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Death by the Decade: The evolution of dying in games

 
The first four or five years were mostly regurgitated deaths from the ‘80s, now with a few more pixels and extra frames of animation. However, one series we’re all familiar with today ushered in a new wave of violence that took non-gamers by such surprise they ended up discussing it in US congress of all places. That game was 1992’s Mortal Kombat, and more importantly, the 1993 Genesis port:

One-on-one fighters had been around for some time, and by this point Street Fighter II was one of the biggest names around. MK made a name for itself by allowing you to desecrate your opponent’s body, and they could do to the same to you. Combine heart-ripping and spine pulling with digitized, real-world actors and you get a game that made dying much more realistic than anything before it, and way more impactful than over-the-top entries like Time Killers.

Just a couple of years prior Electronic Arts (when it was still a li’l publisher trying to get by) released The Immortal, one of the earliest ultra-gory bloodbaths we can think of. Pictured up there is your wizard popping some goblin’s head, but one of the main bullet points for the game was watching the numerous ways you could die. You’d be dissolved, eaten by a worm, sliced to death, impaled by arrows, all kinds of specific deaths with their own animations – a truly unique approach for the day.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Dragon’s Lair-esque deaths from games like Out of this World and Heart of the Alien, where we spent just as much time killing the poor guy as we did trying to get him home safely. Tech had evolved just enough to make crude polygonal figures act out graphic death throes, which should have made us feel something for the poor sap we just got killed. Too bad the death scenes ended up being more hilarious than horrifying.


Above: If you’re ever feeling down, this always makes us smile

Similar fates befell characters in animation-heavy games like Flashback, Blackthorne and the original Prince of Persia. The poor prince would be cut in half or, as was usually the case, impaled on perfectly placed spikes.

 

Meanwhile, Doom showed us how amazingly intense the first-person perspective could be. We’d been shooting things to death for years at this point, but Doom put you in the shit, with monsters sneaking up behind you, darting around corners and crawling right up in your face and clawing your eyes out. It all came to head when you finally died and slumped to the ground staring at the baddie who killed you.


Above: Freshly killed Doom marine, keeled over on the floor 

Mimicking the actual process of dying (slinking down to your knees, then onto the floor) completed the illusion and made Doom not just one of the best-playing games of the day, but also one of the most engrossing. You actively tried to get away from demons and zombies for fear of yet another death unbefitting a space marine. Scary stuff, but nothing compared to the industry-wide fright induced by the original Resident Evil.

 

While it wasn’t technically the first survival horror game, Resident Evil made the genre a household attraction thanks to its “oh god get away get away” moments. Zombies would shamble towards you in an unrelenting gait, bosses could swallow you whole and the hunters, seen below, could swipe your head off with ease. Low ammo, low health and limited saves made the entire mansion feel oppressively evil, and every bit of damage Chris or Jill suffered translated into your sweaty palms.


Above: The Hunter insta-kill, as seen in the GameCube remake

At this point in gaming, characters were much more humanlike than their sprite predecessors, which is part of the reason RE was so damn moving. When you inevitably did fall victim to blood stained zombie teeth, it was so in-your-face that you couldn’t help but feel a little jolt. Far, far more involved than watching Pac-Man collapse into himself.

Third-person action games became the norm in the mid-to-late ‘90s, and with them came a whole new range of death animations. Most were emotionally on par with the earlier generation, as there was still very little to draw you in or persuade you to take greater care of your character. The Tomb Raider series, however, brought about a heroine we wanted to protect, yet ended up throwing her off the highest things we could find.


Above: Lara Croft dies via fire, spikes, bullets, gravity...

You spend so much time safely guiding her through treacherous caverns that when she finally does miss a leap and plummet to her mangled death, you feel a bit guilty about giggling at the ragdoll effects. Silly as they were, they carried more weight than Snake’s spin-around-in-a-circle seizure from Metal Gear Solid, an otherwise fantastically personal game.

By the end of the ‘90s, Mortal Kombat was tame and commonplace, beheadings were expected and the ESRB allowed all sorts of vicious kills thanks to the “M for Mature” banner. Heading into the 2000’s though, death takes a great leap forward, one that we’re not sure can be beat.

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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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