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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  • nyef - February 19, 2009 8:45 p.m.

    nice job gamesradar. pretty informative. I still love the "WTF?" look on mario whenever he dies to this day
  • nyef - February 19, 2009 8:46 p.m.

    ... oh yeah... FIRST!!! <('.'<) <--- Kirby :P
  • FrozenImplosion - February 19, 2009 9:19 p.m.

    You have no idea how surprised i was when i first got my head cut off. And also, it wasn't even more than twenty minutes into the game!
  • Corsair89 - February 19, 2009 10:32 p.m.

    Oh man, I remember the scene in the Darkness vividly. Thart scene was burned into my memory as much as the Bioshock twist.
  • flare149 - February 19, 2009 11:01 p.m.

    The Darkness is the one game I compare all other characters and story too. it was amazing and I've never seen any other game do so much so well. I swear it would've gotten 10's across the board had it not had the mediocre multipalyer tacked onto the side. Really looking forward to a second one.
  • DaBadGuy - February 19, 2009 11:46 p.m.

    Very great article, every week you guys come up with great stuff, keep it coming.
  • aequitas13 - February 19, 2009 11:59 p.m.

    +1 for the Tomb Raider 'broken neck' montage...
  • bamb0o-stick - February 20, 2009 1:19 a.m.

    Will we ever see The Darkness on PC? I really am bummed out that this game never got ported and I am really interested in this game. I stopped the video on the Darkness halfway through in this article because it just felt so deep and emotional. I didn't want to have the game ruined for me. I sure hope Seabreeze doesn't screw PC gamers over.
  • RebornKusabi - February 20, 2009 1:43 a.m.

    I gotta say, I'm with you on a comment you made that Jericho has some cool moments (said death is one of them) but it has some problems. If it would have been done by a better developer, I honestly think it would have been a great game. As is, it's just an okay game.
  • revrock - February 20, 2009 1:53 a.m.

    Sonic the Hedgehog drowning in 2D always disturbed me... The music building up and them BAM you are dead.
  • vic88 - February 20, 2009 5:21 a.m.

    really? no link to the RE4 death scenes video on youtube, thats full of die'n
  • iKOemos - February 20, 2009 9:32 a.m.

    I love The Darkness... Jennie's death scene was really well done.
  • jdog2491 - February 20, 2009 11:49 a.m.

    lol the hunter eating a grenade made me lmao and quake 4 was the best one on here
  • Xplosive59 - February 20, 2009 1:05 p.m.

    great article but on the last page it was more about deaths in cutscenes that are uncontrollable such as the cod 4 one where you have to go through that phase to continue the game, compare this to the resi 4 death as it is controllable and you dont need it to happen making it into a death animation but if it was an article about deaths in uncontrolable cutscenes it would have been perfectly ok
  • norid - February 21, 2009 12:40 a.m.

    "And that......well that was the first time i died" :( saddest ending for me.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Zslasher44 - February 19, 2009 10:51 p.m.

    Goes from Mario's jump - death after walking into a COD4's crawling misery through an irradiated Middle Eastern country How the times have changed
  • somthing42 - February 19, 2009 11:26 p.m.

    Holy fuck, that Quake 4 scene was dramatic