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Branching Dialogue: R.I.P. Death


Presenting Branching Dialogue, a weekly, wordy and often worryingly pedantic discussion of video game genres, trends and err ... stuff I didn't think to put in this introductory line.
If there's one thing the year 2008 has proven adept at, it's polarizing players with titles that seem to generate more discussion than actual sales. Much like Assassin's Creed before it, Ubisoft's Prince of Persia has been viciously yanking people off fences, this time with simplified controls, Open-World Lite™ platforming and sassy, cel-shaded protagonists.

The game's difficulty (or supposed lack thereof) has also come under scrutiny, with some tough-guy gamers lamenting the Prince's newly found and quite convenient resistance to death. I don't wish to argue with the complaint ... but I do want to pluralize it. "This game is not difficult," and, "You can't die in this game," are two very different accusations, and one of them is more than a little unobservant of modern conventions.

I hate to break it to you guys, but death has been pushing up daisies for years.

There is no death in modern games. There is only progress or a lack of it, the latter usually being signaled by your hero having his head chopped off and an on-screen message politely relaying the bad news ("Umm, you died. Try again?"). But is the gruesome demise of your avatar really the same as death? Does your quest to save the universe come to a grinding halt?

"The GAME OVER screen lies somewhere outside of a game's universe ... "

The truth is, Toad doesn't lay down a wreath in front of that bottomless pit that swallowed Mario and forever concealed his body. Rather weirdly, nobody in the world seems to remember nor acknowledge when the main character meets his demise. To them, it never happened. Thanks to the omnipotent, extra-dimensional save and checkpoint gods, the hero's demise is erased from the timeline, his body safely deposited out of harm's way.

A stockpile of lives is no longer accepted as currency in today's games and second chances (not to mention third, fourth and fifth chances) have ceased being a limited resource. Having your avatar squashed, mashed, mushed or mutilated is largely inconsequential when the game instantly resurrects it and offers you another go. If you've ever had to repeat a devious segment numerous times, you'll agree that "another go" brings with it the real punishment for failure: your character's life may be infinitely expendable, but your time is not.

"This game isn't frustrating at all, so it must be easy."

When examined in this way, Prince of Persia's life-saving companion character isn't particularly innovative -- she's a glorified checkpoint with a plunging neckline. But then, this is also where I heap my praise on Prince of Persia: Elika is a beautiful solution to an ugly problem.

"Elika is a glorified checkpoint with a plunging neckline."

If I were to tell you a story about a hero gallivanting across a magical land, I'd probably skip the part where he fell down a cliff and died. And the part where he got stabbed in the chest by a gooey temptress. Also, the part where he got stabbed in the chest by a gooey temptress and then fell off a cliff and died. For a game attempting to tell a linear and coherent story, death simply doesn't make any sense. The narrative doesn't allow it, which is why most games are content with ignoring it entirely. The GAME OVER screen lies somewhere outside of a game's universe, and while it may seem commonplace to you, imagine how jarring it must be for an external observer following the story. The hero dies, he comes back ... and everything just goes on, no questions asked. Huh?

Prince of Persia addresses this game design elephant in the room and successfully incorporates an inescapable, "videogamey" element into its narrative structure. It not only makes for a less frustrating and richer adventure, but it means you can enjoy the story without having to subconsciously filter out all the mechanical bits and bobs. Prince of Persia's certainly not the first game to do it -- BioShock buried death deeply within its story and Sands of Time disguised its checkpoints just as cleverly -- but it's a type of convergence I'd like to see explored further.

Like, in Prince of Persia 2. I'm dying to play it.

Branching Dialogue is written by Ludwig Kietzmann. He regularly writes posts on Joystiq and also wrote the highly narcissistic blurb you're reading right now (well done for making it all the way to the end, by the way). He can be written to by means of this fairly uncomplicated e-mail address:

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