Game characters die. They die a lot. It happens. In a medium built around win/lose conditions, and the progressive overcoming of the latter element of such, death is inevitable. Rarely though, is it important. A quick slap on the wrist, and a rapid reset. A brief judgement that youve been playing too badly for too long, and that the game would like you to try this bit again please because oh goddamnit its embarrassing to watch.
But sometimes, games make an extra effort. Sometimes they turn death into something more than an arbitrary do-over, and actually play with its themes and functions in a much more interesting way. With arcade money-munchers long gone, and limited lives as archaic as wooden teeth and 4:3 TVs, these games are taking one of gamings longest-serving but most superficial tropes, and turning it into something truly important. Read on!
An earlier version of this article was posted in January 2014. It has since been updated with delicious new entries.
The death of serious narrative causality
Its rare that an NPC death really matters. I mean, logisitically. With game stories usually built with the player-character at their centre, the fallout is usually just a brief emotional hit before moving right on. But what if that hierarchical divide wasnt so obvious? What if these tragic, premature mortalities werent limited to those in the periphery of your lead character, because, in fact, your lead character was everyone and no-one at the same time? Then youd have Until Dawn, a malleable horror narrative with the kind of ripples usually inflicted by firing of a shotgun into a fish pond. Because who has time to dick around with a string on a stick in the busy world of 2015?
Here, every character is a potential death in the making, control switching from one to the next on a chapter-by chapter basis, creating a truly democratic forum for equal-rights corpsification. Any innocuous decision can lead to a swift reduction of the cast roster, often hours later, and perhaps unavoidably so once youve set a certain narrative thread on motion. In turn, a death can lead to another subsequent change in the timeline, eventually leading to a multiverse of choices, discoveries, and scenarios that may or may not ever happen. Including more deaths. See it as a branching domino rally, only with Shroedingers Teens instead of small plastic tablets.
The death of unexpected poignancy
In most war games FPS, squad-shooter, RTS, or turn-based your stockpile of fleshy gun-operation units is more or less expendable. Cannon fodder, as it where. Ironically, this is not the case in the actual game called Cannon Fodder. Other digital playthings furnish mans crippling inhumanity with all manner of fun luxuries, like respawns, and checkpoints, and special barracks that multiply the giddy, murderous dearth of empathy at a rate of knots. Cannon Fodder though, just shoves every government-sanctioned life-end in your face, consistently and repeatedly, until you run out. And it makes you stop playing.
Oh yes, it all looks very light and japey on the surface. A cartoony RTS-lite with small squads of squishy little men with funny names pottering around, shooting each other up with little squishy guns. Good times, good times. You know whats less fun though? The post-mission graveyard, in which your named losses are converted from living, breathing, human hopers and dreamers into cold, hard, marble crosses. As a stream of heady new recruits lines up to join them. Play careflessly enough for long enough, and eventually the former will outnumber the latter. Keep going in that vein, and all youll have left is a full cemetery and a game-over screen. A lives system that uses actual lives. Yep.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
The death of serious political reshuffling
You play a video game, you fight a thing. You die, you restart. You make a better attempt at killing the thing, you repeat until its dead. That rather causality-mocking ritual has been at the heart of video games since the Early Times, shrouded as they were in ancient mists, giant flickering pixels, and frankly goddawful noises, a lot like gravel being forced through a broken Simon.
But what if we flipped things around? What if it was also your death, not just those of your enemies, that changed the status of the game world? Thats the question asked by Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (alongside other zingers like Just what does an Orcs spleen look like? and Dead wives: Still expositionally relevant?). While your assassination of Middle-Earths various hulking hordes causes a constant shifting of the landscape as rivals and new warlord pretenders step up to fill the power vacuums left behind it also works inversely. Should you get yourself killed by a particular Uruk commander, said adversary will rise to greater power during your regeneration, gaining extra strength in the process. Fortunately, online friends can be made aware of this, and track the buggers down in their games, in order to exact mighty revenge on your behalf.
The death of constant time constraints
In Massive Chalice, death is always hanging over your head. An epic, turn-based strategy game taking in a 300-year story, its not just the genres usual resources of budgets, XP and supplies youll be juggling, but the resource of time itself. Simply, your legions are going to die eventually, however safe you keep them on the battlefield, and youre going to need to replace them in order to keep your saga rolling. But how best to handle their mortality?
Do you keep your strongest fighting into the pipe-and-slippers period of their lives, ensuring a lengthy run for your most glorious and mighty, but risking their deaths before they can settle down and give you a worthy heir? Do you pull them out of the war earlier, losing their immediate usefulness, but gaining a swifter replacement (who may or may not actually be as good)? Massive Chalice even takes into account the changing nature of the human body and mind, along the inexorable trudge toward its heroes' deaths, legendary or otherwise. Younger characters are more agile, but less hardily experienced. Oldies are smart and tough, but will eventually start to get a bit creaky. So what balance do you favour, and how best do you make use of your retirees once theyve outlived the usefulness youve designated them?
