Zones of death!
Do you know what the top of Mt. Everest is called? The Death Zone. Well, all right, to be really technical the Death Zone is any region in climbing which involves going so high that human beings can’t get enough oxygen to live. It’s a region wherein every moment you stand there brings you closer to death, because you cannot get enough precious, life-giving oxygen.
Why in the world are you going to the Death Zone? Do you want to die? This isn’t the Maybe Sort Of Possible Death Zone If You Know What I Mean, Wink Wink. It is the Death Zone!
Not that this makes the average climber any dumber than the average video game character, or for that matter, the average gamer. We get a lot of laughs out of watching characters do stupid things that we like to say we’re smart enough to avoid, but the fact of the matter is that we’re in the same boat as the horror movie fans who go wandering around int he dark without a flashlight without thinking about it.
As the Final Fantasy II installment of the Final Fantasy Project rolls on, I can’t help but notice two things that are relevant to this article’s particular thesis. The first is that no one in the game seems to question why it is the characters keep moving forward even when there’s no logical reason to do so. The other is that I’ve never seen any other player who questioned why the cast was still involved in the plot. It keeps up a solid forward motion, and it very subtly avoids pointing out to you as a player that you really have lost any connection to the fate of people on the screen several minutes ago. It’s a holding pattern, no one cares, there’s no reason for you to care, but you keep going forward.
“Assault the dreadnought!” they say. And you just smile and nod, and at best you ask yourself how ridiculous it is, and then you go and do it because the game stops otherwise.
You might not like when a game’s story sets you up as the destined savior of legend – I certainly don’t. But at least then you have some reason why people are asking you to trek into places like the Forbidden Zone or the Death Mountains or something like that. Otherwise you’re just asking a bunch of otherwise normal people to go to the Death Zone when it will likely kill them, because again, Death Zone.
No one should be going to the Death Zone, ever. People called it that originally for a reason (namely, it’s a place where people died a lot) and it takes someone with either a death wish or poor pattern recognition to decide that they’ll take a casual stroll into this zone with a defining feature of lots of people dying.
Which is kind of the hallmark of video games in general. We have spent our entire lives as gamers being told that the harder something is, the better stuff we should get from it. Tell a sensible person to go through the Zone of Face Ripping and their reaction will be some variant on “no,” but tell a gamer about it and they will immediately begin speculating about what happens when you get all the way through it. Even if the actual answer is “you leave with approximately 45% of your face ripped.”
In the real world, what is actually in the Death Zone are a bunch of high mountain tops. There’s no treasure there. People sensibly keep their treasures in places where they can be accessed without fear of constant death.
I’m not saying that we have built a generation of people rendered so immune by video games as to assume that Death Zones are no big deal. The number of avid gamers who have climbed Mt. Everest is vanishingly small (if it’s not a nice round number, I’m not sure), largely because even if you’re somehow deluded enough to think that the Death Zone hosts grand treasure, that’s way the fuck and gone from your couch, dude. There’s probably a climbing sim somewhere, that’s almost as good, right? Build it in Minecraft.
No, I’m saying that every so often, it might be a real break from form to reward a player for doing something reasonable instead of what games have conditioned us to do for years. Even if it’s unannounced. Let the player smart enough to say “I am going nowhere near anything called Murder Gorge” be rewarded for their staunch policy of avoiding regions that seem most likely to result in peril and/or death. Some examples? Yes.
Allow diplomacy to work once in a while. Not just in games where I might be able to pass a Diplomacy or Persuasion check, although that would be nice too. Give us the option of talking things out and really hashing out my differences with someone rather than just shooting my enemies, which is a bit more satisfying but also marks my character (and by extension me) as a bit of a sociopathic bully.
Have your villains in reasonable places. Death isn’t evil, it’s just the natural result of biology. There’s no reason for Baron Von Puppymurder to set up shop in the Death Zone or the Murder Zone or even the Fiery Endoscopy Zone. Perhaps he should be based in the Tropical Paradise Zone, where he actually would like to be. I’m not particularly fond of the heat, it’s still going to be mildly unpleasant and sticky.
Let me turn down stupid missions. “We want your four-person band to go assault the impregnable stronghold.” Well, we would like very much not to die. So find another quartet of chumps, and then when their bodies are flung from the high walls, perhaps we can try my four-person band’s original plan, which was talking politely with our villains and trying to hash out our differences.
I look forward to a new era of games in which no one enters obviously unpleasant zones, and all conflicts are resolved through mature means rather than dragging people into pointless wars with massive death tolls. And then everyone can get a job, occasionally complain, wander about at 3 AM in a drunken haze because they don’t want to go home but can’t stay at any of the bars…
On second thought, perhaps that’s why our characters are so eager to head into the Death Zones in the first place. At least they’re exciting.