Games and Movies: The Expectation of Revival

Link Eyes

Obviously, I don’t go through life with an expectation of revival. If I walked in front of a speeding truck I wouldn’t expect to just wake up in my bed a moment later, a day earlier. But I think the idea still holds insights relating to 1) a juxtaposition to reality and 2) the tactician’s perspective.

If you didn’t check out my thoughts on the expectation of survival, here is a link. Now let’s jump into the expectation of revival in gaming.

Death and revival are an interesting topic in games. They are dealt with in a plethora of ways across different genres. Before I talk about how my feelings on this interact with my day-to-day life, I think it’s important to flesh out how games address death and how I (and gamers in general) interpret death within the frame of the game.

Death In Games
In certain games, many platformers for example, death isn’t really explained at all. It is left very much to the player to create their own interpretation of what “extra lives” or “continuing” means. Perhaps we consider that Mario isn’t really dying; these are all just stumbling blocks that are setting him back and extra lives are a representation of his morale to get back up on his feet. Or perhaps 100 coins is enough to buy a clone version of himself in Mushroom Kingdom and at the bottom of every pit lies the pile of failed jumpers.

It is left very much to the player to create their own interpretation of what “extra lives” or “continuing” means.

In other games, many fighting games for example, we are merely playing out alternate realities. Each character has their own ending as if they have achieved their aspirations (whether that be world domination, world peace, or some simple proof of being the strongest warrior). For example, I can beat Street Fighter with Dhalsim and see a narrative of the consequences that follow.

However, there is a canon narrative. There is a set-in-stone story of the events that took place during Shadaloo’s attempts at world domination or the Third Tekken Tournament. Sometimes deaths occur in this narrative and we see additions and losses through iterations of games (poor Charlie), but the things we experience within the game are just parallel realities of this story and thus death in-game lacks permanence.

RPGs often give some flavor but also leave a lot blank for the player to fill in. Pokemon generally dodges death altogether, suggesting the creatures’ ‘death’ is just a state of incapacitation that can be dealt with by your friendly neighborhood Nurse Joy.

There is a clear difference between narrative deaths and combat deaths that the gamer is left to reconcile. In many RPGs there is a “revive” spell of some sort which is a quick way to get fallen allies back on their feet. Again, I like to think of this as a bit of an “incapacitated” state, where they clearly can’t battle but are not DEAD. It is somewhat like having less than 0 life in recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons. This is how I generally justify not being able to revive the more permanent narrative deaths we see in games.

There is a clear difference between narrative deaths and combat deaths that the gamer is left to reconcile.

Fire Emblem is one of the few games that has permadeath. Characters that die are gone for good. That is, unless it is one of the main characters, who can’t die. At this point, we get a “Game Over” screen and return to the previous save – which is another thing entirely to consider.

The “Game Over” is a key component of most games out there. Some games have no need for the presence of death (Harvest Moon), or skirt by the game over concept (Pokemon, MMOs, etc), but a common game trend is to utilize this mechanic for a failed attempt and it is pretty much left to the gamer to find meaning in this.

Perhaps we can see these deaths as something not far off from the fighting game model. There is a ‘canon’ story, and our choices and deaths are just parallel possibilities to the story we are trying to unfold. Another reading of these “Game Over” events may be more along the lines of: I, as an outsider tactician, am merely seeing these possible futures that help me hone in on an appropriate strategy. Or different altogether, maybe I am attached to the permanence of death and start my game over every time my poor tactical decisions lead to a ‘Game Over’, acting as though it is an entirely new experience (though that’s a scary thought to me… you can go Nuzlocke it up if you so desire).

Perhaps we can see these deaths as something not far off from the fighting game model. There is a ‘canon’ story, and our choices and deaths are just parallel possibilities to the story we are trying to unfold.

I personally am a fan of the tactician idea. Perhaps that is slightly influenced by the fact that I am playing Fire Emblem: Awakening at the moment but the idea is neat and one of the most applicable to life, which I will get into in a moment.

I wanted to add an honorable mention to the games 999 and Zero’s Escape. They play with these concepts in some pretty interesting ways and have a unique set of expectations attached to them as visual novels that are video games. I don’t want to say any more on them but highly suggest checking them out, and my brother’s posts if you want to delve into the game design side of it.

