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.
While still a bit too contrived to be considered realistic, GlitchHiker exemplifies the very qualities that allow more impactful death states to lend games a greater sense of realism. When death looms, it’s human nature for us to feel something. When you’re surrounded by foes in NetHack, you feel a great deal of pressure and tension thanks to the threat of losing every scrap of progress. If you die in Steel Battalion, you feel the devastation of your character’s journey being cut short. These emotions resemble very real ones that people would feel in similar real-world circumstances, making stricter player death a powerful interactive narrative tool.
Permanent death can also have very powerful narrative implication.
This needn’t only apply to the player character, either. Treating in-game characters as finite resources can also evoke similar emotions approached from a different point of view. Tactical RPG Fire Emblem not only features units with different abilities and strengths, it also gives them personalities and backgrounds. But once they die in combat, they don’t come back. Not only will you have less units at your disposal going forward, but you’ll also have to deal with the fact that you’re responsible for erasing someone from existence, albeit a virtual one. WayForward’s Aliens: Infestation took this concept a step further by stripping away the functional differences between the nineteen playable characters, leaving only their diverse personalities. This creates a conflicted thematic dynamic to the way players approach the game. People will want to play as their favorite characters, but at the same time, dying as them means that character is out of the game for good. Faced with a far more real sense of loss than most games offer, these narratives can affect players in a woefully underutilized way.
Permanent death can also have very powerful narrative implications by either taking away potential narrative threads or creating new ones through virtual tragedy. While losing access to your favorite units in Fire Emblem is enough to create a sufficient feeling of loss, it also takes away narrative possibilities. The Support system many of the games in the series employ allows short conversations to take place between compatible units on the battlefield, allowing both to perform better together in the future. These conversations also reveal more about the individual backstories of the characters and provide more characterization than you’d normally see from merely playing through the main story. The looming threat of losing your units also means the possibility for these small moments of extra characterization to be locked away forever along with the full battle potential of any compatible units.
More impressive is Heavy Rain‘s approach, which opens new narrative possibilities depending on whether specific characters die or survive. You take control of several characters as they try to find the identity of a serial killer, but as the story progresses, the narrative will split into different branches depending on your actions. The most drastic of these branches happens when one of the four main characters dies, giving ownership to each player’s individual story. But most importantly, this approach is thematically appropriate. In a story about a serial killer; it only makes sense that people have the potential to die.
That’s not to say that every game should employ a more realistic portrayal of death. The structure of Fire Emblem‘s permanent death design means that it’s entirely possible to strip yourself of units to the point where you can’t beat the game, a game design sin that nearly eclipses its narrative advantages. Permanent death seems better suited for shorter experiences, but all this design really requires is a creative approach that doesn’t make the game an unreasonable slog to experience. And daring experimental approaches like GlitchHiker aren’t welcome when you stick them in a game people are expecting to be able to infinitely replay. You have to weigh the impact of death permanence against player expectations and design accordingly, keeping the player in the loop about how steep your game’s consequences are at all times.
Creating a sense of loss almost always inevitably means inconveniencing the player more than most games, so the emotional payoff has to be great enough that it overrides potential feelings of frustration. You can absolutely use other designs for manipulating a player’s emotions and be just as effective. But death taps into very specific, powerful feelings of loss and regret that few other things can. The realization that someone can be lost to the ether forevermore can lend the same brand of emotional resonance to even the simplest of games.
Jeremy Signor is a freelance writer and editor from Pennsylvania who has written for GamePro, 1UP, and Atomix Mag. He allowed nine brave space marines to die to bring you this article. You can follow him on Twitter @SnakeOfSilent.