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Death by the Decade: The evolution of dying in games

 
Even with more powerful hardware, the GameCube, PS2 and Xbox didn’t do much to further the relationship between a character’s death and the player’s reaction. Most were just prettier versions of 32-bit deaths, usually with the character slumping over in a canned animation. In fact, the only game that really made us jump and react in horror was latecomer Resident Evil 4.

Two words: chainsaw decapitation.


Above: Chainsaw halfway through Leon’s neck as he feebly fights back 


Above: Aaaand now his head is falling backward into the camera

Oh how we wish there were a collection of reaction shots from everyone’s first beheading. No doubt they’d be a gallery of shocked faces and “awww shit!” flailing. Knowing you could eat it in one hit, and in such a graphic way, made the otherwise fast-paced and shooter-y RE4 a might scarier than even its groundbreaking ancestors.

That brings us to present day and modern machines, where the ultimate form of immersion is making death far more intimate.


Above: Gaaaah! 

First-person deaths have been around for quite a while (we mentioned Doom earlier, in fact), but today’s games go to great lengths to make you feel like you’re the one being torn to pieces by a zombie mob (as seen in Left 4 Dead) or as seen in (spoiler!) The Darkness, the one committing suicide after watching someone murder your girlfriend.


Above: Looking into a mirror with a gun in your mouth, while your demon pal tries to stop you 

The Darkness example is truly one of the most touching and emotive moments in videogames, period. We gave it a Platinum Chalice Award in 2007 for this very scene, all of which is seen through Jackie Estacado’s eyes. Watch it below and see why we’re all a-fussin’.


Above: Serious business

A similar situation unfolds in 2007’s Jericho. A few missions in you’re snatched by a flying baddie, dismembered and dropped from the air. It all happens so fast (especially since you’re not expecting the main character to die so soon) and is such a brutal end that, even though we weren’t attached to the hero, it made us realize how disorienting and traumatizing the event would actually be.


Above: You are being mauled to death. That’s your blood, your arm and his beady eyes 

Compare this to flickering away in Double Dragon, and you can see a clear progression, to the point where now we can directly experience our avatar’s deaths instead of merely watching them.


Above: A sudden, violent end to the leader of Jericho squad

Another great example: Call of Duty 4’s mission that is nothing but you crawling out of a helicopter post-nuke, then promptly dying. We don’t really know the Marine too well, but it’s all too easy to picture yourself there, in the chopper, desperately trying to lurch to safety but too wracked by pain to get anywhere at all.


Above: Unexpectedly poignant moment from an M-rated FPS

Finally, we have an equally disturbing scene from Quake 4, where you’re strapped down to a table, cut apart and rebuilt as a Strogg, all seen from your own unbelieving eyes. It was a great way to kick off the new generation of consoles, and something of a benchmark for drawing the player in.


Above: Watching your own legs get sawed off is effing insane

Games like Gears of War, Dead Space and GTA all have bloody deaths and plenty of ways to die, but are usually so excessive they’re comical or the goddamn ragdoll physics ruin what should be an intense, memorable scene. Killing the player from first-person, on the other hand, offers a glimpse at death we couldn’t even fathom on lesser hardware.

With examples like The Darkness and Call of Duty 4, we can see clear growth in the way games handle death. It doesn’t always have to be a meaningless nuisance or deterrent – when handled properly, as with story, dialogue and music, death in gaming can become something far greater and undeniably final, toying with emotions in ways that film has enjoyed for decades.

Maybe then we’ll get these opportunistic politician assholes off our back too, eh?

Feb 19, 2009



Five in-game deaths that actually made us sad
Bereavements that really mattered



Game Babes: A History
Ogling through the ages, from Atari to PS3



Console codenames: before they were famous
Nintendo Dolphin? Microsoft MARZ? The embarrassing first attempts that almost happened

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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