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.