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Death by the Decade: The evolution of dying in games

There are several ways to gauge how far videogames have come since their bleep-blorp beginnings. You can look at graphics, gameplay complexity, or as we’re about to illustrate, how your character actually dies in the game. As technology improved, so did the deaths suffered by the myriad protagonists, eventually progressing to the point where, today, you live through that death in the first person, forced to watch your hero’s grisly final moments.


Above: Thanks to science, you can now live firsthand the excitement of a good mauling 

This is by no means a collection of all the worst gaming deaths – it’s a look back at how, over time, games managed to connect the real-world player with their in-game death, and actually make you come to dread dying at all.

 
Yes, games existed prior to 1980, but in terms of “dying” there wasn’t much to make the player care about losing other than missing out on a high-score opportunity. That finally changed with Pac-Man, which featured the now-iconic fade-away-into-nothingness animation seen here:

Letting Pac-Man get tagged by one of the rainbow-colored ghosts sent him into a death spiral that has since become a part of mainstream pop culture. The next game on this list though, took things a step further and showed a vaguely humanoid avatar eating it.

 

At the time it was easy to picture yourself as Pitfall Harry, leaping over alligator heads and avoiding deadly scorpions. You’d breathe a sigh of relief every time you landed on a gator’s head and didn’t slip right into its toothy maw. A connection between real life and game life was made, making Pitfall one of the first games that made some kind of basic connection between human player and human character.

Then there was Dragon’s Lair, starring a hero you couldn’t keep from dying without hours of trial and error:

 

The first two minutes are how the game plays if you know what’s going on. The last bit is more indicative of actual gameplay, where Dirk is dying every five seconds in some new and unusual way, be it spontaneous skeleton-ing or burned alive by the goofiest dragon in history. It was hard to feel for Dirk, as you barely controlled the game in the first place, but no mention of early videogame deaths is complete without a nod to the first game where dying was part of the appeal.

Moving into the mid ‘80s, character sprites became involved enough that you could finally make out what was happening to ‘em when they croaked.


Above: We sure saw a lot of this 

Super Mario Bros., along with any character-based NES, Genesis and Super NES game, brought along varying animations of death, from the cartoonish ending seen above (where Mario throws his limbs out in a “wha happen!?” gesture) to many, many robots exploding into pieces.


Above: Mega Man bursting into bits of light


Above: The super-awesome M 308 Gunner from Metal Storm erupting into flames

The most prominent death from this era is one that, like Pac-Man, has become something of an in-joke that just about everyone understands – the flickering-until-you-disappear death from countless beat ‘em ups.


Above: You’ve just been beat to death. What next? 


Above: BINK! You zap out of existence, instantly replaced by another “you”

Flickering deaths were used extensively in arcade and console games from the mid ‘80s well into the ‘90s, most notably in stuff like Final Fight, Sunset Riders, X-Men and The Simpsons. Functional, yes, as it gets you back into the game quickly without much fuss, but doesn’t do anything to make you care about the character in any way. Lives are as disposable as the quarters you’re pumping into the machine.

Moving further into the 1990s, we start to see the first truly graphic depictions of death, from spinal columns to exploding heads to decapitations aplenty. Let’s check ‘em out!

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35 comments

  • SleepingDragon7 - July 10, 2009 10:53 a.m.

    A. I never got past 10 minutes of The Darkness, mostly because it scared the SHIT out of me. B. I love how in the Tomb Raider video how she screams then *snap*. I just had to laugh at that
  • civver - June 27, 2009 1:24 a.m.

    That last scene was pretty disturbing.
  • wiigamer024 - June 23, 2009 1:19 p.m.

    I always loved the Mario death. However, it always pissed me off, sometime i died 4 NO REASON! Also, what revrock said: the drowning scences in Sonic the Hedgehog were suspenceful! "OMG, wheres the freakin jump spring!?!"
  • MagicArmadillo - March 31, 2009 1:17 a.m.

    nice out of this world video i laughed my head off at that!
  • BurntToShreds - February 24, 2009 11:25 p.m.

    How could you forget Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth? If you witness too many horrifying events/things, your character will start to go insane, seeing and hearing things that aren't there. Eventually, it gets so bad that, when you pull a weapon out, your character kills himself. Not to mention at the beginning of the game, in the Arkham Asylum. After you finish writing in a journal, you hang yourself.
  • deathrebellion - February 23, 2009 6:29 p.m.

    Holy shit watching the guy in front of u get ripped open in quake and knowing that u can't do anythin to stop it is freakin sick & awesome
  • deathrebellion - February 23, 2009 6:27 p.m.

    while Playin Re4 i wuz bloody hell suprised to die so damn fast.Loads of ways to die too.. :-p frm the 1st beheading onwards i wuz scared when ever a Chainsaw dude popped up. also the bonus level Mercenaries has a stage that has a freaky double Chainsawed physco
  • Defguru7777 - February 22, 2009 11:18 p.m.

    I was touched by the Lone Wanderer's death at the end of Fallout 3. I thought it'd be like Oblivion where you could play after the main quest. It really did make me feel sad.
  • phoenix_wings - February 21, 2009 7:53 a.m.

    I remember the first time I died by being ripped to shreds by zombies. And then the nice informative "You Died" comes onscreen to remind me of the fact. Thanks! Just in case I didn't know. And just for kicks I remember the Licker just crawling over my body. Not eating or anything, just kind of sitting there saying "yeah...you're dead. haha"
  • oryandymackie - February 20, 2009 5:11 p.m.

    not giving away any BioShock spoilers, but everyone knows about Atlas, but the death in the bathysphere of "his family" is really sad. Also, in Saints Row 2 (what?) when Carlos dies is really really sad, I just went about killing as many Brotherhood as I could
  • reyalejandro13 - February 20, 2009 3:38 a.m.

    Well, at least there's one death that hasn't changed throughout the ages: Kirby. Spinning around and falling off the screen. Cutest. Death. EVER. Also, a confusing death: SSB Series. When you die, is there a mysterious off screen laser killing you like some kind of twisted Shoop Da Whoop? Or is your character exploding in a multicolored flash of light?
  • mkis007 - February 20, 2009 3:37 a.m.

    quake 4 ..... wow
  • CatchEisley - February 20, 2009 3:34 a.m.

    I never realized how dark "The Darkness" really was, I played the demo but wasn't really turned on by the gameplay, but the story looks like the driving point of the game and almost makes it look like it's worth checking out.
  • drunkenfish - February 20, 2009 1:38 a.m.

    I knew that Quake 4 scene had to be in there somewhere.
  • jamminontha1n2 - February 19, 2009 11:33 p.m.

    All the deaths from gears 2 seem to be rip offs of deaths from the immortal
  • somthing42 - February 19, 2009 11:26 p.m.

    Holy fuck, that Quake 4 scene was dramatic
  • Zslasher44 - February 19, 2009 10:51 p.m.

    Goes from Mario's jump - death after walking into a mushroom....to COD4's crawling misery through an irradiated Middle Eastern country How the times have changed
  • MrSegraves - February 19, 2009 9:08 p.m.

    That moment in the Darkness was one of the saddest moments I've ever seen in a videogame, especially after they had sat on the couch together, watching tv.
  • NelosAngelos - February 22, 2009 8 p.m.

    "Awww, what did they do to Jenny?" She didn't deserve to die...not like that. But she did. That game did it better than any move ever could in a death scene.
  • RaIdEn - February 21, 2009 1:55 a.m.

    when i played that level in COD 4 i was standing up and he fell to his knees when he died

Showing 1-20 of 35 comments

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