It seems this Far Cry 2 permadeath experience is interesting to more folks than I expected. Kieron was kind enough to give a mention in RPS' Sunday Papers and Clint himself wrote a fantastic response (and if you're coming here from either of those places, welcome!). And I wanted to discuss that response, or more accurately, ask "That sounds great. So how do we get there?"
That is to say, an alternate title for this post could be, "How Do We Make People Want to Die Forever?"
I highly suggest you give Clint's post a read, but to summarize, he says focusing on using narrative techniques to make games more emotionally impacting is deeply problematic. By emphasizing narrative tools, instead of ludic (game) ones, we're ultimately limited to being as good as film, literature, etc. Instead of exploiting the unique strength of games, we'll inherit the constraints of narrative-based media, and toss all the constraints of games on top of that.
To expand more upon something Clint touches on, one of the big challenges with using narrative-based tools to address these issue is the player becoming emotionally invested in the narrative is a precondition for it being affecting. This is very hard to do and I'd say the majority of games that attempt this do not succeed for most players. Quality of writing/performance will only address this so much. As human beings, we're basically hardwired for emotional empathy. Good writers/actors/directors understand this and they are quite good at creating fiction that creates empathy. Between the uncanny valley, nonlinear storylines, breadth of content and other issues, there's a lot of work to do for games to get to this point, and even then, I'm skeptical of us ever truly hitting par.
Anyone who's played tabletop RPGs for a while will recognized this problem of narrative buy-in. The GM will construct a serious, complicated storyline only to have the players not engage with it at all. A poor GM will become frustrated, dig in their heels and start rubbing the player's faces in a narrative they don't care about. Games have the same problem, except they can't detect when the players are not being engaged and course correct like a good GM can.
Clint argues, and I agree, that if we're going to see games create meaning differently, and possibly even be more engaging, more affecting, we have to do it through the tools of gameplay. The deep meaning games can produce will come from interacting with their systems.
But how do we encourage players to seek out these deep interactions?
As of now, a great many players, through no fault of their own, are content to sit back and enjoy the ride. Engaging deeply with game systems is still a relatively uncommon occurrence, and it doesn't help that there aren't too many games that are especially conducive to this. I'm barely even sure where to start building this pedagogy.
Making game systems more readable (ah, that old chestnut) is a good start, I think. If the depths of these systems is too obscure, it's going to be difficult to encourage investigation. It's easy to add permanent death to Far Cry 2, because the death mechanic is obvious and ubiquitous. Others interactions may be less obvious and playing with them (literally) is only possible when their existence is known and at least partially understood.
Like a good GM, we need to facilitate players in seeking out what interests them and then finding ways to still surprise and challenge them. Creating that investment is the first step toward deep meaning. For narrative-based media, their currency is empathy. For us, I think the currency is interest and engagement.
Beyond that, I don't really know. But it's something I know I'm going to be thinking about a lot in the days and weeks to come. And I know that we have to find some methods of teaching players how to discover these meaningful interactions. It's not going to arise organically for a great many people, simply because it's so different from how we engage with narrative-based media.
To be clear, I'm not saying all games have an imperative to do this. There will always be a seat for the Mario Karts, for the Trines (as an aside, I've been playing this lately and it's fantastic. Imagine D&D + The Lost Vikings + Little Big Planet).
But if we want to create experiences that are profound, that will truly touch those that experience them, we have to light the path for them. So how can we build some lanterns?