First published in CubedGamers (Printed Edition): August 2016
Among the rollercoaster of emotions and possibilities in video games, death has always the most prominent, far more so than love. And in the great majority of games, death symbolises failure. The failure of the player to perform to the standards expected of them by the game designers.
From the earliest arcade games, which gave you three “lives” to accomplish a highest score, death has always played an important role in games, regardless of genre. Sonic the Hedgehog, Assassins Creed, Modern Warfare, The Sims, and Leisure Suit Larry, may treat death in different ways – without it some games would never end – but death is still there, even if it’s just an obstacle that be overcome simply by “having another go.”
The punishment for failure can vary. Some games send you back to the last checkpoint, a predetermined location on the map or a certain point within a level, or the start of a mission. In this sense, you take on the role as actor working through an already completed narrative, and having fluffed your lines, are simply asked to do the scene again and again until you perfect it. This is certainly the case with modern games, that have become more and more lenient.
In this respect, death acts as both an educative tool, and sometimes as a frustration. Having failed, a player is given another chance, and will naturally revise their approach in order to succeed. Act too harshly, either in terms of difficulty, or the amount of gameplay they have to repeat in order to potentially fail again, and they might become annoyed at their inability to succeed. The Grand Theft Auto franchise is a frequent offender, one that equally allows the player to take their frustrations out on the game – killing sprees that lead to certain death.
Some game designers however, delight in taunting and chastising players for their failure. For years, the masters of this were adventure game developers Sierra Online. their first adventure game – Kings Quest in 1983 – Sierra packed their games full of ways in which your character could die. Many of these were punishments for the gamers own stupidity, such as walking into a moat, or pushing a rock onto yourself (it is possible!).
Sierra also adopted dead ends as a means of prolonging game time. Having perpetrated a mistake that renders the game unwinnable, a player is a zombie, dead but without knowing it. Caused by failing to overhear a conversation, talk to the right person at the right time, failing to pick up an item, or using an item for the wrong purpose, dead ends were present in games as far back as the earliest text adventures, but Sierra perfected them.
Death in adventure games divided fans. Some Sierra titles took the idea further and started openly mocking the player for their failure. The best example being Space Quest, which includes dozens of humorous ways in which you can kill yourself, after which the narrator berates you. Highlights include “”Thank you for playing Space Quest. Too bad you’ve failed miserably and doomed all your people to a horrible death at the hands of the Sariens. If you continue playing as skilfully as this, we’ll never have a chance for a sequel. Better luck next time.” Not saved your game? Tough? Go back to the start of the game!
LucasArts, a rival adventure game company, always looked down on Sierra for their eagerness to kill off the main character and to place dead ends to extend game time, viewing it as a bad design choice. To an extent they are right. When the industry was relatively new, there was perhaps a willingness to accept the authority of the game and the parameters it places on you. Needing to keep the custard pie so you can throw it at a yeti later in the game? (Kings Quest V) Needing to die at least once so you can understand the intentions of the designer. Those were just the rules. Now they just seem like poor design.
Not to say that death as a mechanic is a poor design choice. Many games would not exist without death. Those who used cheat codes to gain infinite health on first person shooter games such as Doom would quickly find that all the tension had been sapped from the experience. Playing God might be cool for a while, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good game – unless your actually playing a God Sim such as Populous.
A twist on the mechanic are those games that carry on regardless in the face of a death. The original Wing Commander, Aliens: Infestation, the recent Before Dawn and most RPGs, will kill off characters if they die in battle or as part of the narrative. If a character dies, the plot will be reconfigured to take this into account. What is constant is that if the players character dies, or is knocked out, the game will often end without the player being able to resurrect them.
Sone designers have chosen to break from the regular hero narrative structure and have killed off their main character at the end of the game. This is an interesting twist, and invariably has led to funeral scenes in the epilogue where the characters’ life is remembered, and supporting characters turn up to pay tribute. Sometimes the players’ choices in the game might influence who is there. This is fair. The hero in literature doesn’t always triumph, so why should the hero in a computer game?
The two issues with killing off the protagonist both involve the relationship between the player and the character. A player may feel hard done by, when a character acts in one way in a cut scene that is contrary to how they might have handled the situation if they had been in control of the character at that time. The second is spoilers. If a player finds out the ending before they get there, the fact that your character dies often makes the whole journey appear pointless.
Is it time for a new direction? The death of your character distances a player from them, devalues their life, and reduced replayability, because you will know everything in advance. The Dark Souls games have developed an interesting take on death and rebirth that has been well received, for example, with your character being reborn. Some games, such as Sperlunky and Rogue Legacy redesign their levels every time you die. The latter even changes your characters’ traits. In Shadow of Mordor, orcs that kill your character become stronger and rise up the ranks of Sauron’s army, and even remember that they’d killed you before.
Death will always be a part of video games. But after so many years, perhaps it’s times to think of new ways to punish gamers for their failure.