(Near) Death and Videogame Stories

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Something that struck me while playing Bioshock Infinite (which is pretty darned excellent)…

A lot of folks, justifiably, make the argument that most of the writing in videogames is fairly juvenile. Jesse Schell, at his recent GDC talk, talked about the notion that games are really good at “neck-down” verbs (running, jumping, punching, etc.) while other media (books, movies, etc.) are better at “neck-up” verbs (talking, asking, pleading, etc.). Still, I don’t think there’s any argument that we’ve had videogame stories that have really stuck with players over the years. So let’s just take, for argument’s sake, that game stories are currently not as effective as stories than other media, but they can resonate as effectively in the player. Why?

(and yeah, I realize I’ve just set up a really arbitrary argument.)

Listen to this: http://www.radiolab.org/2010/sep/20/ – you should listen to the whole thing, ’cause Radiolab is just awesome, but the part I’m specifically thinking of is under “Letting Go”, where David Eagleman talks about time seeming to slow way down. The tl;dr version, at least as I’ve interpreted it, is something like this:

Your brain takes in information at a set rate (whatever that rate is). As your brain “stores” data, you have a perception of time passing. Basically each “write” is a block of time. So let’s say it’s 1 write per second. In times of crisis, your brain stores WAY more data, because if you survive, having as much detail as possible to analyze after the fact may make the difference between life & death the *next* time you encounter something similar. So your brain writes 5 times as fast. Since your brain still perceives the flow of time as 1 write per second, you’re now writing 5x/second, but you still perceive the time passing as 1 write/second, so 1 second now feels like 5 seconds.

Essentially, crisis primes your brain for an influx of important information.

So, with games – let’s say you’re playing some hardcore FPS, where every moment is life & death. You get through the crisis, just barely. For some period of time after that crisis passes, you’re still in this “primed” state – your brain is taking in more information, and giving it a LOT of significance, because you believe it will be vital to your survival. Even though you’re no in a shoot/be shot kind of mode, the narrative “break” (cutscene, perhaps) is given a lot of perceptual weight, because something in your mind still believes it’s in crisis mode.

So I’m not saying that games stories all suck otherwise, or games stories are inherently better – just curious if there’s something to having a combination of “high-risk” situations followed by story that gives the story a higher priority or more significance than the story itself justifies independent of gameplay, and whether that’s part of why a lot of us who grew up with games remember game experiences at a very deep level, even if the actual experiences themselves weren’t necessarily amazing on their own.

3 thoughts on “(Near) Death and Videogame Stories

  1. I can’t say I ever noticed this sensation in Bioshock: Infinite. But I definitely felt that sensation of heightened awareness, and an adrenaline rush playing Dark Souls. Especially following any crazy, epic boss encounters. That moment after you land the killing blow, is hard to describe, and is not something I’ve felt from other games since I was a kid and most games were as hard as Dark Souls.

    It’s like you have to actually get up and step away from your console/PC to collect yourself before moving on with the game.

    I think the reason why I don’t feel this sensation in other games, especially FPS style games, is that I know in the back of my head, that death in game, is nothing more than a brief load screen, before I get to go right back and try again. In Dark Souls that sensation happens, because in game “Death” actually has a negative effect on the game. (You lose all of your collected souls, and get thrown far away from where you died). This in turn causes your return trip to find your body, and lost souls all that more daunting. Dying again at this point mean you “permanently” lose those collectibles that fuel everything from currency to leveling up abilities.

      • Awww, see in Dark Souls… the narrative is interesting. At first it doesn’t feel like there is “any” narrative, other than completing your immediate goals of ringing three bells or whatever. But if you dig into the game far enough, and talk to a lot of the hidden NPC’s, their is actually a much deeper narrative there.

        I wouldn’t want them to change that in Dark Souls II or any future sequels, because the “lack of direction” is part of what makes the game so unique. It’s not just a sandbox world, like GTA or anything like that where you get “missions to complete”. It’s a huge world that you can explore at your leisure, and stumble across the narrative elements on your own, or not at all (if you don’t run into the various NPC’s hidden around the world).

        After completing the initial challenge to ring the three bells, the game never really gives you future goals to complete (it does drop hints of where you might “want” to go next though). You mostly just find them through exploration.

        Now back to your initial question, if Bioshock: Infinite actually had some kind of mechanic that punished me for failing/dying, I think the narrative would have a lot more weight.

        But that’s part of our dumbing down of games, it lessens the impact of failure, and I miss crazy hard games like the Soul’s series for just that reason.

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