Conflict of Interest takes a look at theory, ethics, and practice in video game journalism and the gaming industry as a whole. Because that's what the kids want.
What happens when you combine one part personal narrative, two parts theoretical criticism, and an immeasurable amount of try-too-hard wistfulness, and apply it to an analysis (deconstruction?) of a video game convention? Well, IGN decided to find out. Besides getting an article entirely devoid of substance, you are also left with hours of entertainment as you ponder exactly for whom the article was written.
Some might say that You Died: The Rights and Wrongs in Video Game Death is an article in which formic mimicry trumps, and ultimately nudges out, fundamental concerns like "having a thesis."
What struck me, however, was Mario’s startled face, his sudden shock and pain, upon slamming into a Goomba. He paused, tumbled through the air, and fell into oblivion. Gone forever, his mission for a princess’ love cut tragically shor... no wait, he’s okay. Somehow he returns to the world of the living. And so the cycle continues.
This is normal for us. And it gets weirder.
When the police gun down Niko Bellic in the streets of Liberty City, he should probably stay down. Yet he, too, rises. This miraculous ability was not Mario’s alone, but one shared by all digital denizens.
The problem with this deconstruction of the death convention in video games is that it is not a deconstruction. Instead of explaining what binary structures underlie the assumptions that lead us to accept video game death as normal, we are left with something more akin to "What's the deal with airline food?"
The deal with video game death is that it is a trope, and pointing out that it exists in an article and saying that it's weird is to not say anything at all.
Now, Clements suggests that video game death is strange because it implies "continuous resurrection." But does it? In his view, the "weirdness" of video game death lies in the way it breaks conventional narrative structure as a necessity of gaming's interactional nature. There are two points to consider:
1) Video game death can exist without a narrative.
2) Narrative structure in video games is not unbroken, even though it is linear.
Let's leave the first point for now. The second point states what everyone except Mr. Clements already knows: When the player dies in a video game, this is not a part of the story. The point at which the game resets marks the point at which the narrative resets, and the narrative only continues when the player successfully navigates the game.
But wait, there's more! Although Clements fails to explain why he believes his conception of video game narratives is correct in spite of how weird it apparently is, he makes the following leap:
With death so prevalent in video games you may wonder how any game with fail states (i.e. death) can challenge a player without breaking the realism of the fictional world. It’s possible, and many games do have ways to threaten players with the possibility of loss without killing off the star.
The Prince of Persia remake from 2008 took a clever approach to this issue by eliminating the need for repeated deaths altogether. Instead, the mysterious and magical Elika saves the hero with every mistake we as players make, preventing his untimely demise in a flash of light.
Does this game mechanic do anything to take the player out of the game less? Of course not, because straying outside of the mise en scene is not something that removes gamers from the narrative in the first place. Clements is merely confusing video games with movies. Whether Prince of Persia's mechanic exists or does not exist, the narrative is broken and reset in the same way it would have been. Incorporating the reality of player control into the narrative actually highlights the interactional nature of video games more so than ignoring it altogether. It expands the narrative to incorporate all player mistakes, but in a way that does not actually affect the story.
Space Invaders does not have a story. When the little ship dies, the player can wonder whether he is playing as a different ship, or if the original ship got repaired, or if some supernatural force is at play. But the player can also assume none of these, and simply understand that within the rules established by the game, a quarter equals a certain number of chances to play as a little ship.
This is to say that games that incorporate death into their narrative, like games that remove life bars and on-screen stats, do not do so because these qualities have an objective impact on a game's immersiveness; they do so because the developer's intention is for the game to appear to be more like a movie in its narrative and visual qualities. By making the assumption that a common device and structure in video games is somehow weird and jarring, Clements is implying that non-interactional narratives are inherently superior. Movies can be immersive, but they are not the sole guardians and keepers of immersive entertainment. What these design choices reek of is self-loathing. In their attempt to emulate cinema, these games create apologies for their own medium. Likewise, movies such as The Amazing Spider-Man that contain first-person camera shots and fetishized CGI, showing off computer-generated qualities like badges of pride, apologize for their medium and attempt to lure viewers in with the false promise of interactional, action-packed moments from a video game.
Ultimately, the blurring of conventions across media serves the higher purpose of creating one great, mass-marketed entertainment blob, in which movies and video games look the same, sound the same, and interact with players and viewers the same. Why? Because this guarantees profits and limits, focuses, and deadens the palettes and expectations of consumers. Are you seeing the new Transformers movie or playing the new Gears of War game? It doesn't matter!
You see, these are the assumptions underlying Clements' article, and that's how you perform a deconstruction.