Death in video games

Before thinking about the topic of this article – Death – I just want to say: Wow. An hour ago, I finished Metroid: Zero Mission for the Game Boy Advance, and I absolutely loved it. It’s a remake of the classic NES game Metroid where you play as Samus, exploring new places, finding power-ups, and returning to those old places while viewing them in the context of your new abilities. Zero Mission cuts many of the more tedious elements that came with the original, which you can even play as a little bonus after completing the remake.

One notable thing about the remake is that it’s so short! My playtime was just over 5 hours, which is above the average completion time. I have to stress that this is not a bad thing – the frequent pace of the game is a key part of it’s success, as you’re always moving on to more meaty game, without much fat clogging it up.

In the original game, you couldn’t save your game, and Metroid is a game where you need to save. Plus, if you don’t know the map very well, it’s easy to spend long periods of time having no idea what to do. But, in Zero Mission, you constantly move from great, juicy gameplay to great, juicy gameplay. Additionally, the soundtrack has had a small but ear-pleasing makeover, and the visuals are updated for more modern tastes. I have a soft spot for the GBA and how, despite being an older, handheld console, it can produce beautiful games like Golden Sun. Now I’m adding Zero Mission to my list of pretty looking, fun-to-play GBA games. This is classic Metroid-style gaming that has become a sub-genre of games at this point, with brilliant newer titles like Hollow Knight and Ori and the Blind Forest refining the gameplay that Metroid created.

Death in video games
This is the well-known character Metroid, the star of “Metroid”. He just died.

While I’ve had blast with Zero Mission, there’s something that I’ve noticed hasn’t happened all that much during my time playing it. I was playing on Normal Mode, the hardest difficulty you can begin with. Despite this, for most of the game, Samus never really died. The combat was challenging, and many times I found my health meter was very low, but the Game Over screen rarely came up. As a disclaimer, while I’ve played through a few games in my time, I am really not very good at most of them. I just barely beat Super Meat Boy after hundreds of deaths, I can’t beat ‘Nintendo Hard‘ games like Castlevania, and at the moment I’m trying very hard to beat Super Mario Bros for the NES without save scumming (If you die, Mario goes back to World 1-1!).

Death, or discouragement?

When video games were first introduced to consoles, many had the ‘life’ system that had been ported over from the era of arcade gaming. This system worked for the setting of an arcade as people came and went, moving between different games trying to get a high score, with the life system stopping anyone for playing too long, forcing them to pay more to play again.

Looking at the Super Mario games as an example to view the past thirty years of gaming, it’s obvious that the treatment of lives has changed. In the recent Super Mario Odyssey, ‘Game Over’s no longer exist, with Mario simply losing 10 coins upon death. It’s easy to see the reasoning behind this: by sacrificing the difficulty that a death with strong setbacks offers, Odyssey manages to keep its gameplay flowing at a brisk pace, making sure the player doesn’t lose yonks of progress while forcing them to painstakingly repeat something they’ve just done. Am I comparing annoying game deaths to random battle encounters in RPGs? Maybe.

Death in video games
Don’t touch angry looking mushrooms, kids.

It’s always seemed quite funny how death is almost always seen as a fail state in games. When a sword strikes me in Aladdin, or if I accidentally fall off ‘Highrise’ in Modern Warfare 2, I die because of a mistake that I’ve made. There are two obvious mechanical effects from these ‘deaths’: as a way of teaching the player, and as a way of pushing them to progress.

The first function primarily occurs in games that have a respawn mechanic, as the post-mortem player character magically appears unharmed. Giving the player another go helps them to understand the mistakes that they made in their previous attempt, allowing them to overcome it. When Chell falls into a pit of acid, the game teaches the player to avoid it on future attempts. The intention of this is to help the player get through the game, pushing them to learn the games mechanics and complete all of its challenges. It’s a part of the ‘fun’ aspect of games, and every now and then it has elements of spectacle, such as Crash Bandicoot’s hilariously cartoonish death animations.

The second function of death gives players an incentive to carry on playing. With the prospect of a fail-state ever present, the player pushes themselves to complete tasks perfectly, passing enemies and making jumps correctly. Some more difficult games, like the Long War mod for X-COM: Enemy Unknown, force the player to confront this idea more than most, frequently blowing up the soldiers that you have personally named and hairstyled. For the rest of the game, you won’t be able to see them again, except for on the Memorial Wall. RIP, Captain Oogie Boogie.

Diving deeper

Concerning a game’s story, most of these deaths don’t really make much sense. If I’m playing Donkey Kong Country and Donkey and Diddy fall down a hole due to my carelessness, what does that mean for the story of the game? After they reappear a few seconds later, we just ignore it, because we’ve learned over the years to simply disregard that previous attempt as if it happened in some other reality. But if you take them seriously, then most games have almost as many fake deaths as a Marvel movie. Respawning is rarely justified in games, and when they give an explanation it often feels shoehorned in. In the 2003 Futurama game, there is a machine that burps out new versions of Fry, Leela and Bender after you die, and while it feels rather on-the-nose, the comedy aspect of the game allows it to work.

