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Monday, September 17, 2012

Legend of Dragoon - Permadeath

Hey, I never said this blog would be spoiler free!  Although, I'm guessing if you hadn't played any of these games at this point, odds are that you won't be crossing their path anytime soon (unless you undertake your own Epic RPG Quest... in which case, send me a link, I love to read stuff.)

So yeah... Lavitz is dead... and dead in a permanent kinda way, not just a 'till the end of battle' kinda way.  I know I'm not the first to point out that in worlds full of Phoenix Down and Angel's Kisses or whatever, the rules surrounding the difference between permadeath and temporary death are kinda muddled.  Of course, many RPGs have solved the problem by having the characters pass out in battle rather than die, but it does still feel a little off when a character withstands thousands of injuries including getting bombarded with meteors from outer space and being smashed by a dragon, only to succumb to the slice of the main villain's sword because it's kinda more meaningful if he does.

The illogical minutia of permadeath don't really cause a problem for me, at least not one that I'm willing to blow out of proportion or feel a need to point at and say "Isn't this waaaaacky." (what do you think this is, internet video game comedy 101?).  I do however have a problem with the way permadeath is dealt with in most video games, as it feels like something that is constantly misused or at least misunderstood.

Death, in reality, is a universal constant, everyone experiences it, everyone feels its lingering presence, and despite conflicting views on the afterward, the implications of your time on this earth having come to an end are always the same.  For anyone in their life who has felt this loss, even in the smallest of forms, knows that there is more often than not something missing from the equation when video games deal with death.

Take for example the loss of Lavitz in Legend of Dragoon, something I recently experienced for the first time while playing through the game (currently on Disk 3 for those curious).  It happened... in a flash, and for a brief moment I was devastated (at least, in proper proportion to the context... it is just a game).  That feeling of devastation came from feeling the loss of the character, someone that I had fought with, and tried my hardest to build up as much as possible, not knowing or realizing that he could be taken from me at any time.  That devastation was almost immediately replaced as the character himself was replaced by another with the exact same stats and moves, something that seems to happen a lot when a game has an irreversible fatality.

The reasoning behind this, from a game designer's perspective, is sound.  You want to have a plot point with high impact to motivate the other characters, but you don't want to outrage the player by taking away something that they had come to know.  However, I say that if you want to tell a great story, one that the player has the ability to feel as much as the characters do, you need that feeling of loss.  Yes, the player will become angry, because death is supposed to make us angry, it is supposed to make us feel loss, it is supposed to confuse and frighten us.  By simply replacing the character immediately afterwards you are trivializing the meaning of the moment you just experienced.  You are turning what could have been a true experience for the player into a plot point for the character.

Of course, we can't touch on this point without bringing up Final Fantasy VII, certainly not the first game to deal with the situation well, but the most prominent in most peoples minds both due to the size of the audience and the fact that (for most) it was their first introduction to a game that could even begin to touch upon such subjects.  Aeris' death was an absolute loss.  If you had played the game through, unspoiled (say for instance, by a blog writer talking about 15 year old games,) then the loss of Aeris feels proper.  She was  a character that not only had very kind and endearing character traits narratively, but she also was a character that was highly incentivized for the player to use and build up.  She was your white mage, she was completely geared towards taking care of your party members.  Then, when she was gone... she was... gone.  She never got replaced, she never got revived, there was no way to bring her back.  In fact, I remember players wanting her back to such an extent, that rumors were abound with ways that 'you can totally bring her back to life!' (none of which were true, at least in the American localization, I can't speak for the Japanese version).  That is the impact death is supposed to have on us.

Now, I can only speculate that the reason for the loss in Final Fantasy VII being such a spot on representation (at least for the medium) is that the entire game was made very recently after the loss of Hironobu Sakaguchi's own mother, and therefore it is very likely he was very in tune with the feelings that a loss such as this should make one feel, but reasoning aside, the end result is the same.

The truth that this entire idea proves is that, moreso than any other medium, video games have the ability to make us feel exactly what the designer wants us to, however in order to do so they need to think of the real world implications and translations for the feelings they are trying to portray, rather than just presenting them to us as a plot point to move the story forward and assuming that we will feel them.

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