The Expectation of Revival… in Life?!?!:
So, we have laid out some of the options of death and how we can perceive death in games (a conversation that I am cutting short because it is begging to go on forever). Let’s consider how this can translate into some life lessons.

Obviously, I don’t go through life with an expectation of revival (in a parallel way to video games I mean… I’m not making any claims on my thoughts of an afterlife). If I walked in front of a speeding truck I wouldn’t expect to just wake up in my bed a moment later, a day earlier. But I think the idea still holds insights relating to 1) a juxtaposition to reality and 2) the tactician’s perspective.

There are always lessons to be learned from having that point-counterpoint relationship. The expectation of revival within games highlights the concept that we are in fact perishable, and at times, fragile. It is often easy to take extra lives in video games for granted, getting drawn into repeated loops of death.

The expectation of revival within games highlights the concept that we are in fact perishable, and at times, fragile.

I know I find myself a little more lax about beating a level in Mario when I am sitting on  a pile of 99 lives. In RPGs I find myself going into bosses haphazardly with a “test the waters” attitude when there is a save right in front of the boss. It’s worth noting that many older games don’t promote this attitude as much, as lives and saves alike are often few and far between (thinking Final Fantasy III and Battletoads and the like).

There is definitely something to be said for the value of attacking certain problems with a trial and error mindset, and perhaps gamers have been molded to have an upper-hand here. But that is quite a large topic, so I will leave it for another day.

We often don’t have this luxury of taking minimal consequence attempts in life. I can’t “test the waters” with an interview, and then just start the day over again being more prepared than the first try. To this, games act as that counterpoint, presenting how a lackadaisical mindset can be detrimental if translated into many real life situations. There is no room for loops of death with minimal consequences.

To this, games act as that counterpoint, presenting how a lackadaisical mindset can be detrimental if translated into many real life situations.

This is where the tactician’s mind brings a bit of an uplifting message for me. If we consider “continues” and “save points” in games as branches off of a core path that lead to the canon storyline, then life may not be that far off. It is all tactical musings of possible futures, and our ability to predict certain things and prepare for those we can’t.

If we consider “continues” and “save points” in games as branches off of a core path that lead to the canon storyline, then life may not be that far off.

Sure, I may not be able to predict exact details on a first try. I may not know a boss’ propensity to use Flare on the third turn, the extent of a stat boost at a threshold HP point, or where and when reinforcements may be called in. Similarly, I can’t go to an interview or a test knowing what exact questions will be asked or the dynamics of how either setting will unfold.

This can’t stop me from trying to predict these things though. If my life is the canon, then my thoughts are the branches. What were previous tests like? Can I talk to someone who had this teacher in a previous year? What are the fundamentals I should know for this test? Who am I interviewing with? Can I get some background information through some google searching or a mutual connection? What are the obvious go-to questions for this kind of position? What are the not so obvious open ended questions that I could expect?

If my life is the canon, then my thoughts are the branches. These are all just beginnings to branches of stories that may come to fruition or may lie dormant, never told.

These are all just beginnings to branches of stories that may come to fruition or may lie dormant, never told. These “what ifs”  create a world within my mind that try to leave me over prepared for activities and help to shrug off would-be surprises. Even so, just as the canon story that unfolds in games, we will have our bumps and shocks, but that can’t stop us from mitigating what we can. That is the power of the tactician’s mind.

So those are my thoughts on the expectation of survival. Let me know what you guys think in the comments. How do you interpret the “Game Over” screen? And do games leave you with an (unhealthy or healthy) expectation of revival?

I wanted to make a little side note for interesting cross media representations. Scott Pilgrim is coming to mind, which does an amazing job at intertwining the worlds of movie, game, and comic… and, in doing so, has a beautiful sandbox of expectations to play with, including this survival versus revival dynamic.

Thanks for stopping by! Game on and learn on! 🙂

~Dylan

15 thoughts on “Games and Movies: The Expectation of Revival

  1. gh05t3991

    This was a great read and really got me thinking about the choices I make in games. I’ll use FF Tactics as an example, I go into a battle not knowing what to expect, not having my wits about me, and not caring if I die because I’m just going to restart anyway. This post and the “Opinions” article in issue 239 of Game Informer are really causing me to re evaluate my stance on choice and consequence
    Thanks, man..

