In real life, death is my greatest fear. In video games, I’ll court disaster. When faced with obvious traps or perilous dialog choices, I will run in with reckless abandon. I’m not really sure what this says about me.
Death, in video games, often feels to me like a carryover from the arcade designs of yesteryear. When arcade games were more perilous, more coins would get spent. Failure is so important to games that some people believe it is a requirement for something to be a game, although a game can’t be too punishing, lest the player take their quarters (or $80) elsewhere.
When I play games, I’m eager to experience the many strange deaths that can befall me, and my favourite games are those that make failure as compelling as success.
Often, this is a roleplaying decision on my part. I like to really get into the mindset of my character, even if that means making poor decisions, assuming those decisions would make sense for my character to make.
Recently, I’ve started playing Reigns: Her Majesty on the train ride to work. In that game, you control the decisions of countless queens throughout their lives, trying to manage public opinion and avoid grisly death.
It’s expected that you’ll fail. You might prove too pious, at which point the Church tests your sainthood by depriving you of water until you die. You can mismanage your finances until the kingdom is in ruin and you flee, only be devoured by a pack of dogs.
The idea of Reigns: Her Majesty is to use the knowledge of your previous lives to manage the kingdom and avoid these deaths. But I often get swept up in the personalities I build in my head for each of my characters. I’ll flaunt my pagan interests in front of the church. I’ll crush rebellions until citizens guillotine me.
That isn’t how the game is meant to be played, but it makes sense to me, according to the personalities that I’ve envisioned for each of my successive queens.
That freedom to guide my character’s actions can feel empowering. One of the reasons I’m not as afraid of horror games as horror films is because I get to choose when to open the door to the basements where monsters lurk.
Whenever I see a new monster in a horror game, I’ll let it kill me. A major component of horror is the terror that comes from not knowing what comes next. Once you know what a monster can do, it isn’t as scary.
My typical horror game play-through would seem very strange from a narrative standpoint, since my characters start off by dying, coming back, meeting a new monster and pissing them off, dying some more, and so on.
What must that be like for my characters? Yes, I know it’s just a game, but the implications are fascinating to me. Being a player feels like being a tyrant; commanding a character and bidding them into constant demise is diabolical.
Think about trying to get a Big Boss rank in Metal Gear Solid 2. That process requires subjecting Raiden to countless cycles of life and death. In a game where the lines between player and characters are razor thin, it ends up feeling like a self-destructive act.
Whether it’s for the sake of story, my own curiosity, or my own self-preservation (seeing how my character’s death can unfold better prepares me to later live), I keep sending my character headlong into disaster. In some cases, it makes for a better ending. In other cases it helps me prepare for failure.
I’m not sure if it’s really the best way to handle things — most people play to win — but I don’t think I’m going to stop any time soon.