Thursday, December 23, 2010

Death and Games

Video games weren't always dominated by power fantasies. In fact I think the rise of the male wish-fulfillment Hollywood blockbuster of the 1980s, in movies like Rambo II and Commando, is what led video games down a similar path with stuff like Rush 'n Attack and, well, Commando. But even before this shift, games were still concerned with death, a trope that players young and old could always identify with. In Space Invaders you die. In Pac-Man you die. In Donkey Kong you die. In Pole Position you don't just lose the race, your shit fucking explodes and you die.

The noted screenwriting instructor Robert McKee says that stories are a metaphor for life, when he explains why people are innately drawn to stories. I think games are a metaphor for life. This is the reason games don't need stories to be interesting, because in essence it's all the same.

Many games are literal and so they depict death. The player fails by causing his player character to die in some fashion. Yet, for the vast majority of games, death is handled in a lazy, conventional fashion. It's strange when you think about it – something as serious as death, treated with such disregard as game death. What's the last game you played that handled death in an interesting way, that didn't act like the last 20 games you played by giving you a gameplay hint and respawing you at the last checkpoint? Death in games is nothing but a bit of inconvenience. Or when games neglect to put checkpoints close enough, it's a source of frustration, a poor design choice. It's almost never something profound, something complicated, something scary -- you know, like death.

Most games don't even deliver on the promise of immortality. You have unlimited lives in military shooters just because whatever. Just like Afghanistan in real-life. Super Meat Boy, a ridiculous and funny and awesome game, has a more thoughtful approach to player death than virtually all the self-important AAA games this year by having a late-game cutscene where the villain gets frustrated by Meat Boy's propensity to keep respawning whenever he's killed. Meat Boy just kind of shrugs, almost apologetic for his immortality. He can't help being the way he is.

Why should death even exist in games? Death used to exist in games because games needed a mechanism to punish failure. Today more and more games are becoming more and more lenient about failure, because they want more players and want to eliminate frustration and only keep pleasure. It's to the point at which failure becomes almost impossible in certain games, and yet as a player you're still expected to believe that your character is in mortal danger. What's the point?

My main point is this: I think if a game is going to have death in it, then death in the game deserves careful consideration as part of the design. I am not OK with games thoughtlessly borrowing the auto-respawn-at-last-checkpoint design one after another. I want games to treat death with dignity, or disrespect, to make me fear it or laugh at it, to make me think about it or even want it, but I'm sick of games thinking it's something I don't care about as a player. If you don't think I care about it then don't put it in the game, or if you're going to put it in the game then do something interesting with it.

Here is a short list of games that have done interesting things with death.

- In the Fire Emblem series, which I love dearly, death comes swiftly and permanently. These are character-driven strategy games in a fantasy setting, but death isn't just an inconvenience in that setting as it is in most fantasy games. A character who dies in the game is gone forever after speaking his or her often-tragic dying words, and you'll be left to wonder how his or her story might have resolved. Players end up restarting entire missions to prevent character deaths, but at least it's a choice. Few games make me value staying alive quite like Fire Emblem. Other strategy games like X-COM and Jagged Alliance have done similar things, I just think Fire Emblem does it even better by building up its characters so well through its rich storytelling.

- In the Soul Reaver series, you are the immortal vampire-wraith Raziel. Your body can be destroyed but not your spirit. When you "die" in the game, you sink into an alternate version of the world, a spirit realm filled with pathetic lost souls you must consume in order to regain your corporeal self. Some of the game's puzzles involved having to traverse both instances of the world to reach new places. Raziel is a tragic character who would like nothing better than to rest in piece, so the game subverts expectations around video game death on multiple levels.

- In the arcade games Ninja Gaiden and Final Fight, both featured rather graphic "continue" screens showing your character bound and, respectively, about to be eviscerated by a spinning razor or blown to pieces by a bomb. You have 10 seconds to insert another coin to continue playing and prevent this fate. It was a cheap but effective play on the player's emotions. There was something base and manipulative about it, and for that reason I should hate it, but something about it was so playful that it worked well for these games. I'm sure it helped them earn a bunch more quarters, and as cheap emotional plays for player's time and money go, it was way cooler than FarmVille telling me to adopt a homeless orphaned crippled baby seal or whatever.

