating the midwinter Stonehenge festival of the dead (see Pearson Parker) could be seen as going too far

    I mean who knows, perhaps I should give it a go!

    Ever play The Path?
    Not exactly what you are talking about, but death is in there -or rather thanatos.