Have you ever thought at what happens inside a game for the characters? I mean, when we pause a game, what do they do, stay frozen in place or do they take 5 and grab a drink, maybe stretch, talk among each other while they way for us to resume? This is a question an acquaintance posed, but I’ll be honest, I couldn’t see too many variations on the pause theme.
I mean, the best one would be with the Mario characters. Shigeru Miyamoto once stated that he felt the characters were members of a theatre troupe, so for me the pause would just be the director calling out for a 5-minute break, maybe clear the set, reset for the next scene, remove unnecessary debris so nothing gets in the way of the audience.
But what about the rest of a game’s elements, those little intrinsic mechanics that we expect in every title. How do characters feel about Lives, Game Over, Reloading, Continues, character generators and the dreaded New Game Plus? Those are bigger questions for me.
I play XCOM in my spare time and one thing I’m guilty of is save scumming, where I reload to an earlier save if things go off the rails in a spectacular fashion. Some might claim it’s cheating and it is, but there’s something about losing a soldier you’ve been grooming for the entire game that makes you want to save them. And if I didn’t want to do that, or have the temptation, there’s Ironman mode for that.
But can you imagine how it must feel from the character’s point of view?
Sergeant Kelly saw the Muton drop from her shotgun blast, the behemoth alien collapsing into a pool of his own innards. She hugged the pillar tightly, confident it would grant her protection from her enemies’ attacks, knowing her squad had her covered should something unexpected happen. Except none of them saw the Chosen Assassin dart past their defences. The alien operative’s blade shone in the moonlight as she brought it down on the XCOM ranger, leaving her to slowly die as she desperately gasped for air, trying to hold on for the medical attention she knew wouldn’t come.
This was the end and it wasn’t her fault, nor was it her commander’s. It was simply something unexpected.
As her vision darkens, everything around her stops. She wonders if this is what people mean with life flashing before their eyes, if time first freezes to accommodate a lifetime of recollections in the short time she had left.
But then she heard a voice, and could almost picture a fat geek at his desk shouting “Goddammit!” She didn’t know how she knew, but she was certain the geek could turn back time, give her another chance, not that it was her choice.
So how would Kelly feel? Is my reloading her save a taste of hope, the promise to fight again and see her loved ones when she returned from the battlefield, victorious this time? Or would she see it as a continuation of her personal hell, as the certainty creeps in that no matter how many injuries she receives, someone will restart the sequence, forcing her to do and suffer the same things in a nightmarish cycle?
On the one side she knows the one responsible won’t let her die, but will she be thankful or resent it? I can see her become embittered by the experiences, living out a life similar to Groundhog Day or the Tom Cruise film, Edge of Tomorrow—which in turn is based on a Japanese Novel.
But I can also see it emboldening her, willing to take bigger risks and challenges because she knows someone has her back.
So I can see it as a grim outlook or a hopeful one.
But about a Game Over? And I don’t mean the “you’re dead, continue?” kind of game over, because reloads and continues follow the above trend, with endless continues perhaps feeling like a character’s hell, especially if the player isn’t skilled enough to make it through without dying on the same spots. Imagine how Ryu would feel in Ninja Gaiden on the NES if he’s being controlled by some newbie and death meant not only failure in his missions but also the certainty someone would force him to try and try again, just never making it through, or perhaps succeeding by inches only.
It depends on the game, but I can see this kind of game over and continues/reloads become something much darker with truly heinously hard games, particularly those unforgiving titles of the early console systems.
But the Game Over I was thinking of was the end of the game, when you’ve cleared it, fought the last battle, solved the last puzzle. What happens then? Does the world carry on, just pointlessly, without direction or a story? After all, the plot is done, the villain conquered. What do the characters do afterwards, just carry on as normal, wandering aimlessly?
Or does the world end? Do the Warriors of Light defeat Chaos, break the endless time loop and return to their world only to see everything darken, strange lettering show across the landscape, the word “CREDITS” first among them and then it all ends, the sun going out, everyone stop moving, the world itself coming to a halt. At first, they’ll believe it’s another part of the adventure, another challenge for them, but soon it’ll dawn on them that there is no fighting this, the world is simply ending along with their story.
In ‘traditional’ RPG titles, I can see this being the case and it’s a sad thought, especially after the hours we spent together fighting enemies and saving lands. But on more open worlds, those games that end but return you to the world to take care of unfinished business or just to continue exploring the world, I can see it differently, I can see the world holding on, continuing endlessly…or at least until all the optional stuff is done, at which point it devolves into the aimless wandering I mentioned above.
But I think that for Video game characters, the cruellest of possible fates is the New Game Plus. They’ve gone through harrowing experiences in their heroic journey and finally it’s over, they found their rest—even if it’s temporary and the world might be shutting down or just stopping in terms of progress and story—and now we’re forcing them to do it all over again. And since it’s a new game plus, things carry over, meaning that the characters’ memories do too in some fashion, even if they can’t help but say the same things and make the same choices.
Or even stranger, what if the player makes different choices this time? How does that work with their memories? The good decisions erased and replaced as much as the bad ones, or do they carry all experiences with them, even if they’re contradictory. Wouldn’t that be maddening? They would be like The Flash after Flashpoint, having the memories of two distinct timelines.
But maybe the New Game Plusses offer some hope as well, that eventually they’ll have the best ending, where all choices were good, they manage to save everybody they could and can go on into the sunset knowing that they’ve done everything right…until the next new game plus I suppose!
One last mechanic before I go and one that intrigues me. Character Generators. Some game have them, but how do the video game characters feel and what is their nature before we stamp them with our visions of their visage? Are they mindless and soulless mannequins until we give them the spark of life, are they born in full adult bodies and expected to be competent at things from the start? Or are they around, inside the game even if they’re featureless.
Considering most character generators start at the same place with a binary woman and man choice, I can see the game world populated by a horde of clones, each carrying on their lives until we choose one of them and give them a new life from the one they had. Better yet are those worlds where the default is just a randomised appearance. Those dudes are already part of the world, distinct from one another and carrying on, until we come around and improve or worsen their lives.
There are many more mechanics, conditions and circumstances in video games and it’s fascinating to think of how video game characters react and feel about them. For example, how would they react and feel about procedural generation, item pickups, skill trees, upgrades, expansion packs. Imagine a character’s reaction to your changes in graphical and audio setting, suddenly setting the voice to mute.
Isn’t it fascinating to think of how they might feel and react to the inner workings of video games?
Let me know what you think, maybe we can continue this some other time with more video game aspects!