- Braid is a game about what if you could move forward with the knowledge gained from failing while erasing the failure itself, so its handling of death is very interesting.

- The officially-old massively multiplayer game EverQuest placed severe consequences on player death, often representing hours of lost time or even worse. In a worst-case scenario players could die in such a way that their corpses, which held all their belongings (representing potentially hundreds of hours' worth of questing), were impossible to recover. As a result, I imagine that fear of death in EverQuest probably approximated a real-life fear of death for some of its players more than any other game. MMOs have since repeatedly loosened the reigns on death penalties in order to reduce frustration / heartache and make themselves accessible to wider audiences, but EverQuest achieved something special in its time.

- ZHP: The Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman... look I'm sorry it's Japanese OK? I haven't played this game yet but it's on my short list in no small part because of its fascinating, funny, upbeat take on player death. It's a game about the inevitability of disgraceful death at the hands of a hopelessly powerful enemy, yet your character has the ability to reincarnate and begin anew with greater potential for advancement than his past self.

- Last year's Demon's Souls reminded me a lot of EverQuest's corpse runs. Death came swiftly and often, and carried a heavy price of essentially all your money and experience, though the game gave you one chance to try and recover the lost goods... and did that ever make you take things slow and steady, take the time to learn the environments and the encounters. The best part was seeing apparitions of other players dying and seeing messages left by other players, warning you of impending dangers. The sense of a solitary-yet-shared experience was amazing in that game, like being trapped in a dungeon with other survivors and naturally joining forces to try and survive.

- In Diablo II and its hardcore mode, death was permanent. Hit a lag spike going into Duriel's lair in Act II and that character you'd been building up for the last two weeks would be gone. Similar feelings to Fire Emblem – you felt a healthy respect for the possibility of death, an appreciation for how it could come at any time, would have to make peace with the shocking reality of it. I loved hardcore more.

- In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the character has a Braid-like ability to reverse time (in fairness the game came out well before Braid), and in addition to that there's a narrative layer in which the character is recounting his own story. When the player character dies, the narrator says things like "That's not how it happened," justifying why a respawn mechanic exists in that game, justifying why the game was pretty easy but nonetheless exciting because you wanted to know how it all worked out in the end. It was excellent.

- In Counter-Strike, death was often shocking and meaningful. Here was a shooter where you couldn't just respawn. When you died you sat out the rest of the round. You were failing your whole team and all you could do was watch as the rest of your boys probably get killed because they were down a man. Death has never felt more meaningful to me in a shooter as it did in that game, so much so that I was never much of a Counter-Strike player. Of course most shooters trend away from this type of consequence, and yet Counter-Strike continues to be extremely popular, because it gives people reasons like this to become invested.

. . . .

In the game I'm working on, we don't want you to die, but I want you to know it's possible to fail if you play in a careless fashion, if you ignore danger. If you do run out of health, you'll have at least one more chance to carry on from where you left off in any given sequence, which we think encourages players to push forward more carefully if they started getting a bit lazy or sloppy in their play. It works as a literal wake-up call. Our reactive narrator will also have different things to say about the player character getting knocked out in each of the game's sequences, and will say different things depending on whether or not you fail, so we at least acknowledge the possibility of death in this fashion – we keep track of it and respond to it.

We struggled for a while with what to do about player death in the game, and were tempted by systems that would eliminate any penalty whatsoever because we didn't want to force people to repeat lots of content if they didn't want to. I think what we decided on is a good solution for our game, and I'm glad we arrived at it through thoughtful exploration and iteration rather than just taking the existing conventional checkpoint solution and calling it a day. I also like that our solution maps to the aesthetic of our game. In Bastion's world, death may be an inconvenience that can be prevented. At the very least, the narrator of the story does not seem to take death very seriously, as you can infer from the trailer. Part of the reason for that is, as you can see, that I don't think game players take death very seriously either.

Let me know what are some of your favorite examples of games that treated death in interesting ways.

. . . .