State of Decay
The death of nosediving morale
In a zombie apocalypse, death is about as unusual as blue in the sky or disappointment in a latter-era Resident Evil game. People die. They come back as dead marauders. The dead kill more people, creating more death. Those dead people rise again. Its basically all death, all the time, and youd think that after a while people would stop paying much attention to it. But no. In State of Decay, the death of any one individual player character or NPC still gets people well and truly peeved.
With a raft of characters to recruit to your cause as you build and maintain your cobbled together zombie-shelter hideaway paradise, strength in numbers grows at exactly the same rate as your risk of immediate and bloody loss. Gain the trust of other survivors, recruit them, and make friends, and theyll become playable, capable of both training in important skills and running exploration and scavenging missions. Get anyone killed though, and community morale will drop by 25%. Youll also see the individual attitudes of all surviving characters drop, exacerbating any problems in the base and possibly leading to desertion. Oh, and some NPCs will prove useless or problematic of their own accord, at which point you might find a bit of tactical pruning rather useful. But you know, try to keep the mood up while you do.
The true survival(ist) horror death
Death in ZombiU is all about risk and reward. Well it would be if the 'reward' wasn't just the privilege of returning to status quo without being as royally screwed over as you would have been otherwise. You see in ZombiU, when you continue, your character doesn't. If a person gets their throat bitten out by a zombie, then its going to kill them. That's the harsh reality of the world, kids, and ZombiU doesn't shy away from teaching that important lesson. Thus, when you restart the level, you restart as a new character, without any of the kit that your previous, now dead, self had accrued. So you have a choice.
Do you accept the brutality of your situation, backing down like a terrified weakling child, sneaking past the hard stuff, and allowing the world to slowly retool you as and when it damn well wants? Or do you stride proudly back to your previous, now-zombified corpse, defiantly refuse to take "Waaaaurgh!" for an answer, and claim your previous character's equipment for your own, despite currently being next to useless in a fight? Oh yeah, and if thats not scary enough, there's also a hardcore mode. It doesn't even let you continue.
Grand Theft Auto Online
The frugal responsibility, emergent grudge-narrative death
Ordinarily, a death in a non-MMO, online game means a great deal of "So what?" If anything, the worst you're looking is at a slow build-up of low-level callusing over several years spent mashing the X button in a fruitless attempt to invoke faster respawning. In GTA Online though, death can literally cost you. Die outside of a mission, and you'll drop a wad of cash. If someone else (say, the person who killed you for exactly that reason) picks it up and sticks it in the bank (where you should have put it yourself, you crazy fool), it's theirs forever.
However, if you can track them down fast enough (and you really, really should, because they deserve it), you can go on a citywide manhunt-cum-rip-roaring-rampage-of-fiery-vengeance and score back the money you rightfully earned by illegal means, rubbing their freshly exploded face into the tarmac as you do. Okay, so we're probably only talking about a measly $100 or so, but there's a principle at stake, and principles are worth more than any monetary value. And besides, you just might make a new friend in the process. But probably not.
The self-improvement death
Most roguelikes like to play around with the concept of death, usually by making it something to be avoided at all costs while also making it 100% unavoidable. And permanent. And, via their randomly generated level designs, fairly hard to learn from, at least in the traditional rinse-and-repeat fashion.
Rogue Legacy however, takes a particularly interesting approach, using its deaths not simply as a means of refreshing the game, but as a game mechanic in their own right. You see in Rogue Legacy, death is about empowerment, not defeat. The game's castle is randomly generated (until you unlock the architect, and the option of locking it down in exchange for a loot reduction), but any relics, gold and weapon blueprints discovered are stored in your family's castle, ready for the next generation's hero to have a pop. Oh, and XP is saved too, as presumably that gets passed on hereditarily. You can collect as much phat loot as you want, but it will remain useless until your death cashes it in. That amazing +1 sword of apocalyptic innard-squelching? Sorry bub, you'll never get a chance to wield it, but the grandson you'll never meet will probably love it. So er, nice job.
The death-is-a-fact-of-life death
Unlike most games, death is not strictly a penalty in Dark Souls. In fact it's not even a traditional fail state. Rather, it's a central gameplay mechanic and narrative theme used to fuel a great deal of what makes Dark Souls what it is.
If you die (And you will, a lot. In fact you're basically supposed to) then you'll respawn at the nearest camp fire save-spot. You'll be reduced to your non-human, Hollow form, and be deprived of all of the Humanity and Souls (the game's levelling fuel and currency). You will however, keep all of the equipment and weaponry you were carrying when you died. Survive long enough to make it to the blood smear you left behind, and you can revive yourself, reclaiming your bounty. Being dead is not strictly a hindrance--though if you die again, you'll permanently lose your souls--and the interplay between the two states can even make it a legitimate gameplay element. Doubly-so, when you consider that the blood smears left by yourself and other players can give great hints at dangers to come, and even inspire tactics to overcome them.