Death is pretty final. Once it happens to you, you don’t get another go. Game over, so to speak. But in games, this is almost never true. For such an enormous concept in life, how have games got death so wrong?
Death seems to be used as a method for motivating us in games. The possibility of death should give our actions some meaning. But of course, when we can just reload at the last checkpoint and have another go and it becomes stripped of any actual consequences, death in games becomes utterly meaningless.
Take a look at GTA4. In that game, I drove my car off a bridge into the river, I was shot to pieces by police SWAT teams, my car exploded after mistiming a grenade, I crashed into an oncoming bus and smeared my brains all over myriad bits of pavement. But never died. After each and every grisly demise, I simply stepped out of a hospital with slightly less cash. So clearly, death is pretty slippery in GTA4. That is, unless you’re not the player character. In the last act of the game, either your girlfriend or your cousin dies. And they really die. No quick hospital visit for them.
But all the other times in the game when I’ve died makes the notion of someone else dying from taking one bullet pretty ridiculous. The way that the game has treated death so far doesn’t exactly make me take it seriously. Not when I can jump from the roof of the tallest building in the city, pay $500 to be put back to pieces and be back on the street in less than a minute.
This effect is even more absurd when the player character himself dies at the end of a game (in Red Dead Redemption for example). The game has decided that only that death counts. All the times I died on my way to the Ultimate Death were just pretend deaths to prepare me for the proper one. Which means that death only really happens when the designer of the game wants it to happen. Remember in Skyrim, where some characters were unkillable? They’d just do that weird crouching thing when you were relentlessly bashing their skull in with a hammer. This is for purely practical reasons of course, as the story would break if I could kill the man who gave me my first quest. Still bloody weird, though.
As with so many issues in games, it comes down to that interplay between player agency and developer intention. The developers have a set story that they want to tell and I, as a player, want to feel like my destiny in the game isn’t utterly predetermined. I want to feel like I am the player character. So if I choose to kill someone, I want the game to be able to deal with it and not break when I do. If a game gives me the tools to kill someone and even encourages me to kill people, it shouldn’t get all upset when I decide to off a major NPC. I want it to be able to react to my actions.
Of course it wasn’t always like this. We used to have a certain number of lives in classic platformers like Sonic and Mario. Each time we played we would see how far we could get those original three lives to stretch into the game. Of course, this is back when we had no saving capability either, so half the fun was seeing how far you could get before you were forced to stop playing by your mum. This was even more true of arcade games. Death in that served simply as a mechanic to get people to chuck another quarter in the machine. You could buy your life back.
I think death as it currently exists in games is a paradigm left over from those days. All death is, in most games today, is a minor obstacle, a momentary inconvenience. At worst it’s the game telling you that you did something wrong. If dying means that I have to reload and reconsider my approach to a problem, then fine – but don’t call it death. In fact, some games are doing this already by turning this problem into a game mechanic. In Prince Of Persia: Sands of Time, Braid, SSX and countless racing games, the player can rewind when they make a mistake. Does this spoil immersion? Possibly, but also no more than being booted from the game and told to reload at an earlier point.
On the other hand, there are games where death is half the fun. Limbo for instance regularly forced you to die in order to understand what you were supposed to do in the puzzles. This was sometimes surprising and morbidly delightful, but just as often totally maddening. Dark Souls took it even further.
What I want to see from death in games is something more considered. People have experimented with the idea of permanent death before, like Ben Abraham’s Far Cry 2 epic and the amazing Realm of the Mad God. But what I really want to see is game designers thinking about how they can investigate the idea of death even more in a game. At the risk of sounding like Molydeux, why can’t there be a game where when the player character dies, she’s dead for good, but the player now inhabits the body of another character, possibly an enemy or someone who previously seemed to be an inconsequential background character. You then pick up the story from the time the first character died, seeing the consequences of their actions from another character’s perspective. Or how about a game where when you die, you’re sent to an afterlife and discover an entire other world that you would never have known about if you hadn’t died.