Monday, December 8, 2014

Born To Die: Death as Narrative in Shin Megami Tensei 4

“And am I born to die?
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown,

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought,
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot?”

-Charles Wesley, Hymns for Children

                Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare has come under fire recently for its memorably bad handing of a soldier grieving a dead companion. The scene has already been analyzed thoroughly by others and inspired Press E To, a game that tackles the subject with far more gravity.

                You can say what you want about the scene in question, but Advanced Warfare’s attempt to address the finality of death in a big-budget video game may have been doomed from the start. The early history of the medium was built around the assumption that death is never truly the end. Whether it’s Mario collecting 100 coins to gain another life or Arcade machines trading real money for imitation lives, the show always went on for players with sufficient skill/quarters.

                It is not impossible for games to tackle the subjects of death and grieving, but it can be difficult. Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy 7, considered one of the most traumatizing events of many a childhood, falls apart emotionally when you ask “why didn’t they just use a Phoenix Down?” Why doesn’t the friend in Advanced Warfare just respawn? When will he be available as a DLC character? Grief is predicated on the permanency of death, something which game narratives do not generally support.

                There are, of course, games that subvert this assumption. Whether it’s a high-concept subversion like Lose/Lose (where each enemy’s death permanently deletes a computer file and the player’s death deletes the program) or more standard subversions like ZombiU (where player character deaths are permanent), the straight trope of “revolving door afterlife” can and has been avoided.

                As much as this trope has been subverted, it exists for a reason. Video games are a (generally) interactive medium – the player can make the character fail in a way that conflicts with the story. If we assume the narrative of Super Mario Brothers is “Mario hops and bops and defeats Bowser,” we realize just how easy it is to subvert this narrative. The player can refuse to move forward. The player can intentionally kill herself. The player can prioritize collecting coins over saving the Princess. The creators can punish the player for diverting from this narrative (limited time to finish levels, “game over” screens which force the player to restart the game), but they cannot force the player to win.

                If we position video games as contracts between the player and the creator, the necessity of multiple lives becomes clear. The creator has the right to punish the player for an inadequate performance – losing lives, lowering scores, locking off content. However, the creator also has responsibilities to the player. Make the game too easy, and players will tire of it and quit. Make it too hard, and players will become frustrated and quit. Make it unplayable (*cough* AssCreed *cough*), and the player will quit.

                The player also has rights and responsibilities in our theoretical contract. The player has the right to buy or not buy the game, the right to decide she does not like the game and quit, the right to play the game in a subversive fashion that conflicts with the creator’s design. On the side of responsibilities, the player must either accept the game’s design and work with it or accept the consequences of playing subversively.

                Multiple lives are not the only method of cheating death; we also have the save/load system.[i] A creator might be able to reasonably expect a player to finish Super Mario Brothers in a single play session, but what about Final Fantasy 7? Is it really reasonable to expect a player to restart a 40+ hour game after a single death? In these cases, forcing a player to finish the game in a single life and a single sitting would prevent the vast majority of players from ever taking it up, let alone playing it to conclusion.

                Multiple lives games like Super Mario Brothers still present the player with a failure state – the dreaded “Game Over” which forces the player to start again from scratch. Save/Load games cannot force the player to start over from the beginning, just from the last save point. Multiple lives games can punish inadequate performance with finality, Save/Load games can only be lost if the player gives up.

                There is one final right we have not discussed: the right to infinite play. Outside of arcade machines or subscription service games, a player who purchases a game theoretically has the right to play it ad infinitum. It does not matter how many times I fail at Super Mario Brothers and get the Game Over screen, I have the right to try again and again until my game cartridge/NES dies.

                Or until I die.

                This is perhaps the reason why this trope cannot be completely avoided. Even if Lose/Lose deletes itself, I can always reinstall it. My player character may die permanently in Zombie U, but I will get another one. My stupid little brother may delete my FF7 save file, but a new game can be started.  As long as the player remains alive, the possibility of infinite replay remains intact. To remove the possibility of infinite replay is to violate the common contract between creator and player.

                Since games cannot legally kill the player for failure (right? I’m not a lawyer), all games substitute the idea that failure is met with a narrative dead end. Death forces the player to restart the level, to restart from the last save point, to switch to a new player character, to reinstall the game. Failure is met with a frustration, the understanding that the game cannot continue until the player gets her shit together.

