February 29, 2012 by vreddy92
Analysis of “’You Are Dead. Continue?’: Conflicts and Complements in Game Rules and Fiction” by Jason Tocci
Our class has featured a very interesting argument of whether to look at games through the lens of narratology or ludology. It has been pretty universally considered that the proper way to view games is as some amalgamation of both concepts. Jason Tocci’s article touches in this in a very specific arena: deaths in video games. Imagine Tocci’s dilemma:
“You’ve just struck the killing blow against a demonic cult leader. As you go to collect a dangerous object from his remains, your former ally holds you at gunpoint and retrieves “the sample” for herself. She takes off in a chopper, tossing you the keys to a jet ski, and warning that you have just three minutes to get away before explosives level the island. You drag the president’s daughter behind you, watching the clock tick down. Mounting the jet ski, you make your way through a cave, pieces of rock falling around you. You speed toward the exit and the climactic finish, suddenly jerk a little too far to the left, and smash directly into a wall.”
This situation, a recounting of Tocci’s own experience playing Resident Evil 4, shows the narrative aspect of his situation. But, does the game end here? You died, is it over? If this was real life, or even a movie, that would be an awfully anticlimactic ending to things. In the case of real life, though, that would be the end of it. The narrative would be over.
However, anyone who’s ever played a game knows that this isn’t the case. When Mario runs into a Goomba in Super Mario Bros, the princess isn’t left to be doomed. When Master Chief dies in Halo because he was overwhelmed by Covenant fire, the war isn’t over. The Covenant don’t win. The reason is simple, while games have narratives, things don’t progress as though they would in real life because of the rules of the game. As Tocci puts it, death is “an unnecessary narrative disruption due to the typical game structure of trial-and-error, die-and-retry.” Arcades have been using this structure forever, it’s how the quarter pumping makes them money. But, as games switch from the narrative simplicity of Donkey Kong’s “save the princess” or Pacman’s “eat the dots”, it’s clear that this same dynamic remains an important aspect of video game design.
The ludological aspects of the game (its rules) directly influence its narratological aspects, and it’s all a part of playing the game. Death is given little importance, except for restarting at the last checkpoint, the potential loss of a life, and maybe losing some items or powerups. Tocci’s article discusses this influence and even disruption of narratology by the simple ruleset of games and exactly how this is handled in the design and development of games. In this, it is a truly fascinating treatise on the struggle between creating a narrative and creating a game.
The narratology vs. ludology debate is a longstanding one, and while games such as Donkey Kong have little narrative content, it is still incomplete to entirely dismiss narrative as a relevant topic in video game studies. The beauty of studying character death in video games is the simple fact that the death interrupts the narrative, and issues a clear point at which ludology must play a role in the narrative, whether we like it or not. Tocci argues that “Given that narrative in games can indeed matter to players, it follows that when games that otherwise encourage narrative engagement behave in ways that makes their fictional worlds incoherent, this bothers players…”. Games such as Call of Duty 4 which have multiple difficulty settings are most enjoyed when you can play through and finish the storyline. As Tocci notes, people who play it on a harder difficulty may find less enjoyment in the game if they continually die and must respawn and try again than someone who plays it on an easier difficulty. This is for the simple reason that all of the dying is the ludological aspect of the game rearing its head into the narratological aspect, and in doing so preventing the narratological aspect from fully engaging the player. If we accept narrative as one of the drivers for playing the game, the interruption is an issue.
To further the narrative, the rules have to be changed. Dying must be one thing, but starting over must be something else entirely. Checkpoints are necessary. There’s no point in making someone start over, because this disrupts the narrative more than anything else. Most games in the Ace Combat series had the player start over at the beginning of a mission if they died, but starting at Ace Combat 6, the player would start off at the last checkpoint they successfully passed. Games have become much easier to progress through, simply because failing to do so would result in the narrative being unenjoyable. This is even furthered in games like Gears of War, where if you are being attacked, simply hiding behind cover allows you to recover all of your health.
Of course, this problem with death interrupting narrative can be subverted by game designers, who can design games in which you cannot die (i.e. adventure or text-based games). In many of these games (Grim Fandango is provided as an example) death is replaced by simply being unable to progress without completing certain tasks. However, as noted by Tocci, even this can be problematic. Failure to solve the task can still result in narrative nonprogression.
In conclusion, games are a series of rules: ludologists are completely right in that regard. No matter how much narrative content is placed into a game, it’s nothing more than a movie if it doesn’t have rules. It is these rules that allow gamers to interact with their environments and further the narrative. However, the most striking display of where the rules in games matter can be found simply in the paradigm of player death. Player death interrupts all narrative and resets it to some degree, and while game designers must attempt to mitigate or somehow eliminate this risk, it is an integral part of gameplay. Games will always have rules, and it is these rules that make the games what they are. However, without the narrative, the games would have no purpose. These two modes of study are inextricably linked, and the example shown by Tocci of death in video games shows exactly why you cannot separate one from the other.