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The Wages of Death

Jeremy Signor | 21 Jul 2012 13:00
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The ephemeral nature of videogames ensures that we can always craft any kind of world we want free of any consequences we find undesirable, with no obligation to imitate the real world. By far, the most enticing aspect of this freedom is the ability to remove our reality's concept of death and replace it with something far less conclusive. Extra lives, respawns, and checkpoints allow players to explore a virtual space at their leisure without fear of permanent repercussions. Dying in the game merely jettisons your character back to a pre-determined spot before his or her untimely end as if the death never happened in the first place.

What would happen if a game forced players to face virtual mortality?

But the price of this design is that any true sense of loss is marginalized in favor of player convenience. What would happen if a game forced players to face virtual mortality? If your character's death meant that he or she would cease to exist, you would be forced to approach a game differently, perhaps with a greater sense of caution. But modern games that configure a harsher punishment for death into their very DNA are anomalies in the industry.

This is a shame, because the consequences of more accurate deaths can present gameplay implications that weren't possible otherwise. An early example of this is roguelike NetHack's so-called "bones files," which remember what floors all your characters died on and replicates them exactly, going as far as displaying the corpse of your previous character in the exact spot where he or she died. You can even loot the corpse for the exact equipment you lost before creating another character, though some will have been cursed. Little details like the bones files help reinforce the fact that not only does death behave like it does in the real world, but that it also can have an effect on the future of a virtual one.

Even when past deaths don't persist through multiple playthroughs, permanent death can still lend a game a greater sense of immersion, a virtue that mech combat game Steel Battalion took to the extreme. Famous for its ridiculously large custom controller, the game seemed built around making the player feel like he or she was in an actual cockpit. But it didn't stop with the controls, as the fail state itself was far closer to reality than most war games. If you lose and are faced with an exploding mech, if you don't eject, then your save is erased, forcing you to start from scratch. While it was annoying to have to start over, Steel Battalion's death design was the detail that gave its ethos of realism teeth.

And yet even this design wasn't entirely realistic, as you could still attempt the game again after your death as if you had just started it up for the first time. This is because games are still, at their heart, entertainment products that people spend money on. Players would feel ripped off if they could no longer play a game they had paid for to enjoy at their leisure, so there's a hard limit on how far a game can go with more accurate portrayals of death. Free indie games, however, have no such limitations and can explore the extremes of game design. GlitchHiker, a game that was essentially an ordinary platformer in most ways, most certainly fits that description given how it interpreted the traditional fail state of a game. While it didn't cut you off as soon as soon as your character died, the player's life wasn't the life that was at stake in the game. The lives players collectively lost were actually the health of the game itself. The better players did, the more lives the game gained, though its gains accumulated much slowly than its losses. Once the game lost all its lives, it was programed to delete itself from existence so no other players could play it. This created two distinct feelings in players: tension from the fact that one mistake can further damage the game, and guilt that you contributed to its inevitable death.

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