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January 27, 2009

Suppose Death is a Woman, What Then?¹

My thinking on this issue has come together over the course of a few items which happened to come into my life at the same time. The first two of these were two terrific books, both given to me by the same wonderful woman², The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Death, With Interruptions by José Saramago.

Graveyard Book Death, W.I.

In both works, the figure of Death is identified as a woman, and in one of them takes a rather central role. A female incarnation of Death is not, of course, new -- Gaiman's most famous creation, Dream, has a sister in Death. But for me, the character had always been masculine, whether due to the early influences of A Christmas Carol (where the ghosts appear all to be male, and the ghost of Christmas Future is closely associated with death) or of On A Pale Horse³, or even the Twilight Zone episode with Robert Redford called Nothing in the Dark. I'm not really certain where I got this idea of death as a masculine presence, but it's certainly always been there.

I read these two books within the last few weeks, finishing them within a couple of days of one another. I remarked to myself on the coincidence, two female characters embodying death, bringing female qualities to the character. In the Gaiman book in particular, the mothering traits of the feminine are emphasized... death is an empathetic, caring, figure, and that side comes out in the Saramago as well.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

This is, of course, where Buffy the Vampire Slayer enters our story, though not because of any representations of death in the show. Instead, it's because my enjoyment of the first season of the show caused me to hunt down a copy of the original Xbox game which bears the license. I remembered playing a small amount of it at the time it came out because the developer was working on an Indiana Jones title for LucasArts at the time, and also because we were looking at fighting systems for the Full Throttle sequel (later canceled). I mentioned in this blog that I picked up that as my first licensed title that I bought because of my interest in the license4.

While I'll take up some other points with Buffy's gameplay later, the relevant bit here is how often Buffy, and games in general, treats death in a less welcoming way -- it's a huge obstacle. Not only do the vampires or whatever it is that killed you taunt you and trash talk you as your crumpled Buffy avatar falls to the ground, but you end up repeating everything in the level up until that point. This is a fairly common approach to dealing with death in games, though perhaps more common last generation than this. But it's an intensely rough and I would even say masculine approach to failure: toughen up and get through this!

I'd like to see a more humane approach to death, a more feminine approach to failure in games -- treat me more kindly as you kill me off. Don't make me repeat more than is necessary for me to learn my mistake. Don't tell me how much I suck as I die, an experience which gets its fullest expression in the Unreal Tournament series, where to add personality to the 'bots, they have all sorts of voice lines that imitate the sorts of things you'd hear from a deathmatch with human players on the Internet, which is precisely why I have no interest in playing competitive shooters like Halo on the Internet. Treat me with empathy, say "Gosh, you died. You might not have realized that such-and-such creature is more dangerous, and you should focus your fire there first" or "If Buffy doesn't crouch to go down a ladder, it's not a ladder." (Granted, better art often solves that problem entirely.)

The last bit that brought it all together was Shamus Young's "video project," where he discusses what he feels to be the most revolutionary game in 2008: Prince of Persia. He finds it revolutionary because the player is simply not allowed to die. I've embedded it below for your viewing pleasure -- he makes a cogent argument that I'll not repeat in its entirety here.

Now, I'm not arguing for games that make failure impossible. I'm enough of a hardcore gamer that the mere whiff of failure isn't enough for me -- I want the actual opportunity to fail, so long as that failure feels fair to me, although I would certainly enjoy a more empathetic solution. I'd like to know why I died and get some strategy pointers, and I'd like the opportunity to attempt that same challenge again as quickly as possible.

At the same time, I can see a great deal of value in providing difficulty settings that move away from "Easy" "Normal" "Hard(core)" to something more useful. More like, "Navigation Difficulty -- Your sidekick will rescue you, Your sidekick will rescue you n times, You will learn by constant failure" and "Puzzle Difficulty -- Puzzles will nearly solve themselves, You will be given clear hints whenever you spend more than 3 minutes on a puzzle, You will need your Internet connection to check GameFAQs when stuck." Give me knobs and dials to customize the level of challenge I want, and stop treating me in demeaning ways when I inevitably fail. I'm not looking for challenges that take me hours to overcome -- I'm looking for new experiences that hopefully teach me a little something along the way. Treat me with a little empathy... and Death as if she's a woman.

I'll be back to this space in a week or so with another post... I've no idea yet what about. :)

¹Normally I would apologize to an author for appropriating his line, but given Nietzsche's misogyny, I'll pass. (back)

²In fact, this same woman has helped contribute to me blogging again, so, all my readers should be glad that I have made her acquaintance. All three of you! (back)

³Wow, who knew that Piers Anthony returned to this series a little over a year ago. I'm rather too old to read Piers Anthony anymore, but perhaps at some point I can entice my sons into the series and sneak their copy of the eighth book when they check it out of the library. :) (back)

4 While I certainly own other licensed titles, those are almost entirely due to my former employer. I also have a 007 title because it featured a co-op campaign, which Andrew and I played a bit of, and some stuff I bought for the kids. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at January 27, 2009 12:43 AM