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for leaving a comment. FF Tactics was definitely one of those games I could see attacking with a strategy like that… especially with deaths and permanent equipment breaks leading to ragequits haha.

      Reply
  2. raventhe

    Good to see someone else thinking about this. The triviality of death in video games, however appropriate in some or even most, has really become a “given” (at very least in mainstream gaming) and it seems like designers have forgotten to innovate.

    I agree with what you said about the “tactician’s perspective” allowing for multiple improved replays until the situation is mastered, and while that’s fine for many games, I feel like the way it makes death feel inconsequential does a lot to detract from the game’s immersive value.

    The games that have gripped me most, personally, have been the ones that make you worry and think in advance *before* every encounter; games that make you fear for what’s around the corner and encourage you to plan for the unaccounted rather than embracing it and reacting afterward. D&D’s spell preparation system is, I suppose, an example of that.

    Obviously, it’s not something that’s easy to pull off; it’s a horrible juggling act between excessive punishment and excessive preparation, and then further between the dying breed of ‘core gamers and the ever-profitable casual ones. It’s something I’m hoping to address with particular focus in my own work, but only time will tell whether my ideas will work out!

    Your blog sounds interesting and I look forward to browsing more of your thoughts when time permits. Also keen to see what sort of game dev work you’re involved with!

    p.s. False Ascension, too, was inspired loosely by a disturbing nightmare of mine, though while I’ve had similar experiences where dreams have turned into movies or games, this wasn’t one of them.

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      Thanks for the reply! It’s always great to hear what people are thinking on the topics I post about. I think each game has free rein with how they treat death (how much they explain it, the ramifications, and even the musical/visual embellishment of it) and I wouldn’t necessarily say I am disappointed with how games have generally approached the topic, but it does definitely make games that treat it in an innovative way stand out.

      I don’t play much D&D (mostly because I don’t get to hang with my brother much) but I totally had that spell picking anxiety (and in turn, engagement) with one of my characters this past summer. That moment where you really need to consider what is likely standing in your way, and then later when you have to cope with what you prepared even if it wasn’t the best choice.

      It is definitely a balancing act of when to prepare and how much preparation is too much preparation. I know for myself, I often stall too much in overpreparation… but as I said, I have also fallen into loops of low consequence deaths with little care. I think I get slightly more annoyed with myself when I get in the latter mindset, because it is usually accompanied by really crappy playing. There are more to both sides of this topic that I think I may try to flesh out some more in later posts. I will see how I’m feeling.

      My brother is the one starting to get into game development. He has always loved game design. He bounces a lot of ideas off me though since we tend to get each other, having played so many games together when we were young. I think he will likely post some about what he is working on and the learning process in the weeks to come.

      Again, thanks for the post! Look forward to keeping an eye on your blog and seeing your progress.

      ~Dylan

      Reply
      1. raventhe

        Have only played D&D once in real life myself. 🙂 Kind of wish I’d gotten into it more. Really loved a few of the PC titles, particularly Planescape: Torment, although I’m sure save/load took away from the experience!

        Ah, you two sound a bit like my own brother (29) & I (24), who are both also passionate gamers, and discuss these things a lot too.

        I have started and abandoned a plethora of game dev projects since I was a kid, but this one is the first serious undertaking using an existing engine (Unity). Keen to hear what your brother’s up to too then!

        Have a good Easter!

      2. connorbros Post author

        Very similar ages too haha! I am 23 and he is 28.

        I’m sure he will encounter quite a few hurdles in the learning process of game development as well as he is quite new to it (new in the materialization sense, he has had ponderings on game design for quite some time). But hopefully both of you will persevere! It helps when you are doing something you have such an attachment to.

        You have a happy Easter too!

  3. Sootopolis

    I’m playing Harvest Moon: The Tale of Two Towns on 3DS and your animals do actually die (after about 3 game years, I believe). A way to avoid experiencing this is to simply sell your animals when their time is nearly up. That’s gonna be my plan to avoid heartbreak…

    Talking of animal death reminds me of when I was playing the village part in Resident Evil 4. Surrounded by Ganados, I threw a grenade into the mob but I inadvertently killed a cow as well in the process. Killing an innocent animal upset me to the point where I reset my game and had to replay the entire level from the start.

