Death by the Decade: The evolution of dying in games

Two words: chainsaw decapitation.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Brett Elston

A fomer Executive Editor at GamesRadar, Brett also contributed content to many other Future gaming publications including Nintendo Power, PC Gamer and Official Xbox Magazine. Brett has worked at Capcom in several senior roles, is an experienced podcaster, and now works as a Senior Manager of Content Communications at PlayStation SIE.