Now, I’m most definitely not saying that every game should justify their respawn mechanic. Instead, I want to ask if there is a more elegant way of involving it into the story of the game so that narrative and gameplay can unite. If not, we just have to continue ignoring these weird universes where Mega Man, Mario, Luigi and King Dedede die… Speaking of which, I guess we have to ignore whatever happens in those new Super Smash Bros: Ultimate trailers, too.

Returning to Zero Mission, I think a big part of why I loved the first two-thirds of the game is because it allowed me to breeze through the game while still consistently challenging me. These challenges were fun, because they didn’t have some annoying setback if I didn’t complete them on my first try. However, in the new epilogue exclusive to the remake, many of your powers are stripped away, suddenly transforming the game into a stealth game. Suddenly, Space Pirates were killing me left and right! But, it still managed to feel fun, because the game was introducing me to something new, and the challenges felt much more rewarding to overcome. It felt exhilarating, and gave me that feeling of pumping adrenaline you get as you try to progress without dying in a game.

It reminds me of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s writings on death in Being and Time. As a quick summary of one of the text’s central ideas, Heidegger explains how the passage of time gives our lives a limit, and in order to achieve fulfilment in our lives, we must confront this limit, understand it, and come to terms with it. He uses the term ‘precious’ to describe the quality that death gives life, and that without death, life would not be precious.

It’s a pretty liberating and softly positive thought, and it challenges this notion of death as a ‘fail-state’ that are ever present in games. Looking at the severe setbacks of death in the more recent From Software games, every action taken in Dark Souls gains meaning and preciousness due to the setbacks you have if you die after failing to reach a bonfire. Similarly, the mechanic of the 300 second limit on Mario’s lifespan mirrors the roughly 80 year limit on our own lives, as it creates a set amount of time in which Mario can faff about in a level, giving value to every move he makes.

Back to reality

However, this comparison isn’t perfect, as there are a lot of points of conflict. The main contrast between this video game death and real death is the constant presence of the respawn mechanic. Games are made to entertain, and an abrupt and permanent end usually isn’t very fun. For example, You Only Die Once is a game in which… well, you only die once. It’s funny the first time you play it, but at the end of the day it’s just a game with a quickly forgotten gimmick.

So, perhaps something like the respawn undermines the preciousness of a player’s actions to a certain degree. A Souls game in which you could only die once would certainly lend even more preciousness to each action, ignoring how ‘fun’ this might be or how it would waste the development team’s resources. Heidegger warns against considering death to be a reason to reject meaning in life, and instead he argues that it may allow for the opposite to function, as death instead gives life meaning. In the same way, game design emulates ‘true’ death on a smaller scale, allowing us to consider our own death in a simulated manner.

Conclusion

Before finishing this discussion, I want to quickly refer to a game of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons that I’ve been playing for a while. In early versions of the game, death was pretty rampant, but I’ve noticed that in all of my 5th Edition games, neither myself nor any of my companions have ever actually died (except for that one time another player disagreed with the rules and left the group… the messaging chat was pretty awkward during that period).

The thing is, our party still feels like our characters lives are precious, and we still fear their deaths during every fight. Having played as a Dungeon Master a few times before myself, it feels like the role of many (but of course, not all) 5th edition games is to give you the feeling that death is possible. Therefore, it’s only this belief in death that makes life precious, and not an actual death itself.

So, if you didn’t believe in death regardless of whether death exists or not, would your life still be precious, or at the very least, as precious? If I didn’t know that Samus could die during my time with Zero Mission, would each action I took in every exhilarating battle have been as precious? Having already played Metroid-inspired games before, I was aware that she could die before actually seeing it happen. Just this belief, and not an actual death itself, allowed the game to have nail-biting moments, and ‘precious’ actions without punishing the player for simple mistakes.

To continue the discussion on Caffeine Gaming, please comment below your thoughts on how death is presented and used in games! Plus, if you’ve played it, say if you love Zero Mission like I do. What are your thoughts on its infrequent deaths? If you haven’t played the game, give it a try, because it only takes 5 hours. And it’s darn good, too.

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1 COMMENT

  1. If I’m playing a story based adventure (or basically anything that isn’t arcade-style multiplayer), dying and “continuing from checkpoint” doesn’t add excitement to either the dying part or the story part. The more creative a games punishment, the less it feels like a punishment at all!

    Best example is The Forest (SPOILER ALERT), in which a player becomes incapacitated and wakes up in a terrifying cave filled with ghastly creatures.

    I feel like there are many more interesting alternatives to just “restarting” or “returning to a checkpoint” that should be more common!