Recontextualizing Death and Failure in Video Games

Recontextualizing Death and Failure in Video Games

The player character’s death in a video game is usually a way to communicate to the player that they have failed at the current scenario. Your stocky plumber may have fallen into a bottomless pit, or your space marine took too many plasma shots to the face. If the game has limited lives, the life counter ticks down by one, the game reloads to the last checkpoint, and you get another attempt at the same segment until you either get through it or run out of lives and get a Game Over.

The discussion of whether finite lives are an antiquated holdover from arcade machines that wanted to extract as many quarters from your pockets as possible is too broad for this article, but the ultimate punishment of a traditional death or game over is basically the same: lost progress. Some amount of your time investment is overwritten. Narratively, that death is a non-canon dead end. While most games handle it the same basic way, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time illustrates the concept in a very literal way. The image freezes as the character expires, while the narrator says something to the effect of “No, no, no. That didn’t happen”. The end result in the vast majority of games is that you have to repeat some amount of the same content over again until you finally get it right.

Well-designed Rouguelikes tend to handle this a bit more smoothly. Not only do they often have some kind of narrative framing device that justifies a character’s repeated deaths, the procedural and random nature of the level design means you aren’t just playing the exact same thing again. You have to master the gameplay mechanics on a fundamental level in order to progress further next time instead of being able to rely on just memorizing one level layout, scenario, or enemy pattern, since you will never play the exact same level twice. Going all the way back to the beginning after dying would be extremely tiresome in a traditionally-structured game with premade levels. But in a Roguelike, the high stakes behind each death ratchets up the tension and makes each hairy situation more impactful. The number of times I have willingly and happily delved into the hostile and stressful world of Spelunky 2 only to end up dying hundreds of hilarious deaths is a testament to how even failing in such games can be enjoyable. And the few times I actually reached the (easiest) ending felt like monumental accomplishments.

Some games retain a more traditional, linear structure, but still allow player deaths to be dynamically incorporated in the story in some way. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor has the very unique (and patented, unfortunately) Nemesis System. The system structures the enemies in the game into a hierarchy of ranks that shift with the in-game events. If an Orc kills Tallion, the player character, they are promoted and become more powerful. When Tallion resurrects, he may encounter the same Orc again later down the line, who may then spew taunts about his previous victory. This allows for an organic rivalry based on player-facilitated events to develop between the player and their digital opponents.

Games that do not directly focus on a single main character also have a bit more freedom in presenting death. The XCOM games, for instance, see you commanding a squad of randomly generated and customizable characters that become more skilled and powerful the more you use them. If they die in combat, they are gone for the remainder of the campaign (a mechanic often referred to as Permadeath). Even if you fail a mission catastrophically and lose an entire six-man squad, no character’s death will halt the progress of the story and force you to reload a mission. Some players may manually “save-scum” by reloading after each setback until they get a perfect run, but the game itself is content to just plug along and let you attempt to bounce back from your losses later down the line, replacing your lost squad members with new faces. There’s even an Ironman Mode that allows only one single save slot and automatically saves after every turn, effectively making all choices and consequences permanent.

The main point of this article is that death in games doesn’t just have to be some trivial setback where the only stakes are a bit of lost time. That tends to deflate the tension and makes both success and failure a somewhat mundane affair. Being creative with the consequences of failure can make a game more engaging, and it’s nice to see many developers embracing that notion and breaking away from traditional failure states.

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