So, what started as an experiment by Ben over at Sometimes Life Requires Consequence is starting to pick up steam. It's been tagged a couple times now at Game Set Watch and Kieron Gillen over at Rock Paper Shotgun blasted some buckshot his way in today's Sunday Papers. Already at least a couple other players have taken up the 'challenge' and are trying the same thing. In at least one case, some form of tragedy has ensued (and in some ways the nature of that tragedy is the subject of this post.)
Not to steal Ben's thunder, but here's some history on how these 'permadeath' playthroughs began.
Last month, Manveer and I got into a debate about how to design more meanginful and emotionally engaging games. On one branch of that discussion, Manveer had suggested designing a game to make certain decisions irreversible. I was opposing that approach on the grounds that it was relying on what I feel are narrative tools (in particular irreversibility and inevitability).
I was suggesting that - while we could of course make games more emotionally engaging using narrative tools, I feel we ought to be pursuing (possibly exclusively but at least primarily) the application of ludic tools to this same end. My reasoning is that by leveraging narrative tools the most engaging emotional moments we will create are equivalent to those of narrative media (like film or literature) - whereas by leveraging ludic tools, we can discover something new which is potentially more powerful, more deeply affecting, and more honestly and powerfully about the human condition.
On a lark, Ben (who I currently rank as the #2 all-time Far Cry 2 fan - but watch out Chris, he's catching up quick) took the abstract discussion and literalized it in most spectacular fashion. He is now playing Far Cry 2 under self-imposed 'permadeath'. No reloading allowed - a la oldskool Iron Man Modes of play - with the ultimate consequence being that if he dies, that's it: game over. He will wipe his save game and that's the end of that.
Needless to say - this has the effect of making every decision he makes 'irreversible'. It means that if he decides to keep a buddy - say Frank Bilders - on stand-by to rescue him if he gets overwhealmed in battle, then Frank may well be mortally wounded during any rescue attempt.
With Frank lying on the ground, shaking from a sucking chest wound as his blood seeps into rusty African soil, Ben will pick up his friend and cradle him in his arms... and then what will he do? Frank will ask Ben to inject him with a syrette. The angry shouts of APR reinforcements will be cutting through the jungle canopy getting louder... closer. And when Ben gives him an injection and Frank asks for another... and another... what will happen? Will Ben use his last syrettes to euthanize Frank? Will he save his valuable syrettes and use a bullet instead? Will he abandon Frank to whatever grim fate awaits him if the APR finds him lying helpless in the grass?
The decisions that Ben will make in these moments will be real decisions. It will be just like life, and from it, Ben will feel something real.
Or will he?
Something is very ironic about all of this....
In fact, the design of Far Cry 2 already innately supports the emotional dilemmas described above. We made it that way on purpose - it was the entire point of the Buddy system - to design an 'out of frying pan, into the fire' system where the player would be baited further and further down a losing path until he ultimately would occasionally be required to make a choice between giving up a limited though not overly rare 'resource' (a buddy) in exchange for not having to reload and redo a lengthy section of the game. Then the limited resource would be 'disguised' as a real human character and the decision of the player to abandon (or 'deny') the resource would be dressed up in classic filmic costume of 'loyal ally dies in your arms'.
Players would cry.
The existing design of the Buddy system in Far Cry 2 in some sense is a (soft) solution to Manveer's call for a design that makes certain decisions permanent and allows players to feel 'real' emotional consequence. Yet at the same time, this focus on designing meaning that arises from narrative-like structures is something I am now opposing. Why? Well, in the end, I think that even if we made a hundredfold improvement in the design and realization of the buddy system in Far Cry 2, the very best we could ever achieve in terms of making players feel the death of a buddy in a real and honest way would be equivalent to what they felt when Wade died in Saving Private Ryan.
It's worth noting that even reading a detached description of the plot points of the film that detail what happened to Wade is more moving than having a buddy die in your arms in Far Cry 2, so we have a lot of room for improvement and maybe going down that path is a good idea.
