Continuing in the attempt to bring more content to this blog, today I’d like to spend some words about another game I’m playing lately: Torment: Tides of Numenera. Be aware, however, that this post could contain some minor spoilers on the game’s narrative.
Torment: Tides of Numenera is a great RPG that mixes traits of “old school” games with recent technologies and features, resulting in a very neat overall experience. As its title suggests, it is a spiritual successor of Planescape: Torment, just with different setting and rules. The two games have more in common than the genre and a word in the title: they both address gray areas of ethics, philosophy and (I dare to say) metaphysics as well. Behind their narrative focus, lies a very interesting set of mechanics that somehow strengthens those core concepts. There is one in particular that I think is worth discussing: in Tides of Numenera (like in its predecessor) your character cannot die. As an embodiment of a death-cheating inventor known as “Changing God”, the protagonist is a sort of vessel that cannot perish. Whenever his health points reach the zero, he just wakes up in his mind – represented as a metaphysical place, a Labyrinth – and then comes back to the physical world by entering a simple portal.
This is interesting because in certain situations death does not represent an ending state, but a possible development to exit an impasse or solve dramatic circumstances. A very elegant take on the matter, and a choice that I consider difficult to implement consistently as inXile devs were actually able to do. Nevertheless, there is something that bugs me a lot about this mechanic. The fact is that it doesn’t apply all the times, as the protagonist can face some (really) deadly dangers. As in: there are certain specific situations in the game where the rule doesn’t work, and your character might die definitively. From a narrative point of view this is ok. I mean, it fits the setting and the whole storyline without doubt. But when this happens, Tides of Numenera shows you a classic “load previous save” screen – somehow throwing away all its consistency.
Not the wisest Castoff
Tackling the topic of death in digital games could be hard, I am well aware of it (especially if you plan to do it in a concise blog post…). I remember this concept being specifically explored by Ceccherelli (2007), for example. And I believe that it’s relevant to my analysis to also mention Aarseth’s (1997) reasoning over cybertexts’ not-linear reading flow, because loading a previous save kinda “breaks” the narrative construction that the game was trying to achieve with the player’s interactions. Changing the interpretation, the understanding, and the memories about Tides of Numenera as a text.
However, my point here is to focus on the value of a design choice in relation to the game’s credibility and coherence. We have a game, Torment, where the main character cannot die. This mechanic has a strong relation to both the scripted narrative and to the generated story that emerges from player’s interactions with the game (Calleja, 2008). We could say that death, and how to cheat it, is the very main focus of this game. Since the protagonist is an immortal of some sort, including playable situations where his powers are not enough to cheat death appears as a very intriguing design choice. It gives death a value, a meaning, as the possibilities of its happening are scarce, and hence represent a rare resource.
But then, when death comes, the game breaks this dynamic. It grants the player a chance to load a previous save file.
Goodbye, suspension of disbelief.
Hello, meaninglessness of a design choice.
How can death be so central in Numenera, and yet have so trivial value? Could this devaluation-by-design be avoided?
I don’t have an answer to solve the riddle, to be honest. In my reasoning I’d say: for the sake of coherence, let the character die, involve permadeath mechanics in the game so that death actually has value. Force the player to be very careful when taking risks. Enhance the whole experience and its significance. I can see why this was not forced into the game: to constrain permadeath of a character in a 40+ hours long RPG could be lethal for the player’s acceptance. Players commit to their creatures, and they value the time spent playing. As Tides of Numenera is, each player has the chance to go back and try to traverse the game with a different approach. At the same time one could say: “All right, my character died. Let’s start from scratch again.” Which is the reasoning with survival games, for example. There, commitment to the character and its story is completely different.
So probably the choice to devalue death was all about commitment. Or not.
As I said, there’s no real answer to this issue. The designers did nothing wrong, they chose a path.
Still, I’m not sure if I like to walk that way.
– Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press
– Calleja, Gordon (2009). Experiential Narrative in Game Environments, DIGRA
– Ceccherelli, Alessio (2007). Oltre la morte. Per una mediologia del videogioco. Napoli, Liguori Editore