Death is often an integral element within gaming, in fact that almost every ‘AAA’ title requires killing and the avoidance of being killed within the formal elements of the game. How games deal with death varies heavily, in the most common of circumstances we can separate this into two categories, player death (i.e. you) and non-player death (i.e. NPCs or online opponents – whilst these are still strictly speaking players they are not the main agent). The first category will most probably be the central concern to the player as death in the majority of cases is used as a punishment for failure. This usually is temporary (unless you are following the Permadeath Model) and encourages the player to approach the game in a way which avoids this end. The second category, non-player death, is usually inextricably linked to player death, but it usually is subsidiary to it as your survival is paramount. Killing is required in order to survive in a kill-or-be-killed basis, it should be noted that more and more games place emphasis on other, more imaginative ways around lethal solutions and some games just do not let you be the violent element (see Silent Hill: Shattered Memories). However, it is this secondary concern of non-player death, particularly that of NPC death, which I am most interested in here because it often gets over-looked.
If you’ve played Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty (any version, it doesn’t matter) to completion you will be responsible for many deaths, potentially hundreds if not more. In the two particular examples I’m sure than many players possibly did not stop to think about the actions they committed (with the possible exception of “No Russian” in Modern Warfare 2) however I’d argue this is an anomaly rather than an emerging trend. This attitude towards death and killing which most games encourage at least at an implicit level if not explicit is a source for much anguish and controversy and it often leads people to believe that games are overly violent and encourage the kind of behaviour that they display. I should note here that I have no intention to cover this particular debate any further as it has been trodden to death, however I feel that people are judging death within games in a way in which the game does not intend. To elaborate, the factors which make killing such a deplorable act in real life are largely absent from games, there are no family members of the deceased, no criminal records, social stigma etc, beyond what the game imposes. Usually the sole consequence of killing within games is having non-player try and kill you, morally its a very easy choice to make.
Some games have focused on the morality of killing non-players, Fable and its sequel have worked hard on doing this, strike down an innocent woman in a village and besides having the guards trying to apprehend you for it, you may find a sobbing child orphaned by your blade. However, this morality is imposed by the game system, and as with such systems the morals are warped heavily by the game’s goals. Even though in some cases you are berated for taking the life of another, there are still those who you are encouraged to kill, they are the objective, you have to do it. In these cases the morality has changed, they are often evil, heartless and their death is only a good thing. So even though the approach is somewhat more of a considered one, it is only the tip of the iceberg in how games confront the long standing issue of death.
An unlikely contender for this more considered and thoughtful confrontation of life’s greatest antithesis is a charming puzzle game, Patchwork Heroes by SCEE released on PSN for £6 or around $10 depending on your territory. The premise of the game is not one of inherent violence, you are not controlling a killing machine, in fact far from it. Patchwork Heroes opens with a town under imminent attack by a giant warship bent only on dropping its payload of bombs on its population. The town’s only hope are its crews of brave townsfolk who are dropped onto the warships armed only with giant metal saws. You control Titori, a young man of 21 who has a penchant for sawing, it is your job to destroy these warships, section by section, avoiding enemy robots, guns and a myriad of other dangers before it reaches your town. Besides the game’s premise sounding incredibly like the world war 2 anxieties which manage to manifest themselves in much Japanese media and art, the primary mode of delivery is that of comedy, with quips, jokes and idiosyncrasies which sometimes undermine the danger at hand.
The game’s confrontation with death and tragedy though is foreshadowed by the UK trailer for the game, with phrases like “break [the warships] to pieces to protect those you love” and that there are “one million souls to save”. It is interesting however, that the UK trailer appears to be the only one with the emphasis on this, the saving of souls, the weight of the task at hand*. This trailer opts instead for a simple “save everyone and be a Patchwork Hero” rather than dwell on the consequences of your failure. This brings me onto the most interesting and compelling aspects of the game, death. The townsfolk who accompany Titori act as both lives and ammunition in the sense that to lay a bomb a villager must be left to “guard” it (presumably to stop you just placing bombs everywhere). Whenever you are hit by an enemy, a missile or caught in an explosion there is a brief pause and an image of the villager killed is shown with their name, and age. You are confronted by these details suddenly, telling you who this person was, it’s not a full biography, but there is enough to make inferences as to what the consequences for this person’s death are. The body of the dead is then left to fall from the warship to the ground below. At the post-mission report you are given an account of all the townsfolk, whether they’ve survived, used with a bomb, or died.
This miniature death biography alone is quite interesting in how it can effect the playing experience, but it’s barely half the story. After playing through the game for a short while you are given access to resident cards of the townsfolk and the graveyard, where the fallen are paid tribute to. The resident cards are more detailed biographies for the townsfolk containing their age, blood type, heigh, weight, where you first encountered them and a 3 or 4 line description of them. The graveyard is essentially a visual record of those who’ve been lost within the game. controlling Titori, you can walk or run past the graves, paying tribute by leaving flowers or remember the fallen brethren. These three aspects of the game in isolation aren’t terribly effective, however, when you’ve just completed a mission having lost several squad members, you can look up their file in the resident cards and then walk to their grave to leave flowers and pay your respects. Whilst this does not directly effect how the game is played it does introduce an interesting element into the idea of loss and consequence, these are real lives at stake here.
What does this do for the game? Well, because much of this information about the deaths of the townsfolk are located in the “Records” section of the game, there is a chance that many players will not know of its whereabouts. This optional nature means that the developers don’t want to force players to confront the deaths on anything more than the superficial which is so often seen with games. For those willing to look for it, there is a much more meaningful approach to mortality within the game, those who die aren’t just faceless characters. Sadly though, I don’t believe that this changes the gaming experience even if you do read all 200+ resident cards and visit the few graves of those you felt closest too. Because this death system is not fully grounded within the game play it takes the player to want to engage with it, to want to learn about the fallen townsfolk. After prolonged playing of the game, no matter how good you are at it, you will no doubt see countless townsfolk fall to oblivion, the repetition can dilute the potency of the event as, like all regular occurrences, you become desensitised to them. This however is, I argue, the biggest message being conveyed by the developer, these townsfolk who have lives (if only within the game) are meant to mean something to you, even if it is very little, yet their deaths become expected and often go unnoticed, an inconvenience maybe. After all these townsfolk operate as your lives, your ammunition, they are your tools for completion as much as they are your neighbour.
Are the townsfolk in Patchwork Heroes non-players then? Yes, and no. Yes, because you do not control them and their deaths are do not end yours until it is Titori himself who gets struck down. No, because they all operate as your lives and thereby an extension of yourself – loosing the last life, Titori, is death. However, there is one difference between the townsfolk and Titori in relation to death, if Titori dies, its game over, whilst there is a resident card for Titori there is no tombstone, so in that sense he can never really die, the player cannot die. So whilst, in reality, the issues of death raised by Patchwork Heroes to don’t dramatically impact on the game play, they do however illuminate some interesting aspects of death within gaming and move to place it in the centre of discussion rather than to brush it under the rug as if it doesn’t exist.
*If anyone has seen/can read the text in the other trailers, please let me know, I’d be interested to see what emphasis they place on death in them.