I also wanted to take a moment to thank you for reading. Since I started this blog in March, I've succeeded in making the types of preoccupations expressed here into a key part of my job. I love what I get to do everyday and look forward to creating a game next year that's going to deliver on some of the ideas I've expressed here over the months. Happy holidays and here's to a good year for games in 2011.


  1. Similar to your CounterStrike mention, Left 4 Dead deals with death in a way that is meaningful as well. When you die, your team becomes a whole lot weaker at fending off the Infected. If two players die, unless your team is near the end of the map, it's pretty certain that your entire team will fail.

    For some, this was too harsh, so Left 4 Dead 2 tried to counter this by putting in defibrillators. Even with them, however, you still let your team down by dying, and provide them more work as they try to safely revive your character. Often an entire team can die trying to revive one of their downed survivors, when it would have been more advantageous to continue on without them.

  2. Greg, I'll be interested to see how you feel about Deadly Premonition's treatment of death - not of player death, but of the murder case you're investigating. I won't spoil anything, but there are a few key moments wher characters express emotions usually foreign to videogame death: shock, denial, panic, regret. We die so much (and cause so much death) in games we often forget the terrible impact death can have on those who survive. It's rare and affecting to see a game address that.

    I suppose you had your reasons for leaving Planescape: Torment off the list, but that was definitely a unique treatment of death - an asset in the player's toolkit instead of a consequence to be avoided.

  3. Thanks for putting your thoughts down about this. I found myself expectantly waiting for you to discuss Planescape; but alas, it didn't make the list.

  4. Portal 2's co-op mode will treat death pretty interestingly. GLaDOS will just send in another version of you. I'm assuming that your experiences will transfer over to your new body, which is how the game explains that the robots get better and better at solving puzzles.

  5. "The noted screenwriting instructor Robert McKee says that stories are a metaphor for life, when he explains why people are innately drawn to stories." He's right: it's all about metaphors - see

  6. Thanks for reminding me of the name of ZHP! I remember Brendan Sinclair talking about it, but I forgot the name until now and I really wanted to play it. I'm definitely going to check that out. Happy Holidays!

  7. Heavy Rain is another game that places a lot of emphasis on dreading death; since it's permanent within the story and the game autosaves so frequently, it raises the stakes for you as a player a great deal. I speculate that it's actually even more powerful than EQ, because the characters actually have a specific, tightly-written story of their own in which they death means perhaps their failure to solve the mystery, and raising the stakes of the player using a different mechanism really helps the player empathise with the characters in the game.

    There was a moment in my playthrough where I was actually completely paralyzed trying to make a particular high-pressure decision, as one option seemed to be risking immediate death and the other option seemed to represent a setback in my task of solving the mystery, and eventually my inaction led to the game choosing for me. Riveting stuff.

  8. Infinity blade is quite clever about its treatment of death, especially towards the end.

  9. Was playing demons souls and death is terrifying.Loved the hardcore mode for diablo II as well.

    One of the LudumDare entries had an interesting death scenarios I have seen in a while. The player plays as death itself, which meant dying would actually increase the players life by 1. What looks like a simple replacement for a never ending scheme had a valid thought behind it :)

  10. Along the lines of ZHP, death in Infinity Blade causes one to restart as the "next generation," the child of the previous hero. One of the more interesting death caveats, I thought.

  11. Great post, great examples. Look also on LIMBO for a game, where you have to die to advance - only dying gives you the knowledge to progress in the game.

    I would also suggest two pretty interestering web-games like ‘One Chance Game’ and ‘You Only Live Once' (find them on Kongregate), which you can only play through once (unless you cheat) - this gives a really cool intensity to the game experiences.


  12. Greg, I don't work in the game industry, but to me, your grasp on game design is exceedingly sophisticated. I am so glad you are designing games now. Every article I read I think to myself, "I wish game designers thought like this!" Anyway, I've been a fan since GameSpot, and I know you will thrive in your endeavors.

  13. Greg, you're conflating two aspects of gaming death here: The narrative aspects of death and the in-game penalty for dying.

    To me, the latter is most important for game quality. The former is irrelevant.