If you play video games, you have — at some point — died.
Death has marched through video game history, distributing frustration, tears, broken controllers, and lost quarters with the same unflinching steadiness as a metronome. We as a collective gaming entity have grown accustomed to death. We sigh, reload save files, and soldier on. But these countless, untimely deaths have unusual effects on the stories we help to tell. Some games acknowledge death. Others do not. When death comes and goes without such acknowledgment, the reality of our favorite games snaps in two.
My first experience with video game death came from a wrecked submarine my father would pilot on our Apple II. I sat in his lap and manned the admittedly simpler firing controls, while he clumsily steered his way through a dark, underwater labyrinth. We never got far. And I thought little of it. I was a child, after all.
What struck me, however, was Mario’s startled face, his sudden shock and pain, upon slamming into a Goomba. He paused, tumbled through the air, and fell into oblivion. Gone forever, his mission for a princess’ love cut tragically shor… no wait, he’s okay. Somehow he returns to the world of the living. And so the cycle continues.
This is normal for us. And it gets weirder.
When the police gun down Niko Bellic in the streets of Liberty City, he should probably stay down. Yet he, too, rises. This miraculous ability was not Mario’s alone, but one shared by all digital denizens.
Our escape from death’s clutches gets out of hand when we control heroes never meant for the afterlife. One obvious example comes to us in the form of an armored green fellow named Master Chief. The iconic John-117 is supposed to boast a dangerous set of skills. In fact, we can safely say he’s the most skilled military operative in the entire human race. More importantly, he has a lot of luck (Eric Nylund said so in the Fall of Reach novelization). So why oh why does Master Chief die all the time? One stray grenade and years of combat experience ragdoll right out the window. Odd, right?
Commander Shepard comes to mind for the same reason. According to the expansive lore BioWare has built for us, Commander (Insert Name Here) Shepard is the most qualified human being in the galaxy to run the show. The “show” being the fate of the human race, specifically. With incredible combat prowess, technical knowhow, and an occasional knack for telekinesis, it stinks when Commander Shepard gets shot by some no-name grunt and dies.
Getting sucked into space and resurrected by Yvonne Strahovski, for the record, makes much more sense.
With death so prevalent in video games you may wonder how any game with fail states (i.e. death) can challenge a player without breaking the realism of the fictional world. It’s possible, and many games do have ways to threaten players with the possibility of loss without killing off the star.
The Prince of Persia remake from 2008 took a clever approach to this issue by eliminating the need for repeated deaths altogether. Instead, the mysterious and magical Elika saves the hero with every mistake we as players make, preventing his untimely demise in a flash of light.
Similarly, the vampire Rachel Alucard from the BlazBlue series also defies death. In fact, her transcendence of time and space plays an important role in the story. And as one of the most powerful characters in the cast, constant deaths wouldn’t suit her. So, upon losing a match, Rachel merely lies — unamused — on the ground. While her opponents slump in pain or crumple into heaps, Rachel reclines on her demonic minion. How bourgeoisie.
And while on the topic of smart dealings with death, it would shame us not to mention EVE Online, the world’s most complicated MMO. In EVE, you pilot awe-inspiring ships through the vastness of space… until you get vaporized by another player or passing pirate. Instead of dying in the traditional sense, though, your mind and/or soul “jumps” to a clone stored safely at a remote location. Players can even upgrade these clones to better soften the blow of death, or place them strategically around the universe to facilitate jumping between space stations.
EVE Online not only circumvents death but incorporates it into actual play. Those Icelandic chaps and chapettes sure know how to make games.
Clearly not all games and game developers can apply magic or unfathomable science to skirt around the reaper and his dark doings. But we, as imperfect beings, will always make mistakes while playing video games. And if those mistakes end in death, well, we have little choice but to accept the cyclical rebirth of our favorite characters — no matter how absurd their continuous resurrection may be.
Sadly, this unspoken agreement with death makes dying in video games much less meaningful. Like our desensitization to violence through continued exposure, we shrug at what should normally fill us with shock and sadness. So until developers come up with a better way to challenge gamers outside of pure mortal threat, we must resign ourselves to inevitable death, destruction, and fleeting darkness.
…unless you have a Phoenix Down.
Very, very special thanks to Brian Altano for designing the above imagery. Follow him on Twitter or here on IGN. He makes this sh*t look easy.
Ryan Clements writes for IGN. He looks forward to dancing tonight. Dancing in the dark. Follow him on Twitter or here on IGN, if you so choose.