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

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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

Showing 1-20 of 35 comments

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