Of those who consider video games a regular hobby, there is an experience that can be considered universal: dying, over and over again. Whether we find ourselves in an evil dungeon, space, or a desert, the primary gaming experience can be summed up by death.
At least, it can be summed up by a kind of death. Video game death stands apart from real death, not only because it's an artificial concept within the artificial construct of a video game world, but because it represents a fresh start rather than the end of the road. Within the video game, death is an opportunity for the player and an automatic reset button for the game world.
Because of this discrepancy, it's only natural to raise the question of whether death can ever be conveyed meaningfully within a game world. If so, how we might go about changing the typical death mechanic to reflect the horror and finality of death, as well as the dread that often leads up to it?
Throughout gaming's history, there have been attempts to make death seem appropriately final. Some games limit the number of deaths you are allowed, making death truly consequential but nonetheless more trivial than actual human death. Other games are even more lenient, giving the player unlimited death but imposing penalties for the failure, such as losing money or having a certain amount of in-game progress lost.
Nonetheless, these penalties don't come close to addressing a problem that becomes more prominent as games become more realistic and serious. Perhaps no genre draws more attention to this dilemma as the military shooter. In games like Call of Duty
, death is a non-issue for the player. It comes suddenly, but is usually the result of a lack of strategic and skillful maneuvering. In other words, it makes perfect sense. The player gets a maximum of five seconds to consider an alternate way around the problem, and tries again.
More often than not, the player makes it further than they previously have before, dying again later on. They expect this death, and they expect it soon. They are not afraid of it, because they know it is par for the course, and they know that they will always come out of it unscathed, with full health and plenty of ammo.
Far Cry 2
, on the other hand, makes a diligent attempt to resolve this issue by thoughtfully altering the mechanics to make death often seem sudden, chaotic, and often meaningless. There are countless times when the player feels that they have the perfect plan in place, only to be cut down before their time because of a random malaria attack, gun jam, or unpredictable enemy reaction. In addition to this, Far Cry 2
’s save points are relegated to safe houses, often a good 15 to 20 minutes away from where the death occurred, making death assume a much more tragic nature than in other video games.
Recognizing that even this fell short of driving home the finality of death, Ben Abraham started a “Permanent Death” project
, in which he allows himself only one life, after which the game truly is over. The experience turned out to be an insightful one, particularly because Abraham took the important step of analyzing and writing about every key moment.
Nonetheless, this is not the normative experience for the average gamer. Typically, the gamer chooses to use every life available (normally an infinite amount) and often attempts to do whatever it takes to lose as little progress as possible. The truth is this: the more finality that the gamer experiences with death, the less fun they have and the more frustrated they get.
Coming To Terms With The Inevitable Problem Of Death
It may be more helpful, then, to come to terms with player “death” as an inevitable part of the game medium itself: a tool in service of the narrative or experience rather than a part of the narrative or experience itself. When a player “dies,” he is merely not living up to the pre-ordained story in which his character is the lead. He fails to carry it out in the way it happened.
This is illustrated more literally in a game like Assassin’s Creed
. A player must start over because the person being controlled never died that way. In other words, the game is saying to the player, “No, you’re messing it up, try again,” rather than, “You have died and that’s where the story ends.” This is not an ideal solution, and it won’t apply to some games, but it’s serviceable and it works with most.
So, the question becomes, yet again, in a video game, does death have meaning at all? Is death cheap? Are video games unable to convey the true weight of death if player death is not actually death at all? These questions can be answered if one considers the known experience of first person death as opposed to the known experience of having someone we know or care about die.
While our own death, as far as we can know, has no real effect on our experience beyond the act of arriving at that state, the death of others is what really affects us. After all, it’s often said that the suicide victim isn’t the one who has to live with his decision. It’s his loved ones, those that were a part of his life that are wracked with grief and guilt and faced with the finality of his decision that are truly impacted.
The Most Powerful Death Is Not Our Own
What if, as a player, we were forced to come to terms with these implications when those characters around us were to die? What if we had to wonder to ourselves if the death of a character was our fault? What if we were given the time to meditate on that death, rather than being forced by the game itself to forget the whole thing and just have fun fighting more monsters? What if we were encouraged to notice the particular absence of the recently deceased? What if we had gotten to know and love the character so much that we actually missed them after they were gone?
Games are getting there, slowly but surely. For instance, in Mass Effect 2
, I lost about three people in the final act, but wasn’t sure why or whether it was my fault or a scripted result. Should I have been guilty? Was it my fault or was it just their time to die? In Left 4 Dead
, the experience of arriving in the safe room without every member of your group, with the dead player berating you for leaving them to die has the potential to be both memorable and affecting, driving home both the feeling of someone's inescapable absence as well as feeling responsible for a person's death.
These in-game experiences obviously pale in comparison to real-life experiences with death, but so do films, books, television shows, and paintings. What video games can do, though, is give us a safe place to tackle the experiences head on and learn from our own reactions to those experiences. They can affect our character and ability to demonstrate empathy in very real ways. They can, most striking of all, make us into slightly different people.
Do games inherently trivialize death, with their meaningless death mechanic and their tendency to encourage gameplay that's violent in nature? No. But the danger is more prevalent in this medium, where death has the tendency to become commonplace at best and trivial at worst. It makes sense that violence be so prevalent in the medium, but it also makes sense to try and balance that tendency.
Games can short-circuit the trigger-happy nature of their game in a thoughtful way by questioning the nature of video game death, giving the player time to acknowledge it, and refusing to make death the end, in and of itself.
[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@christandpc).]