It’s been many years since the first videogame hero’s spaceship exploded into tiny pixels and while much has changed visually, few have figured out what should happen next.
It started innocently enough when the first businessman tried to stick his hands into the pockets of a small child...
The birth of the death screen
Back when video games lived inside arcade cabinets and kids lived inside the arcades, games were made to take your money and death was the main form of income. Feeding in so many coins bought a finite number of opportunities to play. Whether it bought another three lives or another round in a winner-take-all tournament, once the health bar had fully drained playtime was over. If the kids wanted to keep the fun going, well, they had to drop in some more of their pocket money.
It wasn’t difficult for more cynical games to become exploitative. A staple of shoot-em-ups and the run-and-gun platform genre included surprise encounters with boss enemies that, should they not dwarf the player with their size already, would drench the screen in a monsoon of bullets. Safe passage through the bullet hell relied as much on dexterity as it did on brute force memorisation through many previous failed attempts.
Games which foster learning through such trial and error necessitate death to be a quick and painless flicker on the screen. Want to try again? That’ll be another 50p please. Oh look a trap’s taken off half your health. Try and avoid that next time. Another 50p, kid. It costs time and money to become a master.
The stories told by these games were simple by design. Of course it is possible to read more into the likes of Pac-Man, Space Invaders or Donkey Kong and dress it up a bit but ultimately you’d just be waxing lyrical about a yellow circle, white splodge and a gorilla construction worker. The implications of dying bore no impact on these stories.
And on the third play he spawned again
The same just can’t be said about the games being made today. From Half Life, through Call of Duty, Bioshock, Crysis and beyond, games are boasting experiences driven by larger and more detailed stories. But with the old archetype requiring death to denote failure still prevalent in the design of games today, death is often an unwanted intrusion on the so-called rich narrative experience.
Most games still think it’s acceptable to simply respawn a dead player back into the world. Even with all the myriad sources of storytelling in the post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 – the current affairs of irradiated survivors, sounds of political rhetoric heard on the FM waves, the warnings painted on walls and old entries read on dimly lit computer screens as well as the implicit tales read from the abandoned homes and damaged Washington monuments – should the player’s health fall to zero, they are respawned at the last point they left a building with no explanation as to what occurred between their fall in battle and this new lease of life.
I understand the practical reasons of why it’s done. Entering and leaving a building triggers a quicksave and is therefore an easy checkpoint at which to restart the player and the action. But there's no attempt to resolve the implications of this system. They'd rather you ignore the part where you died and remember only the non-lethal ventures. Whether it’s checkpoints initiated by the player or those registered by the game what this says is that they’d rather discard completely what happens after such a failed state is reached.
Regardless of how it's implemented a save and load mechanism cuts into any narrative being told. It’s like flicking back a few pages in a choose-your-own adventure book and pretending nothing happened. The problem is that the more a section of say Call of Duty is played and replayed the less of a narrative experience it becomes and more it appears as the gussied up automated shooting gallery that it is.
I’m not quite dead yet
Some games at least address the respawn mechanic and attempt to resolve it with the world. This gives rise to BioShock’s Vita-Chambers, large resurrection tubes in which the player revives.
There’s no backpedalling required with the narrative as in this soft fail state the player’s actions (damage dealt to enemies and items foraged) persist across a potentially unlimited number of revivals. The narrative structure remains intact.
In terms of game play it works but incorporating the devices into the world required a feat of narrative gymnastics. To explain why only the player revives in a Vita-Chamber we are told that the machines only work on a very specific genetic code even though they are nestled in practically every room throughout Rapture.
There’s also very little on how the player goes from bludgeoned corpse on the floor to stepping out of this wonder device- I never knew murderous splicers were prone to random acts of kindness. At other certain key moments in the story they are turned off to prevent further plot holes from emerging.
A much better example can be found in the Grand Theft Auto series. When the player dies, they emerge several hours later from a hospital and when they are caught by the 5-0 they pay bail, lose their weapons and step out of the police station. This seamless integration with the story has the right level of penalty however I know that as soon as the mission looks like its going to fail I open up the menu and load from my last save.
A similar case can be made for respawning fallen survivors behind barricaded closets in Left4Dead that require a fellow survivor to open. It satisfies both the demands of the gamplay and the story.
In general there has been a shift away from finite health bars to regenerating health states. Like in Call of Duty and Gears of War, a few moments in cover after taking fire provides a breather between skirmishes while the red splashes of damage across the screen slowly dissipate.
What remains however is that major failure, often manifested by death, is often treated as more of a temporary inconvenience rather than a real consequence to the player’s actions.
The Corpse Run
The video game equivalent of penance is the corpse run. I don’t know how prevalent it is nowadays but the corpse run was a feature of early MMOs that soured me on the genre. So excuse the lack of enthusiasm.
Should your level 10 Dumbass fall in pit and die during battle, the player’s ghost is resurrected a few miles back at some spiritual site. You now get to run as fast as possible back to your corpse in order to resurrect there and rejoin your level 10 friends who may or may not have waited on you.
This is a high penalty for death with loss of valuable experience points and weapon and item degradation all on the line. All this effort to save a +3 Axe of Awesome is utterly uninteresting to me but, from the story perspective, at least they tied it into the narrative. There are no instant do-overs. If a 40-man raid fails then all 40 of those fine men get the opportunity to attempt the raid later.
In Prey, when Tommy Tawodi dies he is sent to the spirit-realm. Here after collecting enough energy from fallen souls Tommy reawakens in his body and the lacklustre adventure continues. Playing the spiritual Duck Hunt mini-game in Prey was the modern day equivalent to the corpse run: good for story, not so good for fun.
When death is treated as merely an unwanted occurrence along a blessed path then one option is to lift the penalty entirely. Prince of Persia addressed the literal pitfalls of the platformer genre by pairing the player with an acrobatic partner Elika. Rather than fall to their death the nimble Elika dives in and swiftly tosses the Prince back on to solid land. Elika also bails out the Prince from potentially fatal attacks.
This elegant design was met with much derision from portions of the player base. It was seen as dumbing down the experience rather than facilitating it. This reaction makes sense considering how prevalent the old ways of dealing with death are still today by breaking the fourth-wall with checkpoints or a respawn.
During Fable 2’s development, Peter Molyneux similarly removed the death penalty against the player. Instead the player’s character would become more scarred and disfigured the more damage they endured. This produced two curious responses. In the first camp, players willingly let their character suffer in order to produce the most deformed and mutilated badass possible. The second group simply reset their console: they forced their own death penalty. Old habits die never, apparently.
In Fallout 3 certain characters integral to the main story thread cannot be killed only knocked unconscious. Why the game doesn't afford the player this courtesy is a real missed opportunity. The possibilities of regaining consciousness in an unfamiliar location, like one of the many prisoner caravans, or having been looted and taken hostage by super mutants would have presented even more opportunites for interesting and dynamic storytelling.
So the sweet spot for death needs to have an associated weighted risk which isn’t simply tied to difficulty. It also needs to make sense within the world.
Much of the dissonance created between death and story lies in the range of stories currently on offer. In a medium which boasts astonishing variety in genres of game (strategy, action, puzzle, sport, simulation, ranging widely in depth and complexity) by and large the most common story being told is the hero’s journey.
We need to break away from stories of heroes raging against a seemingly insurmountable enemy or at least allow the risks of failure to be explored in as much the reward of success. There needs to be the lows of failure in the tale of the hero as well as the triumphant highs. Ultimately to make death work in videogames in more interesting ways will only happen once the stories being told become increasingly diverse.