The epiphany hit me a few months ago when my girlfriend and I visited her cousins’ Long Island home. Their 14-year-old son and his friends were playing Guitar Hero III, and most of the group lacked skill. As the in-game crowd booed another wannabe rocker off the stage, my girlfriend’s cousin delivered the stinging words:

“You died.”

Either the audience was particularly bloodthirsty that night, or this 14-year-old kid just pointed out how often death is synonymous with failure in videogames. Killing the avatar is a convention that sprung up in the medium’s infancy, and the industry has yet to outgrow it.

One of the earliest videogames, Spacewar!, created in 1961, features two spaceships locked in mortal combat. Games like Centipede, Space Invaders and Frogger carried that idea of the life or death battle into the arcades of the 1980s. When consoles arrived, there was Mario, tripping on Goombas and shrugging his shoulders before diving into oblivion. In today’s Age of the First-Person Shooter, kill or be killed remains the rule.

Certainly I’m not the first one to notice this. Kate Bevan probed the issue in an article for The Guardian, titled “Why do we have to die in games?” She explains dying and retrying as a way of extending a game’s length, but leaves the biggest question toward the article’s conclusion.

“So should games reflect real life?” she wonders. “Or should we redefine ‘dying’ in the context of games? Isn’t it more like tennis, where you can lose a set but go on to win the game? Or are there bigger lessons to be learned from games?”

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Well?

I think the old standby of avatar capital punishment has gone on long enough. There’s plenty of unexplored territory in the medium of videogames, and this convention is getting in the way. Fortunately, there are a few games out there in the creative utopia of independent game development that specifically challenge the idea that failure is synonymous with death. More importantly, they present death in a way that’s more meaningful than a cheap ticket to a respawn point.

Jason Rohrer cast the trivial nature of death in most games into stark relief when he created Passage. He conceived the project as a brief commentary on mortality, inspired by his 30th birthday and the death of a close friend. For five minutes, players are free to search labyrinthine hallways for treasure or press forward toward a blurry horizon. Joining up with a partner along the way makes treasure more valuable, but she also makes it harder to traverse the maze. When time runs out, a gravestone appears where the character once stood, leaving the player with only a score and the experience of playing.

As his design unfolded, Rohrer realized how different his treatment of death was from other videogames. In Passage, your character’s inevitable death wraps up the story in much the same way our own stories eventually conclude. Most videogames, however, use death to impede the narrative in service of the gameplay. Rohrer sees that as problematic.

“When designers are trying to tell this whole long, linear story, and the whole point is to deliver the story to you … death is a sort of stumbling block as opposed to a dramatic device like in a movie,” he said in a telephone interview.

Rohrer envisions gaming as a medium that provides full narratives without the interruption of death. He points to another indie title, Façade, in which the player intrudes on a couple’s soured relationship. Some actions grind the conversation to a halt, while others perpetuate it, but either way the game provides a self-contained, complete experience.

In Karoshi, and its sequel, Karoshi 2.0, death is actually the goal. Each level of this free-to-download platformer requires the main character to kill himself by landing on spikes, leaping in front of bullets or standing under falling blocks, solving puzzles to unleash each death trap. There’s an awkward satisfaction to jumping into the pit with purpose, and the punishment for failure is, in turn, much darker. Instead of the inconsequential deaths that happen over and over in most videogames, Karoshi forces the player to exist, wondering why he’s not even good at suicide.

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Despite his work, Karoshi’s developer, Jesse Venbrux, accepts the convention of death as punishment in videogames. Death is a good way to let players fail, he said, though he’d like to see more artistic games reach the market. But Venbrux does fancy himself a rule breaker, and after Karoshi, he once again gravitated toward the subject of death. Execution orders the player to kill a bound, unarmed man. In a macabre twist, restarting the game after pulling the trigger doesn’t revive the corpse.

“I guess ‘death’ is a good subject because it’s in almost every game, but it’s also a very serious thing,” he wrote in an internet conversation.

Neither Karoshi nor Passage are notably violent games, and given the number of shoot-’em-ups and slashers that occupy store shelves, it wouldn’t be fair to leave violent games out of the discussion. Is it possible, then, to have a game that offers combat but avoids the familiar conventions of save points and respawns?

Kevan Davis achieved this with Urban Dead, a browser-based massively multiplayer game that pits humans and zombies against each other in a quarantined city. Survivors who succumb to the undead don’t die; they merely rise up as member of the hoard’s moaning ranks. There’s no dying as a zombie either – losing a battle with a human only knocks the player down temporarily.

As a human, it’s terrifying to know that one poor decision could terminate your humanity. Sure, Resident Evil, the seminal mainstream zombie game, has its thrilling moments, but there’s no real consequence for dying. The screen goes black, the words “You Died” splash across the screen, and zombies devour your avatar. Then, moments later, you’re back in a safe room, certainly not as worried about the scenario that just felled you. By contrast, I’ll never forget the first time a zombie claimed me in Urban Dead, and I never made the same tactical error again.

Perhaps it’s time for the mainstream videogame industry to follow suit. There are signs that AAA developers are thinking a bit harder about how to incorporate mortality into their narratives. BioShock had its Vita-Chambers, a kind of respawn point that was part of the world’s technology, but some gamers rejected them because it made dying in the game seem pointless. (The irony, of course, is the trivial nature of death in any game with save points.) Dying in The Darkness merely upsets the titular demon that inhabits the protagonist, because his duties aren’t finished – he merely spits the player back into the real world for another try. But those two examples still return the player to an earlier point in space or time – death is an intermission rather than a finale.

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If games are to move beyond death as punishment, the change has to be deeper. Designers should look to games like Karoshi, Passage and Urban Dead for inspiration. I fantasize about a mobster game that doesn’t thrive on body counts, but still harbors a violent subtext. Maybe there’s an occasional shootout, and if the player fails, the avatar’s friend dives in to take the bullet. You would feel the consequences for the rest of the game, and you’d learn not to make the same mistake twice.

I could be getting ahead of myself, though. After all, as soon as you remove the keystone that equates death with failure in videogames, the whole structure that’s existed since Spacewar! will crumble.

Is that such a bad thing?

Jared Newman is a freelance contributor to The Escapist. Visit his blog at http://www.jarednewman.com/blog.

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