Games give us the opportunity to walk, if not a mile, an inch, in another person’s shoes. Through gameplay, not only can we empathize with our player character, but struggle with them as well, in facets of life dependent on the game. Naturally, these include the weighty subject of death. How each game treats the player’s death, whether as a story or gameplay mechanic, varies in success. But in no other medium is a protagonist and identity, allowed to be developed and invested in by an audience as much as they are, and then allowed to die.
Many games revolve around their written narrative and others around the narrative of the player’s gameplay experience. Neither method is arguably better than the other, but as a mode of art they can lead to different explorations of death, notably the death of the player character. The crucial similarity amongst all games in which the player character can die, is (almost redundantly) the involvement of the player. Players are invested in the games they play, putting in time and effort in order to progress through them. In some form or another these games ask the players to die a virtual death as a result of their decisions, mistakes or not, something other media do not. Therefore, death should be undesirable assuming that the typical player does not want to die. In the book The Art of Failure, Juul describes “The Paradox of Failure” which I will expand to equate failure with death. His paradox goes:
- We generally avoid failure.
- We experience failure when playing games.
- We seek out games although we will experience something we normally avoid.
In games the player generally experiences success and failure directly correlating with the success and failure of the protagonist, making it easy to empathize with the protagonist. When the player and the protagonist’s success and failure do not align, the game narrative is a tragedy. Why a player would want to experience this is the same as why one would want to experience a tragedy in any other artistic medium: to experience deep emotion. Especially if the death is an inevitable as a result of finishing the game, the player is guiltless while deriving aesthetic pleasure.1
Traditionally death has served as a gameplay mechanic, not truly meant to carry the in-game narrative weight of death but to serve as a signifier of failure on the player’s part. Simply because most narratives revolve around conflict and the most basic of conflicts are those of the physical variety, death, the ultimate physical form of losing, is a natural way to justify a game over. In story-light games, such as arcade games and early console games like Super Mario Bros, player death is undesirable and frustrating but unlikely to be sorrow-inducing. If anything they are comical and irreverent. Often in these games death is further trivialized by being quantified as any number greater than one, with the potential to be lost or gained. Yet ironically because death is finite, the risks feel greater and death more real on the part of the player, anxiously trying not to get a game over because getting a game over would require them to lose all progress made thus far. In more story-driven games in which the success of the protagonist continues to correlate with the success of the player, death is less of a gameplay handicap and instead a narrative device. You operate under the illusion that the protagonist has been evading death all along to prevent breaking the flow of the narrative. Often this is by means of saving or reloading at the last checkpoint. The lives counter is removed to reduce the emphasis on “I musn’t fail,” and increase the emphasis on “the protagonist musn’t fail.” These are not always the case. Some story-light games exercise “permadeath,” the mechanic in which if the character dies once, the game must be restarted. This is common amongst “Roguelikes,” a genre of games inspired by the 1980 game Rogue, in which each game begins with one life and a newly, procedurally generated world. More story-driven games featuring permadeath such as Valkyria Chronicles or Heavy Rain usually have a cast of characters in the players control, meaning the story can continue without all the characters (Heavy Rain, in fact, has several branching narrative pathways accommodating the deaths of main characters). Yet it remains true that the death of the player-character is more punishing towards the player when the in-game narrative is not as prevalent.
Narratively, things get more interesting on the player’s side when the player-character dies as a result of the player successfully completing the game, or a portion of it. The death may come as a surprise to the player, or promised to the player at the start of the game, but how it functions contradicts the traditional use of death in games as a slap to the player’s wrist. Juul describes this scenario as a “tragic ending,” such as the endings to stories such as the myth of Oedipus or the play Othello. If the protagonists do not die, they experience a fall from grace as a result of their own mishaps or workings of the universe beyond their control. The audience experiences catharsis and aesthetic pleasure in lieu of joy. In games the protagonist is allowed to die, narratively speaking, if their death contributes to the overall good. Likewise, because the death is inevitable, the player is removed from the responsibility of choosing for the character to die, and can enjoy the character’s death as one would in any other work of fiction.
