Everybody wants to go to Heaven
But nobody wants to die
I can’t fear death no longer
I’ve died a thousand times
I just had one of THOSE moments. You know the type – a seeming “act of God” scenario that suddenly destroys hours of work for no apparent reason. A scenario you could never predict stops you in your tracks like a freight train. An inevitable conclusion arrives at a situation for which you could not possibly prepare, yet here comes the end of your life.
Meet this little fellow, the Wondrous Magus:
The creature looks so innocuous, doesn’t it? Looks can deceive. In that black robe and blue mask lies a being of pure evil that does not like you, your friends, or your family. Why does it hate you? Shadows don’t know why they hate. They just do. And they hate you.
Perhaps you might find yourself merrily jaunting around a Steaming Bath House, looking for Kanji Amagi in the Midnight Channel. Maybe you’re just wandering around the lower levels of a giant demon tower named Tartatrus. Maybe you wandered down a dark alley, and that will seem like a poor decision in retrospect.
When you see the glowing shadow begging for your attention, you might think “hey, I’ve got a good handle on this battle system. I’m level twenty or so, I can handle what the game calls ‘difficult”. Just exploit their weaknesses and kill them fast. I know this game.” Let me warn you:
NO YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO PLAY PERSONA 4. PERSONA 4 KNOWS HOW TO PLAY YOU. WONDROUS MAGUS SEE YOUR DESIRES FOR LOOT, MONEY, AND NEW PERSONA FORMS. RESIST THE SIREN SOUND OF THE FLASHING ENEMY IN THE STEAMING BATH HOUSE. RESIST!
Once you enter combat, my warning will make sense. If you failed to hit them in the back, you just started a game of Russian Roulette with all the chambers full. The three Wondrous Magus waited for this moment; the designers laugh in glee as they go first, destroy one or two of your characters in an instant, and then make it impossible to recover. Don’t have an AoE resurrection spell? Tough luck, buddy, not that you’d have that at this point in the game anyway. Wondrous Magus only cast Agi and Zio spells, which two of your party members hold as a weakness; prepare for them to die. Your healing spells do not heal fast enough, and the “Escape” command may as well be a taunt. Let your character die last as a cruel joke, and watch several hours of your life melt away as the Game Over screen appears.
I won’t lie: I sat there in disbelief for a moment, wondering what strategy could possibly work against these crazy foes. Delightfully, spending your time figuring out their weakness is a total waste, since they’re not actually weak to anything. Apparently Tentarafoo will function particularly well against a team of spell caster; still, two question: how would I know that, and would it work out well if I don’t go first? The Wondrous Magus gives you a test with no right answers, especially if you didn’t bother cheating. Seriously, how unfair is this? Does anyone else agree with me? What a load of crap.
As the initial waves of rage hit my brain like a particularly poorly built breakwater, one wonders what I did next. I yelled at the game for approximately five seconds, and then continued playing. Sure, I vented my disdain for Atlus’ poor design decision and how I died in such a dumb and unpredictable way, but I did keep playing. What else am I supposed to do? Stop playing? You already sucked ten hours our of my life; I may as well give you sixty more, Atlus!
Every gamer experiences this at least once. You either resign yourself in digital defeat, leaving the game alone for the rest of the day (or forever, as the case may be) or persevere until the end. Frustration and anger apparently make us better at games by sharpening our focus and allowing us to concentrate. I do not feel certain about that particular conclusion, but an unfair death does provide motivation to continue for the most counter intuitive reason: revenge (the good kind).
It doesn’t matter whether the game killed your unfairly or not. There’s always that tiny person within saying “that isn’t me. I am better than this”. The game will not conquer you, it’s only a game. I call it a form of delayed gratification. You tasted the bitter nectar of failure, and now you desire the sweet bliss of victory. Imagine how much more the desire rises in a JRPG! Crawling through that dungeon for at least another hour to receive another crack at it agonizes. But when you do return, and you know the stakes, that extra knowledge and skill applied to that same obstacle will (hopefully) yield victory. And even if we fail again, we try again and again and again until we win. Unless you’re a loser or something. Are you a loser? ARE YOU?
Nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to die. That continual threat of death, and that need for the internal validation of the game via a new story sequence, item, ability, or just a “You Win!” screen, enraptures most video gamers. Games rewards you for living, punish you for dying. For a brief, shining moment, you lose awareness of your bodily self and pursue the clearest goal that life ever gave you in the video game: don’t die.
And that is, fundamentally, why video games need to be about death. They can do something no other entertainment medium can: viscerally describe and detail, through engagement and immersion, the very reality of death. Film cannot do this, and movies cannot do this. We cannot vicariously experience this most Christian of ideas: to die, and then suddenly to live again, given a second chance for no reason other than the benevolence of the designer.
Here, start. GO. Try again. Game Over! Continue? As the blinking light of an CRT asks you for your monetary contribution, a thought might occur: when will I run out of tokens for this machine? Who’s giving you your lifeline?
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”