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Over on MTV’s Multiplayer blog, Stephen Totilo discusses death as a theme in games, by way of a great interview with Harvey Smith, Will Wright, David Jaffe, & CliffyB where they discuss the feasibility of exploring something as serious as death in games.

Totilo thinks Fire Emblem, with its permanent death for characters in your party, addresses a lot of that, and I have to agree. However, those mechanics are prohibitive to making that game accessible to a lot of people, which has in turn become part of the impetus behind Nintendo’s meddling with the mechanic for the Wii. They may have achieved greater accessibility, but it does sound like the changes also steal from the emotional impact.

My own example that I’ve played very recently is Viva Piñata. Now, it deals with death from a very different perspective – if I had a kid around the age that they might be asking questions about death (5? 6?), I’d sit down and play it with them. Death in the game is just part of the circle of life. You attract piñatas to your garden (like by growing things), you can name them, care for them, build houses for them…

But then some more piñatas might come, and eat those piñatas. The notion of letting the player build this relationship with a character, then taking the character away, is a powerful thing, stemming back to the death of Floyd from Planetfall. Plus the cuter they are the more it hurts, let’s face it.

Maybe the predators are just attracted by aspects of your garden, and you must defend your smaller piñatas. Other predators you may want to encourage to come to your garden, but you have to be willing to sacrifice your cute little piñatas, for your larger, carnivorous, but still really cute, piñatas.

(Granted, I would NOT use the game to explore this issue with a kid if the reason they were asking those questions was because a relative died… Trying to draw a correlation between Grandpa six feet under and a talking horse filled with candy is probably not gonna help. But, if it was a pet, let’s say, it seems like a great way to introduce the reasons why things like that happen and the systemic role death plays in nature.)

One of first piñatas I got was a bunnycomb (bunnies are cute to begin with, but make them a brightly colored piñata? Even the most cold hearted are susceptible, I say). And eventually a little girl bunnycomb came along. Or maybe it was really a boy and the first one was a girl, or maybe… Well, I just decided that was the order because of the way I had named them. I had named them after a couple friends, who live far away. I made them a house and they lived happily, doing their little piñata sex dance (probably unlike my friends – they’re married, after all).

Until a pretztail came to my garden. Now a pretztail is like a fox, so they’re pretty damn cute too. But I found out, a little too late, that pretztails eat bunnycombs. And my happy bunnycomb home was torn asunder. I looked at the remnants of my bunnycomb family, wife and child no doubt fearing for their safety, husband in pieces spread across the grass.

Meanwhile, the pretztail was proudly showing his colors that marked his being a part of my garden. I tried to hate the pretztail, but it didn’t really know any better. It was in its nature, I suppose. And so, after the momentary shock and grief, I went on to see if I could have a family of pretztails.

Now, Viva Piñata also has its problems, like the new version of Fire Emblem. You can sell your piñatas for cash to improve your garden. Not only can you sell them, but I certainly got to a point where the only way I could seemingly get enough cash was to do exactly that. Disturbing, really. They encourage you to empathize with the cute little candied filled creatures, and practically force you to sell them. And to where? The piñata slave trade? Where they can be taken and whipped until they give up their sweet bounty? I shudder to think of it.

So I protest some of the panel’s assertion that games can’t or haven’t already addressed issues like death in a meaningful capacity to some audiences. They just typically have done it with mixed messages and not as well as they could have. Which is why as an industry we shouldn’t be so afraid of trying to author a theme or message in our games – we can only get better with practice.