Monday, February 4, 2019

Death Makes It Better

It continues to worry me that role-players habitually make arguments that hinge on the idea of, “What’s good for the company is good for me.” You know, don’t you? The company would sell you for dog food if it made them a buck.

On another subject, Charles A made a very good point about player death:
“Over time, (computer) game designers have realized *players don’t like to lose* … Games now auto-save regularly. Difficulties are set so the average casual player will die seldom, and when they do, they lose very little progress.”

Succinct. Role-players want save points, so if they do get killed by the big dumb monster, they can punch a button on the ol’ DM and jump back in time. Got it.

I spend 8 to 10 hours a week on video games, borrowed or old games I still play. I enjoy anything logistical. I dislike hearing the mainstream media crap on video games and the time people spend on them, as no one seems to have any trouble with how much time is spent watching sports or reality television – probably because the media has money invested in those time-wasters. I don’t see that it makes any difference if I want to rest and watch Bill Maher drag on another republican in an effort to make these droids appear human, or if I listen to him do so while I squeeze another desk into the training room of my Two-Point Hospital. Rest, down-time, taking part in an activity while experiencing a few hours of flow is legitimate however that time is spent.

But while video games are engaging, I rarely get excited. I usually put them down when I start to feel what Yahtzee coined in one of his old vids about Sims 3.
“On the surface you seem to have complete control over their lives … but beneath the surface your power over these tiny lives is ultimately negligible. Assuming you’re not a bitter anti-social dickhead, etcetera, and you’re playing properly, your role is to keep the Sims happy. They’ve got various stats on display and as soon as one goes in the red you make them do a wee or eat leftover pancakes or whatever. And assuming they’ve got a job you’ll have just enough time in the day to get every stat in the green before they leave. You fall into a routine and it gets harder and harder to break out. Days go by, all interchangeable, even the house parties of the weekend start to feel hollow and token. Sooner or later a big fat realization drops onto your head and smothers your face in its blubbery rolls. Here you are, recreating the same work-sleep routine you’re supposed to be using your free time to get away from. Looking forward to simulated weekends even as your own drift by unfulfilled. You see what this is? You are not the ruler of your Sims. You are the one rushing to meet their every whim. You are the slave. You are the real play thing.”

Whether or not we’re aware, that is fundamentally true of every video game, and indeed of every game once we assign ourselves to following rules-as-written in any structure we don’t personally have control over. It can be relaxing to hand over control to something else, to let the game decide we’re going to run for hours through the halls of a castle, slaughtering skeletons and avoiding ginormous things we’ll call “Gerald” because it feels warm and funny.

Meet Gerald

But make no mistake. It’s not “creative.” It’s dopamine, it’s occasionally some endorphins when your wrists hurt, there’s some serotonin thrown in when you gain bragging rights (and particularly as you make your own let’s play videos) … and those things can sustain your interest for a long time. And if they can’t, someone out there is creating another dop-end-ser combination designed to serve you up some sweet, sweet chemicals. But like Yahtzee says … you’re the one simulating your weekends. You’re the rat in the cage. You’re not adding anything to your existence. You’re running and some very, very smart people are watching the way you run in the maze and setting out to take the money out of your pocket in exchange for more amazing and more interesting mazes for you to run in.

What does any of this have to do with player death? Arguably, I’m making a case in support of Charles A’s point. If we don’t follow the rules, if we fudge the dice, if we discount the death by dragon breath and roll back the campaign to the last save point … "Okay, Yuers and Skiff died that time. It’s two days ago and you’re all back at the tavern again. And again the young cleric with the book telling about the dragon is approaching you. He puts down the book and he says, ‘The townspeople are scared of Milligan’s Rift; but you folk look to be afraid of nothing.’ "

Surely, that means we’re in charge. We can walk away and not face the dragon again, if we don’t want to. Right?

I can see some legitimacy there.

My poor online players [whom I’ve been ignoring for two weeks without explanation, in hunting for an apartment and packing and moving and prioritizing content on this blog and not on the campaign] are in a quandary. They are on the bad side of a lake in dreadful weather in a weakened state facing an unknown and unquantified enemy on the edge of a mysterious gate that may produce their deaths at any moment. They got into the situation by degrees and they’re feeling it.

Each time something happens, they talk again about retreating, strengthening themselves and trying again later. Then they say they should stay in case leaving will make this all harder next time … and as long as they’re here now, they should stay. Each time, so far, they’ve voted to stay; but then something else happens near the gate and the debate starts all over again.

If we adopt a save point for the game, all that goes away. Why not charge the gate? If we die, we’ll figure out something else. Why not retreat? It’s not like the situation will become more life threatening … because, in truth, nothing is life threatening. The removal of death from video games has sold more video games, yes; because walking through corridors as an unkillable hero is more interesting that watching people on television talk about whether or not the hair we found in the car’s tire matches the suspect, or if Judy slept with Jamie’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s son. It’s relative to time spent at an activity that we do largely alone, in time we wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile if not for this.

As an aside, that is one of the reasons I don’t see the video game/RPG equivalency. I don’t play VGs with other people. If my partner wants to engage me in a conversation, I’ll cheerfully pause the game and talk for minutes or change what I’m doing … because the game is either disposable or can be saved for later. I’m not engaged in VGs like I am with RPGs, where I can hardly just get up and leave the house in the middle of a game session. I don’t want to interrupt D&D to talk about some utterly disconnected thing. The time I spend playing D&D is sacred; the time I spend playing VGs is, well, it’s okay. I can take it or leave it.

I only play VGs when I’m too tired to work. I recognize that most who play VGs only work when other people create a space for them to work in. That work-sleep routine Yahtzee describes.

As a designer, I work hard to create that feeling of despair, the doubt and discouragement that builds over time, as players dig themselves deeper into a situation. I’m not merely building excitement; or providing dopamine and serotonin. I’m actively pushing to make the players’ skin crawl, to create dilemmas on a par with real life, where success isn’t just beating the monster. Hell no! The success is beating themselves … overcoming their doubts, their urge to withdraw, their certainty of death.

If you take death from the game, you take away the best victory there is.

2 comments:

Charles A said...

Hear, hear.

"As a designer, I work hard to create that feeling of despair, the doubt and discouragement that builds over time, as players dig themselves deeper into a situation. I’m not merely building excitement; or providing dopamine and serotonin. I’m actively pushing to make the players’ skin crawl, to create dilemmas on a par with real life, where success isn’t just beating the monster. Hell no! The success is beating themselves … overcoming their doubts, their urge to withdraw, their certainty of death.

If you take death from the game, you take away the best victory there is."

Indeed, couldn't agree more.

It's a participant experience unique to role-playing games, as far as I can tell, and I really believe when we're emphasizing the unique features of our medium, we're in the right place.

Drain said...

"... when we're emphasizing the unique features of our medium, we're in the right place."

This.