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June 15, 2007

In response to Dead Man's Hand

(This entry is in response to a post in Tim Longo's new blog. It's copied clear over from there, so it doesn't have my usual level of editing, etc.¹)

(Further note: this is not a dead blog. I've been working on a post lately about transgressive media. It's been a little slow. Sorry. Just lost the blog-o-rhythm.)

[Spoilers virtually in every paragraph coming up, you’ve been warned.]

Last night, Longo, Reed Knight and I were playing Neverwinter Nights 2 co-op. It features a very cheap-shot death quite early on, and then a much better departure for a character. Through a day at the Fair, you’re exposed to a few characters, who are ostensibly friends of yours, with whom you’ve grown up. You spend a day at this fair, even controlling each of these characters, and one in particular, Amie, is extremely likeable (the other can be a bit whiny).

That night, the village is raided, and a powerful wizard kills her. It comes out of nowhere, it’s unavoidable, and there is no way to counter it — it happens in a cutscene, and no one will resurrect her. You’ve invested maybe a few hours in the game at this point, and in my case, I had really come to like her character, and was actually looking forward to seeing more of her. I think the idea was probably to put across the idea that the world is a dangerous place, or some such cliché, but it completely fell flat in my case. I even spent time noodling around online with gamefaqs and what-not trying to see if there was some way to avoid that, but apparently not.

On the other hand, the other character from that day at the fair stays with you a little longer. You can help him save his mother and siblings from marauders. He accompanies you into a dungeon on the edge of town. Sure, his voice can be a little annoying, but he’s a decent fighter and helpful.

You return to town, and you’re about to head out into the world beyond, and you ask if he’ll accompany you. But he declines, saying that he needs to stay close at home with his family.

At that point, my feelings for that character totally grew — he felt like a real person all of a sudden (despite living in the uncanny valley, art-wise). He made a departure from the story that didn’t feel cheap or forced, and that felt consistent with events that had gone before.

There are a couple of deaths in games recently that worked for me. One was the “death” of Agro in Shadow of the Colossus — I had really come to love that horse in my travels. I tried that jump several times, hoping that there was some way to get past it, even as I knew inside there wasn’t. It was shocking to feel that way — Shadow mastered “less is more” both in its gameplay and its ability to draw emotion from the player.

The other interesting death in a videogame recently was in God of War (the first). In a game filled with death, from dozens of different methods, the scenes close to the end which explain how Kratos came to be the “Ghost of Sparta” truly fit the epic scope of the story and his revenge — the death, at his hands, of his wife and child, while they were disguised in an illusion by Ares. It’s a game of truly Greek proportion, with outsized personalities and motivations, something very primal, and the story works precisely because of what various deaths in the story mean to Kratos. Compellingly done, and perfectly in keeping with the type of story they’re telling.

¹ OK, Feil, you called me out, so I went ahead and cross-posted per your suggestion. I think you only updated your blog today so that I couldn't similarly call you out! I've got your number, Feil.(back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 12:51 PM | Comments (3)