Posted by Brad Webster on Oct 8, 2012

The Concept of Death In Video Games

Death in video games is always handled differently. Some games you may simply respawn at the closest checkpoint, reload your gun and try again. Others may make you restart with fewer supplies or even back at the start of the level.  Death has always been a motivation to succeed in games, as we humans detest failure. Check out more recent years and you can really see the trend towards more inventive ways to die.

Demon’s Souls was among the first to take up the mantle of current-gen actual gaming death. In it, failure means to start the entire level again, weaker than you have begun it and facing stronger enemies. Each death carried immense weight and by using such a system the game unconsciously makes the player experience anxiety and even fear, despite it not being classed as a horror game. The fear of death conflicts with our desire to explore, to know what the next challenge will be and to see if we can best it. You could charge in now, already tired from the first half of the level, or retreat, spend your souls and return another time, but with all the previously vanquished enemies returning to life. It was utterly brilliant at its risk versus reward gameplay; you don’t want to continue but a part of you really does. When you do die however (when you fail), your next attempt is weighted with the burden of that previous failure and the knowledge that further death will cause even further pain next time around. What do you do?

Dark Souls (the sequel) definitely continued this trend. Especially with those Basilisks in the sewers of The Depths. They scared me more than anything I’ve ever faced in a game to date. Death to them meant absolutely terrible life upon respawn unless you could find a cure. Even just thinking about them makes me shudder.

Dead Space 2 itself was a game in which death meant little as you returned alive with all of your ammo and health, but the actual experience of death was the true psychological test. Dead Space 2 featured many, many different animations of death; your character being ripped to pieces by a Necromorph, an airlock shutting on Isaac’s chest or a creature cutting off your head and then dragging your body off screen.

Before the game was available to the public I had seen a press release in which a new enemy type was shown off. The entirety of the video was simply Isaac dying to this creature in full view of the camera. The thing would rip off his helmet after a struggle, throw up repeatedly into his mouth and then let go of him as he died of throwing it all back up again. This animation absolutely horrified me. Whenever I was playing the game after its release and I saw that particular creature I would back into a corner and do everything in my power to prevent it grabbing a hold of me. The power of the experience of death and failure itself easily outweighing the actual death of my character.

Death doesn’t always have to be a bad experience however. Indeed, in Super Meat Boy, the end result of many deaths in this tricky platformer is often a comedic one. Once you finally finish a level, all of your past attempts are shown playing out exactly how you failed, en masse. This could mean a dozen falling down a hole that you just couldn’t time the jump for properly, many others being crushed and still others landing on the deadly saws that the game is so fond of, all at once. This helps to make the player feel better about their final victory and gives them encouragement to have a crack at the next level.

Another game that death holds a unique challenge is One Single Life. In this game by Fresh Tone Games, your job is to leap across the gap between two buildings, which gets wider with each success. That’s it. No tricks or deceptions. Mistime your jump however, and your character will plummet to his death. Game over. No more lives to attempt it again, you’re finished. Uninstalling and reinstalling the app allows you to play the game once more for that one shot at beating the challenge nobody else can (even though that’s technically cheating). That in itself is the biggest hook of the game, rather than the actual experience. Can you beat what everyone else quits on? At the start of each level is a billboard that states the percentage of players that have died on that particular jump, adding a real sense of unease and tenseness. A truly unique attempt at designing death if there ever was one.

Death in video games can make or break the experience. Too soft and the player breezes through without worrying about any of the challenges you’ve set them to face. Too hard and you risk losing the player to frustration before they’ve seen your game through to the end. These are only a few examples of how designers have dealt with the concept in games but there are many more to be found. With new releases happening nearly every day, it will be interesting to see death’s overall development across each genre, and how it will ultimately continue to affect the true experience of each video game that uses it.

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  • http://www.capsulecomputers.com.au Michael Irving

    This is a really interesting piece. I love comparing how games deal with different traditions in their own way.
    It’d be great to see more of this kind of writing!