Narramblings #1: Game (not quite) Over
Hi! My name is Wojtek. I’m a writer who happens to love games and narrative design. In a bout of time-for-new-year’s-resolutions inspiration I decided to put that love into blogging. I will be sharing probably infrequent and definitely irregular musings and observations about storytelling in video games. Feel free to stick around and enjoy my Narramblings.
More often than not, the games covered won’t be very recent because I’m woefully behind on latest releases. That said, spoilers will happen because we’re talking stories, after all. I’ll put relevant disclaimers before posts.
Spoilers ahead! For: Gears of War, Hades, Returnal
Way back when I had the patience for endeavours of that sort, I tried to beat Gears of War on the highest difficulty level. When General Raam first entered the stage for our final showdown, I was pumped. Then he killed me about two hundred times and I have to admit respawning and rewatching the cinematic lost a bit of its dramatic tension.
For obvious reasons, from the narrative perspective it’s hard to make sense of the player character’s death in-game. A game over screen has become the default answer to this dissonance. It is a purely mechanical element. It exists outside of the story. We’ve come to accept it, but it is a limitation to immersion.
There have been attempts to paint over it. In Grand Theft Auto you can be shot, set on fire, or fall from a helicopter but you don’t die-die. You respawn at the nearest hospital and, in a true American fashion, are charged a sizable part of your income to cover the medical bills. This makes a little bit of sense but at the end of the day is a gimmick for pretending a game over didn’t happen. In the past couple of years, though, I noticed developers experimenting — and achieving fantastic results — with a different approach. They go all-in on incorporating the character’s death into the narrative.
Hades is the most prominent example. On his quest to escape the underworld, Zagreus dies. If you’re as bad at Hades as I am, he dies a lot. Rather than making every run separate, however, Supergiant Games weave them all into a single, coherent narrative. After Zagreus is defeated and restarts his journey to the surface, the story continues. Other characters acknowledge the failed attempt to escape and the plot keeps unfolding, piece by piece and death by death. How integral defeat is to Hades’s narrative is highlighted by the theme. As you battle your way through the underworld, you meet characters from myths associated with death: Thanatos, Charon and, a little on the nose, Sisyphus. The writers really drive the point home when you finally manage to beat Hades and it turns out that what awaits Zagreus outside of the underworld is… yet another death.
Another recent roguelike, Returnal, uses the heroine’s death in a similar way. Selene is stuck on a hostile planet and gets killed over and over by vicious beasts, while trying to figure out why she keeps coming back to life and how to escape this hell. Eventually it turns out it all happens in her head. I’m apprehensive about the theme because I’m not convinced a space shooter is the right medium for a character study of a parent grieving the loss of her child, but the team at Housemarque deserves all the credit for how tightly they wrapped it around the gameplay and story. Returnal, in all its darkness and haziness, is incredibly coherent. From the naming convention to environmental clues to, of course, the core mechanic of returning. This elegance is even more impressive given that the theme is not revealed to the player until well into the game.
I’m not a fan of the story but boy am I impressed by how it’s told.
A different but equally satisfying approach was tried in Outer Wilds and Deathloop. Whereas in Hades the main character’s death was part of the flow of the story, here it restarts everything. Except that restart isn’t just reloading the level. It’s looping (Deathloop really isn’t subtle with the title). This is central to the narrative. In each playthrough the same things happen in the same locations. You explore as much as you can and keep approaching the repetitive situations from different angles. In each loop, Outer Wilds gives you a hard cap of 22 minutes, while in Deathloop it’s up to you whether you burst through or spend hours peeking around every corner at Blackreef. That difference is interesting, because of how counterintuitive it is. One game is a space sim about wonder and exploration and heavy on environmental storytelling, while the other is a frantic shooter that makes you feel like you’re on speed. You’d probably expect the former to let the player set the pace on their own and the latter to increase the tension with time limits. Alas, it’s the other way around and it works like a charm.
Despite the differences in implementation, the result is the same. After completing the loop over and over, you have enough information to develop and execute a plan that lets you break out of it and reach the story’s conclusion.
Including time loops in plot isn’t a new concept in games. Majora’s Mask did it over 20 years ago. It’s fascinating, however, to observe the recent interest narrative designers show in using the character’s death to combat the dissonance of a game over. Characters in Hades, Returnal, Outer Wilds, and Deathloop go through trials and tribulations and plenty of deaths. Their stories, however, are designed in such a clever way that at no point does a game over feel out of place. Because the game is never, in fact, over.
Of course this is possible because they tell stories that support the looping mechanics. There are games where this makes sense — roguelikes in particular — but it’s definitely not universal. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to seeing more developers experimenting with the character’s death. It’s wonderful to see stories emerge that incorporate gameplay mechanics into the narrative because these are the ones that couldn’t be told in any other medium.