But I am conceptually opposed to going too far down this path of using narrative techniques - not because we can't make our games much more emotionally engaging than they are currently - but because we already know the limits of this approach. By mastering these narrative techniques and wedding them to our designs (as we did with the Buddy System in Far Cry 2 - but better) we can arrive at Saving Private Ryan. What that means is that 10 or 20 or 50 years from now, we will deliver a brand new entertainment medium that is as powerful and moving as one we already have. That's great, I guess. But if I am going to dedicated my life this, I want to end up with something that is more, something that is better than what we have now. (There is another branch to this argument which has to do with the potential real-world irreversibility of going down this path, which is basically what happened to the comics industry, but that's a different debate that I am not going to go here.)
All that said - there is something much more important happening with Ben's 'permadeath' experiment. There is something happening at a higher level that is more than just him embracing a narrative constraint to make his playthrough more emotionally moving.
There is at least one more level of irony here that goes to the core of the future I am looking for.
Ultimately, when I reject narrative techniques in favor of ludic ones, what I am really saying is that I reject traditional authorship. I reject the notion that what I think you will find emotionally engaging and compelling - and then build and deliver to you to consume - is innately superior to what you think is emotionally compelling. By extension, I reject the idea that I can make you feel the loss of a friend in a more compelling way by authoring an irreversible system than you could make yourself feel by playing with a system wherein a friend can be both dead and alive simultaneously and wherein his very existence can be in flux based on your playful whim.
What I am saying at a higher level of abstraction is that meaning does not come from playing a game... it comes from playing WITH a game. It is the manipulation not only of the actors in the game that is meaningful, but the manipulation of the game itself. This discussion is not about how to make a game more meaningful. It is about how games mean.
The irony then is this:
The reason I think people are paying attention to what Ben is doing is not because he is having a more emotionally engaging narrative experience. It is not because he is playing the game in a more serious way in order to experience more serious emotions.
It's not that people suddenly want to know what will happen within the fiction of the game - I'll tell you what will happen - the third time any Buddy is downed in combat he will not be able to be revived and the player will be systemically forced to choose between shooting the buddy (he will be automatically given a pistol to enable this decision if he does not already have one), euthanizing the buddy with syrettes (it takes three and he may not have enough, potentially elminating this decision possibility), abandoning the Buddy (which means he will not die and will show up in the end to get his revenge), or reloading the game (which Ben has self-denied).
The reason I think people are paying attention is because Ben is playing with the game. He is manipulating the game itself. He is playing with the magic circle. He is looking at all sides of it like a Rubik's Cube and even taking the cube apart in order to see how it is built and what are its underlying immutable rules. It is here that people start to pay attention. It is here that Ben is being moved by his experience. It is here that others, too, care about what happens... not to Frank, but to Ben, and to the game itself. They care about what can happen to Frank. The are invested in the expressive possibility space enabled by the game. They care about the real immutable limits of the question and about the limits arbitrarily imposed by the save game system, and by Ben's willful rejigging of the magic circle to exclude it. They care, now, about the Ben/Frank/Far Cry 2 system which is something real. They don't care about whether Frank Bilder's lives or dies... because that is an illusion and they know it.
Effectively, by attempting to experience the meaning that arises from adding irreversibility to Far Cry 2 and taking away one of the things he was allowed to play with, Ben is playing with the game more, not less. It is not the combination of Far Cry 2 + authored narrative irreversibility that is making the permadeath experiment meaningful to Ben and to others, it is the the fact that he is able to manipulte the game to create this experiment that is bringing meaning.
My belief is that it is this manipulation of a game's systems that allows us to understand and feel what a game means... not a better implementation and realization of its embedded authored narratives. My fear is that it has taken us too long to figure this out; that those on the authored narrative side have already won... that the next Call of Duty will make me cry when Wade dies in my arms, and it will make you cry when he dies in your arms, and it will make everyone cry when he dies in their arms in exactly the same irreversible, inevitable way it has happened since Achilles irreversibly, inevitably died.
And we will love it.
And we'll stop asking what could have been.
(and I'll go work in film....)