The Virtual Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Gaming

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“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

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.

Or something…

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[ 5 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. I remember a game on the BBC Basic or Acorn computers we had at school (yeah, showing my age a little now).

    It was called Poverty Line, and it was the most miserable, soul crushing game ever. It was like a British version of Oregon Trail, but instead of traversing the United States, you instead had to survive below the poverty line in Victorian Britain.

    You had to choose to work in a glue factory, at a cotton mill, or a handful of equally depressing jobs. You needed to provide for your family by getting the right food, because if you didn’t, they died one by one of Urchin’s Lung or Scarlet Arsehole or some other equally antiquated illnesses.

    Eventually, you died as well, and the game ended with a screenshot of a poorly-tended gravestone with your name on it. Depressing.

    At least until we figured out how to hack the game’s code to give you as much money as you wanted. You still died, but at least you died surrounded by fresh vegetables.

  2. Fire Emblem is a series of strategy games where your (usually characterized) forces never come back if killed.

    The entire Roguelike RPG subgenre hinges on permadeath.

    One short Roguelike, You Only Live Once, implements what you suggested at the end of this article. If your character kicks the bucket, you switch to another inhabitant of a small village and carry on.

  3. I think that game poverty line must explain the general apathy of Britain’s youth as opposed to the “go getting” attitude of those in the US.

    What about MMOs, I have never played one but don’t they have real punishments for death. Like the loss of all your items, or losing several character levels.

    Or when it spills over into real life like that Chinese guy who hunted down and killed someone for stealing his sword on World of Warcraft. Or the girl who died playing it too much…

    So actual real life death, maybe that the new edge your looking for.

  4. When reading this I thought of Fire Emblem too, it had a great game mechanic, because unlike similar games like Advance Wars, where there was no attachment to any of the units and you would just bombard the enemy, you would be genuinely concerned about the survival of your units. This completely changed your tactics in the game and makes it (in my eyes) by far one of the best strategy games. There was an element of keeping your army alive and you would even have to (shock horror) retreat at some points. It rewarded keeping your army alive with individual story lines, which in some cases unlocked more characters, items, etc.

    Really like the idea of dying and then taking control over another character in the game.

  5. I think that it’s true that in most games death is used as a punishment mechanic for not playing well enough, and that its use has encouraged absurd sounding conversations about how many times you’ve died or that one boss who consistently kills you.

    Which I think has led to an unusual misalignment in de-sensitivity. On one end, you’ve got these words ‘death’ ‘kill’ ‘die’ being used an a very open fashion in conversation about video games. But then you have their real world counterparts, more often than not, censored from view and experience. Leaving you desensitised to the language describing death, but unfamiliar with the real life collateral involved in demise.

    But I guess, not all games are there to teach us how to overcome, experience and adjust to death.

    It is something I find laughable in my playing of MMOs and RPGs. Explained by an afterlife Goddess informing me that it’s not my time yet, encouraging me to go find my corpse, re-inhabit my body and give them what for. Or a pop-up box asking me if I want to retry the previous battle, which I probably failed because I jumped in knowing that I could easily quit and give it another go.

    It feels like the more a game is made accessible to a wider audience, the less punishment and consequence there is for death. (At least as a punishment mechanic.)

    As a gamer who likes to build grow with my characters, taking ownership of them, the thought of permanently dying scares me a little. But I agree that death hasn’t been fully explored in gaming and an experience in which you die and pick up new characters regularly will most definitely lead to some interesting non-linear development.

    An interesting subject, keep ‘em coming.

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