Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Vive la mort !

In this article, lead designer David Calvo muses that death doesn't have to be an ending or punishment, but could be a goal or another realm of play.
Please note: The original article was written in French and this is an English translation.

Try to remember the first time you died, in game. Seize the moment when you tasted eternity through pixel initiation: patience, growth, decay, life, death, ancient simulation of a long gone mystery, antique rhythm muffled by centuries of social sedimentation.


In 2005, I created a group in Second Life (don't laugh - though not a game, I went there like a whore would have gone to Lucasfilm's Habitat) called Postmodern Cadavers, an hysterical attempt at finding organic life in a virtual landscape. The sight of decaying pixels was exciting – its foam of rez, stratas of bugs and of scintillating aliasing. Strangely, there, death looked more virtual than sex - sex, and its semen particles, visual patchwork of sad flesh, heaps of corpses and vertices. I committed suicide twice in SL, beyond the scope of traditional torture fun: the first time, in front of my friends, I jumped from the top of a statue of Cthulhu and disconnected in mid-fall. Then I deleted the account. The second time is when I went back to SL to check whether my first suicide had really hurt me or whether my game-playing soul had simply tricked me (ah!). I ended up locked inside a Nuremberg Mistress [a torture device] forever.


Impossible subject: the death in game, the perfect trap to bury any mildly adventurous game designer - digging my own grave there, that's the point. Current patterns: old school “game over” screen; restart at last checkpoint; unavailability of dead characters during battles; reincarnation through perpetual vessels, after a good jog around creepy graphical shaders; instant or delayed respawn on the battlefield, armed to the teeth in a few seconds of keyboard gymnastic; the florescence of hardcore modes; the meta tools, lives, credits, continues, saves... Is Saving the illusion of death? An extra-diegetic reminder of the unbreakable wall between information and life?


Prince of Persia is a game where you never fall. But, were you to die, the effect on the game would be the same – to respawn at the previous step. What is the moral utility of a rescue as opposed to crushed bones? What about Permadeath, all those hardcore modes where days, weeks, months of experience are reduced to ashes? Boring paradigm: Death as punishment for failure? Or Death as the beginning of a new perception - seeing birds as alien constructs, like the clouds seen by the first man coming out of the first cave, looking at the sky for the first time. And down there in the dark valley, what he called the underworld: strange sounds, lost territories, eternal mysteries. Death and beyond.


LucasArts games have not taught us how to die. They have taught us to love the persistence of unquantified experience. Guybrush Threepwood dies only once, drowned. The rest is just a subtle dosing between the frustration of being alive and the inability of solving a riddle: life itself. Dying in Bioshock is sometimes advantageous, to spare ammo: you keep coming back from the pod to whack Ayn Rand's face with a crowbar. Planescape Torment gave us the arguments to understand that death and rebirth can be the key to good personality optimization and to emotional strength. Death in Mirror's Edge brings us back to these dreams where we fall and wake up just before hitting the ground - if we hit the ground in a game, should we fear for our real life ?


The goal – to reinvent death in Western media, for the Western society, seized by comfort and religion. To reinstate the need for death not as a punishment - because we can punish anytime, with anything, because our lives are concerned with failures other than death - but as a basic tool to make the pixels come alive. Why not finishing a game to actually --- die (i.e. Passage, or The Graveyard)? The shroud of death is the veil of virtual life. Not death itself, but the passing to the other side, like the narrow bridge crossed by the initiates of Eleusis, the first life-size video game, inspiring thousands to the greatness of growth and decay.


In the famous French tabletop RPG Reves de dragon, life is a dream inside the head of a sleeping dragon. Characters can access this median world, near the consciousness of the dragon, and, by doing deeds there, can influence the world in real time. Can we experience death as part of a virtual quest? Another, hypodiegetic, realm, bound by its own rules, shutting us out of the experience of the sun, but giving us shadow plays. Death as a kingdom, death as Powerplay beyond level 80, Death without return.

Let's stay there for a while. Enjoy some of these mushrooms from the banks of the Acheron.

David Calvo is a game designer, writer and cartoonist. He’s currently Creative Director of Ankama Play , and is Lead and Narrative Designer on Islands of Wakfu, due for the Xbla in 2009. He’s part of the collective Univac 1951 and draws daily on Beulah. He can be find on Twitter as Metagaming.


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