Orality and Respawn

There is a frequently overlooked problem in video game design involving the consistency of the game narrative alongside the need for the player to be able to respawn, meaning continue the game in light of being slain by a game mechanic, including another player. What makes for a good solution to this problem? First, repeatability: a game in which the player character is, say, Jesus couldn’t simply exploit Jesus’s one-time resurrection without wreaking havoc upon the story. The player needs to respawn potentially many times. Second, a good solution will explain why the player respawns at a particular location in the narrative and world of the game.

The cleanest solution is to make death final and respawn impossible. This is the approach seen in the “hardcore” modes of games like Diablo 2 and Path of Exile. But it is normally unacceptable because players will not tolerate permanent loss of perhaps hundreds of hours of progress.

Another solution is to never allow the player character to die, but only allow her to be removed from play or incapacitated. Some of the Super Smash Brothers games executed this well by casting player characters as animate toys that “die” by being blown off the stage and return to play carried by a robotic respawn device. But Smash Brothers is too whimsical for most game worlds in which the player character must be truly mortal to be believable.

What are some more attractive solutions? One is to make death a playable state. Demon’s Soul’s and Dark Souls take this approach by allowing players to play as a spirit or undead respectively. This solution makes it difficult to explain the respawn location, however. The designers of Demon’s Souls, for instance, tell us that the player character’s soul is mysteriously bound to a “Nexus,” which is why death always brings the character back to the same location.

Another particularly creative solution makes death final but allows for an identical or substantially similar player character to replace her fallen comrade. One example is Brute Force, a futuristic game in which a clone of the player character becomes active upon death of her comrade. Another is Rogue Legacy in which the player character switches to a descendant of the previous player character upon death.

Of interest to our present investigation is another solution: frame stories. Frame stories are meta-narratives, or stories about the telling of another story. Assassin’s Creed takes this approach by casting the player character as a man in a virtual reality machine that plays through the life of one of his ancestors (an assassin). This is a particularly elegant solution because death is construed as termination of the player’s connection to the virtual world. Furthermore, save points, which are normally aberrations in game worlds, make sense in a game that is virtual not only in fact but also in the game narrative.

Frame stories allow for the death and respawn of characters. A character may die but will be alive again, simply because the story within the frame is retold. No explanation beyond that the story was retold is required.

But there remains a problem: We moderns think of stories as books and consequently the retelling of a story as the repeating of the same text verbatim. Such repetition is of no use because the player needs to be able to correct her mistakes after respawn. Dragon Age 2 has a fixed-narrative frame story. As a result, it does not account for player character deaths and offers no solution to the respawn problem.

Here is where orality comes in. Orality is the mode of expression within an oral tradition, as opposed to written traditions. Oral traditions are texts conveyed by recitation and memorization, including traditions created and innovated upon by storytellers and bards. Their plots can be reconstructed from a pool of stock events, phrasing can be recycled and reimagined, the story can end once and end again but differently than it had.

We think of the Illiad and Odyssey as books, though they were originally oral traditions, redacted later on the page. The thought of bards internalizing tales of such length and retelling them in much the same form boggles our minds. Indeed, the discovery of their orality was only a comparatively recent event. Why not rediscover game narratives in much the same way, as variegated and multiform, stories retold and replayed.

What makes the orality solution interesting? Most notable is the impact gameplay has upon how we reinterpret the respawn mechanism (the frame story). Orality provides a dynamic mechanism for respawn. If death is rare, the overall feel of the tradition expounded over many tellings is comic, a happy ending. If the player character dies many times, the feel is tragic. When the player finally completes the game, a storyteller has rebelled against the storytelling conventions of his community. None of the solutions discussed previously do much in the way of player death enriching the game narrative or meta-narrative; the orality solution does.

The orality solution is also compelling because it provides a structure for game designers to stitch together the various deaths and respawns of a player character into a vibrant and changing narrative. The solutions examined previously, with the exception of the inherited role of player character, exemplified in Rogue Legacy, only provide a static respawn mechanism. Many of them are clever and improve our appreciation of the game story, but their function is still only the patching of a hole. They don’t allow the story to live and breathe.