    More musings on RE4…when a certain character dies in the castle (not gonna spoil it for anyone who hasn’t played it) when you go back to that area the body remains on the ground, in a pool of blood. Of course that part is realistic, but I hated that Leon could run past the body, almost step all over it, as if it were of no consequence. Yet the character mattered to me, and although the death scene itself was dramatic, the aftermath was treated as if it was insignificant. No matter how many times I play this game, I find this part really upsetting and it always feels horribly wrong to me. I wish the developers had treated this death with the dignity it deserved.

    Reply
  4. connorbros Post author

    If I grenaded a cow, I probably consoled myself with the thought that it was likely a zombie cow. Poor cows.

    There really aren’t that many characters in the game so the ambiguity to avoid the spoiler is a little amusing, but I guess it’s better than saying a name.

    In general, you are pointing out something I didn’t really touch on very heavily, which is the death of NPCs or generally anyone you don’t control. This is an interesting point that has never frustrated me as much as it seems to have you, but I fear it may now. Death of characters are so often just used as plot devices with little emphasis in the post emotional experience that perhaps I have just been somewhat desensitized to it in games.

    I could see the following argument to some extent: there could be an issue of separating the character from the player… as in, some players are playing to watch a story and others are playing to become the story. When dealing with portrayal of emotions, doing things that create a divide of what the player feels is the right response and what the writer/designer decides is the characters appropriate response is, which could lead to some cognitive dissonance. Thus, I can see how a neutral path could often be an easy road to take.

    That being said, I’m sure what you are talking about is just a missed attention to detail. I think it would be clearly better if you couldn’t walk on said character, and perhaps even better if there was a little added dialogue from Leon.

    ~Dylan

    Reply
  5. Sootopolis

    Haha I’m super sensitive to giving spoilers, ever since I read an Amazon review of the final book in a trilogy I was about to purchase. It was like “Antagonist/Heroine’s Love Interest dies at the end!” Man, I was so upset and furious at that reviewer, I’ve never gotten over it to this day :p

    You make some interesting points; I agree that it’s likely just down to missed attention to detail. I do tend to get attached to characters in books and games and so end up quite upset if someone dies, and I get teary every time at the end of Ice Age, and at Disney movies in general, so my sentiments are probably not representative of the average gamer, lol.

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      I very much concur that you can’t be too safe with spoilers. Better to be safe than sorry. And I get overly emotional when watching movies and playing certain games too. With longer games I always get this feeling of emptiness when I complete them because of how invested I get in them and the characters. I just want it to keep going.

      ~Dylan

      Reply
  6. knightofzaft

    This was a fantastic read and a really insightful read. I was listening to a Nerdist Podcast episode on my way to class over the summer and one comedian was on the topic curbing violence involving video games and the concept of death being something that has consequences in video games. Comedians have a knack for simplifying things but his argument, I felt, was a good one. He mentioned a Call of Duty game where if you died, you didn’t respawn, you were locked out for the day because you needed intensive care. He also talked about an in game currency you earn that you would have to use to buy more ammo. While it was a joke, I thought the concepts were interesting. Who knows, it could add an amount of realism while not resorting to the Fire Emblem staple of permadeath.

    Reply
    1. connorbros Post author

      Thanks for commenting! Yeah, that could definitely be interesting. I think the real challenge there is how do incorporate those elements in a way that still keeps people engaged and enjoying the experience. At the end of the day, many people still game for abnegation, they are trying to escape reality.

      So if a designer really feels strongly about imparting realistic messages/lessons, they need to make sure they are doing so in a way that reviewers still like and people still pick up the game. Like maybe in that Call of Duty example, you have the normal game mode and then the separate game mode that plays with those more realistic consequences. Put some achievements on it to entice some extra players. Then if you play that other mode maybe it can bleed into your normal mode a little. Like messages of how your recovery is going, or memory blips of how you were injured.

      I was playing Rogue Legacy recently which takes a bit of an interesting route with it and imparts that feeling of higher consequences mostly through narrative. There is the game play element that you can’t be sure what kind of choices you will have for the next generation of character, but for the most part, it is imparting the consequences simply by bringing the family tree element into the narrative of the game. When Sir Frederick the third dies, he is gone forever. And upon completion there is very much the message of “look at what death this legacy of war has brought about”

      ~Dyl

      Reply

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