A Painless Death


Sometime within the past 15 years or so, game developers collectively came to the realization that death sucks. They reacted to this by making games easier, by reducing the consequence for failure, by allowing the player to quickly get back into the game as though death never happened. Sometime within the past 5 years or so, developers seem to have realized that it’s not death that sucks, it’s pretending that death doesn’t suck that sucks. It’s pretending that the failures of the past never occurred, constantly overwriting them with hollow hope, constantly saying “No, wait that’s not how it happened, let me start over”, that players have come to detest.

If a game is challenging, the player is going to spend a lot of time failing. Why would you tell them that only their successes matter? Why constrain the results of their endeavors along one axis? Why erase the struggle they went through to reach where they are now?

As always, there are reasons why things are the way they are. Coin-op games give the designers incentive to kill the players and force them to restart, ‘continues’ allow the player to pay to maintain their progress, this model gets transplanted to home consoles where bleeding players for quarters becomes logistically impractical and longer-form experiences become possible – and we end up with arbitrary vestigial ‘life’ systems in our games. I’m not just calling out games where you get a few lives and losing them reverts some minimal degree of progress, though – what’s wrong with those is just a slightly larger, grander version of what’s wrong with most trivial deaths in games, the pattern repeating itself outwards, concentrically.

We want to believe that there’s a reason not to fail, because without that there is no convincing reason to succeed.

So we see this realization assert itself in the recent surge of games with ‘roguelike elements’. In Binding of Isaac, FTL, or Spelunky, if you fail then the game is over. You can start again from the beginning if you like, but the game you were playing cannot be recovered. You have lost, not only in the sense of failure, but in the sense of real loss, loss of opportunity, loss of something that might have been just within your grasp. You feel it – and what is art for, if not to feel something?

We also see it assert itself in games that wrap failure into their narrative: I believe that one reason that Dark Souls and its companion games are so popular is because they acknowledge the player in their failures every bit as much as in their triumphs. When the player dies, even though they are functionally immortal, there’s still that setback, still the knowledge that, though they may eventually succeed, it was not without loss, not without struggle. When the hero’s story is written, if the hero’s story is written, it won’t be written, glory on glory, shining words on white paper, unreadable for lack of contrast, but full of gains and losses, delicate operations and desperate battles that sometimes lead to victory and sometimes… don’t.

The Souls games are built around this idea, from the ground up. Does that mean that games can either be conflicted and shallow in failure, be punishingly consequential, or be themed around undeath and purgatory? Not necessarily. There are more paths than those to integrating player death into a narrative. Super Meat Boy does so, rather cheekily pushing against the fourth wall, by making your zombified corpses into enemies later on in the game. Starbound handles death minimalistically but effectively by playing a little animation of your character being reconstructed by your ship’s cloning facilities. Rogue Legacy straddles approaches by intimating both the end of the game and a continuous narrative of life and death without fully embracing either.

If defeat has no teeth, the victory snatched from its jaws is without significance. Death may or may not be the end, but we tend to remember it when it happens. Failure may or may not destroy us, but even when it doesn’t it becomes a part of who we are. Paint the entire picture, or what you create will represent nothing at all.

  1. So how do you feel about a game like Braid for instance? A game that rejects the notion of failing but rather rewinding time to allow you to restart a puzzle. It is still trial and error and I think that is what developers dislike. In mathematics classes you will always get a problems wrong until you finally get it right. Bioshock had also a similar strategy of waking up in the same time frame after you had died but it’s used to continue the narrative and the pacing of the story. Old NES games were very punishing when it came to dying by starting stages again to game overs. I think the concept of dying in video games is another tool that a game can use to challenge the player but I also think the opposite effect can still challenge the player in a different way.

    • I’m having a hard time understanding what you’re getting at and formulating a response. What do you mean by the opposite effect?

      • Sorry I didn’t explain that entirely. I meant when games like Bioshock & Braid have tools like rewinding time or waking up in alternate time frames as a respawn point rather than dying in a game. They aren’t exactly full explanations but they work entirely to continue the flow of gameplay. You talked about applying death as a narrative structure but what if the games character death isn’t exactly narrative and simply a mechanism. Would a game always have to have a narrative backing when it comes to death or can it simply exist as trial and error basis.

      • It doesn’t need anything, but if you have apparently consequence-free death it undermines the believability and impact of the narrative.

        Braid is also, incidentally, not a super-good example, because in that case the rewinding time is a tool to solve puzzles, not merely reverse failure states: Several puzzles require you to ‘die’ to progress, and actual fail-states that can’t be solved with rewind still occur, requiring you to restart the room.

        I can’t speak to Bioshock as an example since I haven’t played it, but it sounds like the kind of flimsy reconstruction narrative justification used by Starbound and Borderlands — in all cases, I think that it’s better than having no justification for why you can apparently got better from being smeared into paste, but still feels like quite a deus ex machina.

        So, I guess the TL;DR version: You CAN have failure as trial and error with no narrative justification, but having some narrative wrapping on it, even if it’s flimsy and self-serving, usually makes the game feel more solid and self-consistent.

      • Yeah it’s an idea that I understand completely and I partially agree with you but I don’t feel it needs to be a standard. I guess it comes from my opinions of a game acting as a game first and a narrative structure being secondary. So when it comes to death in games I always understood it as simply a mechanism to restart a stage. So in games like Castlevania or Mega Man I always considered the death and restart to be a greater challenge rather than a narrative so going back to Braid, every game to me is a puzzle in a sense of solving a difficult screen. But yeah, you have a fantastic post and I found your points to be extremley interesting.

      • Oh, yeah, I’m certainly not a fan of strong prescriptivist stances like “you HAVE to justify your fail-state”, but a lot of developers want to have their cake and eat it too, having a strong narrative element which is undermined by a fail-state that suggests the narrative layer is irrelevant. For a lot of games (particularly retro games), narrative consistency isn’t actually that big a priority, and for those games it’s not really a problem.

        Anyway, glad you liked the piece!

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