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Games where death still actually matters

Call of Duty Zombies

The teamwork-encouragement death

The chain is only as strong as its most frequently chewed corpse. That's how the phrase goes, more or less, and the axiom is particularly applicable to Call of Duty's Zombies mode. Thanks to the combined wonder of leveling, perks and gameplay escalation, the longer a team survives together, the tougher things will get, but the stronger they'll become (that should probably be some manner of axiom as well). All fairly logical. That, after all, is the nature of things in a chronologically linear universe based upon causal resonance.

The problem though, is that if one of your merry band of cadaver-toasting gun-monkeys should happen to die, he or she will respawn with near enough precisely jack-shit of the ability required to fight off a moth, living or undead. If this happens in a later stage, then that meaty sack of dead-weight can rapidly drag the whole team down to a slowly digested early grave. Look after your buddy, people. They may be crap, but theyll become a whole lot worse if you don't carry them.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The poignant-sacrifice-and-dramatic-gameplay-escalation-death

Losing a veteran soldier in XCOM is a painful, painful experience in two very distinct ways. First of all, there's the sheer, emotional slap of witnessing the hopeless death of a character you've trained, grown, equipped, and become thoroughly attached to through the course of his or her heroic, often match-saving career. These little sci-fi action figures might never say a word, but the narratives you build around them in your head make them more real and fleshed out than any number of grim-faced, shaven headed, 'proper' game protagonists.

But then there are the gameplay circumstances to take into account. If one of your top-level squaddies has gone down, then there's a good chance that's because the game has just become a whole lot harder. And the death of one of your top guys is only going to make it even more difficult to fight the turning tide. Sure, you can replace them with a rookie, but what chance has that poor, fresh-out-of-training grunt got in a stage of the campaign that murdered one of your brightest and best? Though on the flipside, if he survives long enough to prove himself, he'll become an instant, bona fide, Big Damn Hero in your eyes. An unexpected death can immediately change your whole game in XCOM, and as for the dramatic repercussions? Hope you've brought a spare pair of pants.

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Fire Emblem: Awakening

The life-will-never-be-the-same-again death

File this one under "XCOM turned up to the volume of a thousand nightmares". Your characters in Fire Emblem, if you're playing on classic difficulty mode (and if you're not, then you're not really playing Fire Emblem. You're just fooling yourself into thinking something not as good as Fire Emblem is Fire Emblem), will die. Permanently. Often after many hours of upward leveling, equipment equipping and generally becoming a really bloody useful, if not fundamental, part of your battle strategy.

Once theyve been downgraded to just being really bloody, however, they're not coming back. But you know what makes this worse than the mournful attachment built through hours of wordless, player-created, XCOM meta-narrative? The face-bawling sense of loss that comes when a persistent character dies after hours of unique dialogue, branching story trees based on their relationships with other characters, a persistent, in-game wife or husband, and persistent in-game kids, who are destined to join the same war that has just removed their parent from the nice bit of the world above the ground.

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The horror-movie tension, make-every-second-count death

As I've recently covered in another feature, there are a lot of things that horror games can improve in order to bring real fear to the genre. But one of the chief changes that can be made is the treatment of death. Imagine the scariest, most disturbing horror film you've ever seen. Now imagine a version of it in which any of the characters, should they bumble into the wrong dark room and forget to check the wrong dark corner, can just have a do-over resurrection via a quick editing trick. Not particularly scary any more, is it?

In DayZ though, the whole structure is built around making death absolutely matter. You have a persistent character, who grows, evolves and improves as you gradually scavenge new gear and weapons on your hard-fought journey across the wilderness. But if you die? You actually die. Well, not 'actually', as that would drastically reduce the game's player base. But your recently skull-popped avatar? Gone forever. Restart. Begin all over again, at a distant spawn-point with almost zero in the way of useful equipment. Not only does that make the threat of death constantly terrifying, but it almost makes each run at the game an utterly unique, self-contained story and experience. Whatever you do in DayZ, it really matters, because this life is the only life that character gets. This run, and only this run, is their story. Better make it count.

Spent enough time in the company of death?

Or are you eager for more, you sick little necro-puppy? Well if you are, and if you have constructive examples of other clever video game deaths, drop them in the comments.

And while you're here, why not check out some of our related internet-based words and pictures? Start by having a look at 7 ways next-gen can rebuild horror gaming, and then why not have a look at The Top 7 Most shameful ways you've died in a video game? There is no good reason why not. So do it.

Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.