On Death and Dying

Death is an essential part of conflict, and in some way all games rely on conflict to tell a story. As such, it’s no surprise that death is a major component of almost every game – even those without fail states often use death in some way.

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I plan to start all future posts with a reminder of your mortality.

Like last time, I plan to spend most of this post bitching about things I don’t like in games. In this case, it’s how many of them handle death and dying. Most games lead you along a strict linear narrative, even giving you some real influence over the plot, then you die. Tough shit. Narrative broken. Try again.

This is jarring, annoying and extremely counter-productive. It’s true that many games rely on a fail-state to enhance or create challenge, but dying really, really sucks. Most of the time.

To anybody who knows a thing about games, you won’t be surprised to see me mention Dark Souls. (And Demon’s Souls, and Bloodborne). This game used death as a major component, both as a mechanic and as a part of the narrative. You play as the “cursed undead” – someone who can’t really die, but loses their mind a bit each time they’re “killed”.

Mechanically, death is the core of the entire game. It all boils down to trial and error – you explore, you die, you repeat. Or if you play like me, you die, you die, you explore a tiny bit, then you die a few more times. It sounds a hell of a lot more frustrating than it is, but when death is cleverly worked into a game, the entire product is better off as a result.

I’m not trying to claim that similar death mechanics would work in every game, though I wish more would make a decent effort to change how death works. Whether we like it or not, games are still largely stuck in the arcade era where death was a way to force the player to insert more coins. I often wonder how games would change if they’d started on home consoles, though I imagine if they were much improved I’d just complain about something else.

This is especially jarring in difficult sections during narrative-heavy sequences. I enjoyed the Uncharted games, as well as The Last of Us, but dying was awful. It wasn’t something the team had considered at all, because they just went with what every other game does – you restart at a checkpoint. This problem is especially evident in narratively-driven games.

Some games do make an effort to change things up, like the aforementioned Souls series, or Heavy Rain. In Heavy Rain, a character dying was permanent. This doesn’t mean that you’d restart the entire game again if you died (as you would in say, Hardcore mode in Diablo); rather, the story would continue despite that character’s death.

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Regardless of what you think about Heavy Rain, you have to admit it was pretty neat. I can’t recall more intense action scenes, precisely because the narrative wasn’t going to ignore my failures. Sure, I could reload and bitch my way around it, but that would defeat the point. Death wasn’t a punishment, it was a result. Admittedly Heavy Rain disguised some potentially lethal situations by letting the character live despite failing, but if you weren’t aware of this the entire game was exciting and often tense.

Having briefly mentioned it, I think it’s only fair to talk a bit more about games with a “Hardcore” mode, in which death is permanent. This means that if you die your character is gone for good – no reloading, no reviving, nothing. You can sink 100 hours into building up your character only to have them trip on an imp and impale themselves, and that’s it.

This definitely makes the action more exciting and involved, but only because it makes actually dying all the more frustrating. In my mind, this isn’t a real fix to the problem – it’s a simple brute force work around. By making dying even worse, they make living that much more interesting.

Admittedly, there’s no easy fix. Interesting death mechanics are very difficult to create (apparently), and just slapping them into existing genres or templates isn’t likely to work. I may take the time to come up with some interesting ways that games can handle death and post them here, but until then – leave any ideas or thoughts in the comments.

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