                Now let’s talk about Shin Megami Tensei 4. Spoilers follow.

                SMT4 is a fairly standard JRPG and a completely standard Shin Megami Tensei game. Collect and fuse demons, run around a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, make choices that affect your alignment, etc. There are a few nice little twists and some fairly impressive use of the 3DS’s hardware, but if you’ve played an Atlus RPG before you will feel right at home.

                Like most JRPGs, SMT4 uses Save/Load system. When the main character dies, the game can resumed from the last save point. Unlike most games, death does not have to be the end of the narrative.

                Upon death, the player resumes consciousness in the Underworld. The narrative of the game continues as the player meets Charon, the overworked god in charge of ferrying the souls of the dead across the River Styx. Charon, fed up with the “mountains of the dead” waiting to be ferried across, offers to let the player return to life in exchange for money (Macca). If the player does not have enough money, Charon will even offer to open a tab!

Lines After Death: Wait to reincarnate or pay to live again?

                In one sense, this device simply allows a safety net for players who have forgotten to save recently. Instead of losing however many hours of game time since their last save, they can take a financial penalty and return to the entrance of the dungeon where they died. However, Charon also clearly exists within the narrative of the game – the player can receive side quests from him and his two assistants.

                SMT4 combines the Arcade system of “money for infinite lives” and the Save/Load system, while adding a unique narrative flair. Instead of subverting the trope from the usual end (trying to make death more realistically “permanent”), it subverts from a fresh angle (death/player failure is incorporated into the narrative). Instead of punishing the player by ending the narrative, Atlus rewards the player’s death with additional narrative content.

                It could be argued that Atlus is subverting the player’s ability to subvert – not even intentionally “committing suicide” can liberate the player from Atlus’ narrative. However, I feel that it is more accurate to view this as a player-positive feature. While the player is financially punished for failure, they are not narratively punished. Whereas dying in Final Fantasy 7 takes the player completely out of the narrative, dying in Shin Megami Tensei 4 does not interrupt immersion. It is a more feasible to play through SMT4 without ever saving or reloading than the vast majority of RPGs.

                I am particularly inclined to give Atlus the benefit of the doubt on Shin Megami Tensei 4 for a related reason. While SMT4 includes the usual three Law/Chaos/Neutral endings, it also has a fourth option: liberating the entire universe from existence.

                In the “White Ending,” the player decides that the only way to end the suffering of humanity is to annihilate all humans and triggers a chain reaction that destroys the entire universe. This is not presented in game as a “bad ending” (although the linked video describes it as such) but as an equally valid alternative to the others. Finishing the game with the White Ending still unlocks the New Game+ option without any sort of penalty.

                In providing the White Ending, Atlus gives the player a level of choice not many other games can boast. Personally, I found siding with the Angels, Demons, or Humans of SMT4 equally depressing prospects. The White Ending gave me a chance to embrace my feelings of nihilism about the setting and wipe the whole thing out. It felt something like quitting the game, like refusing to side with a faction I could not morally support. The only difference was that my choice was supported by the narrative instead of punished as a poor performance. In destroying that fictional universe, I found some measure of real-world peace.

                Shin Megami Tensei 4 subverted my expectations of video game death in a way that was both unexpected and pleasing. But it did so by becoming less realistic, not more.

                I suppose the question becomes, “Is it possible for video games to address the issue of death in a manner that is both realistic and pleasing?” I’m not sure. Real humans and video game characters are both born to die, but their deaths have very different meanings. When video game characters die, it is usually because the player failed in some way and there is usually a way to reverse it. Real humans die regardless of how they lived and it cannot be reversed for love or money.

                But then, that’s only going by what science tells us, and science isn’t the only game in town. Maybe the theologians are right. Maybe we do get to respawn in a world without pain, or else reincarnate in a new body with a new chance to get it right. Maybe the Death, the Last Enemy, is more like a Final Boss than we ever dared to imagine.

                So whether we get one shot at defeating Death or as many as we need, choose your character class and equipment with care. I hear that Bastard plays dirty.

Waked by the trumpet's sound,
I from my grave shall rise,
And see the Judge, with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!

[i] As a friend once said, “Save/Reload is the most powerful spell in any game.”

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