There are different ways in which this “greater good” can be achieved. In the game Halo: Reach, a prequel to the popular Halo series, starring protagonist Master Chief, the player assumes the role of Noble 6, the newest addition to the Noble team of Spartan super-soldiers. Knowing the lore, the player knows that these Spartans die before the start of the first Halo game, and as the game progresses the protagonist’s teammates are killed off until Noble 6 is the only member left. The game ends with an unwinnable battle between the player character and an endless swarm of enemies. When the player ultimately loses all their health, a cutscene is triggered depicting the character’s death and concluding the game. The protagonist is fated to die and the player is given the opportunity to try and survive as long as possible, joining player experience with narrative experience. It is worth noting, however, that although the player’s loss as Noble 6 physically signifies his death with the total depletion of their health, it serves only to trigger the cutscene that depicts his canonical death, removing the player from the narrative death. This reduces the potential this ending has as an emergent narrative as the cause of death is fixed. However this can be justified, as Noble 6 is an established character in an overarching plot, separate from the player. Distancing the player from the characters and ill feelings even further, the deaths are followed by optimistic messages. In Reach, Noble 6’s death is followed by narration describing his contribution to the war effort in the form of his courage. This, along with knowledge of the plot in chronologically future titles, offers the player a feeling of satisfaction despite the deaths of the player character.
The games Shadow of the Colossus, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, circumvent some of features shared by Halo: Reach uses to detach the player from the deaths of the characters. In Shadow of the Colossus the player takes the role of the character Wander who makes a deal with an incorporeal being in order to revive his deceased, female companion. It is implied that the completion of this exchange would cost Wander his life, but it is not apparent until after the final boss fight. Like in Halo:Reach the player is presented with an unwinnable battle of sorts. Initially the protagonist’s spirit is transformed into a large creature, similar to bosses he had previously felled, to futilely attack his human assailants. Eventually his spirit is sucked into a glowing pool, all while the player is still in control (likely struggling to keep away from the pool). Only then does the game end, with optimistic pans of life returning to the game’s setting, the reveals of the player’s horse alive and female companion revived, and the protagonist reborn as a horned child. While the game is technically the prequel to the game Ico, the connection is loose and knowledge of it offers little additional solace for the player. This ending blurs the line between gameplay and game narrative more than that of Reach. In Reach the endless waves of enemies do not directly correlate with the in-game narrative in a temporal manner, like as Juul describes gameplay as time suspended. In Shadow of the Colossus, the player is playing as much as they are witnessing. As the beast the player tries to smite the human adversaries as they flee. And upon returning to a more-human shape, the player witnesses themselves struggling to keep from the pool. The player is both actor and observer to this frustration.
Finally the game Spec Ops: the Line, gives the player the peculiar option of terminating themselves (and thus the game experience) near the end of the game. What is unique about this game, even beyond the uniqueness of offering the player the choice to kill themselves, is the way it offers choice in general, verging on emergent gameplay. In Spec Ops: the Line, the player controls Captain Martin Walker, who serves as a blank slate for the typical, Western action-adventure shooter protagonist (notably he is also voiced by Nolan North, the voice of famous video game heroes Desmond Miles and Nathan Drake, to push the point further). Walker descends the sand-swallowed, lonely, and disorienting landscape of Dubai, a literal narrative architecture and manifestation of his psychological state. It becomes evident that Walker is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers worsening hallucinations. As a hero, and aligned with the interests of the player, Walker struggles to do what he believes is right, struggling to save the civilians of Dubai but ultimately making matters worse. Even in all the instances in which Walker seemingly begins to make progress, he ends up hurting civilians or even his own teammates. Effectively he commits war crimes. All unintentionally, he (all while the player is in control) deprives the city of water and rains white phosphorus on American troops and the forty-seven civilians they were sheltering. Meanwhile in the game’s later loading screens the player is given messages such as: “If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here,” “How many Americans have you killed today?” and therapeutically, “You are still a good person.” In the end, when Walker confronts his antagonist Konrad whom he blames for driving Dubai into the state it’s in, it turns out the Konrad is already dead. In the reflection he sees Konrad continuing to speak to him, telling him, “You are here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: A hero,” (addressing the player more than he is to Walker), and dares him to shoot his imagined Konrad if he still believes that he is sane and virtuous.And after seven hours of joyless gameplay and soul-searching, I chose to shoot my own reflection, an option like all other options in the game not presented in a menu but implied through the game’s presentation, killing Walker in an attempt to redeem him and myself.
A game demands you do what is necessary to progress it. A reader can feel guilty for continuing to turn the page of an unsavory novel, but a game is more candid and so it is surprising that games seldom make their players acknowledge the violence they are committing, even if it is representational. In Spec Ops: the Line the player knows that they shouldn’t commit these atrocities, but they must because it is a game and that is what it requires. And between the narrative sequences and the shooting-sequences, the latter seems uncharacteristically “game-like” and artificial, with predictable spawn points and mindless enemies.2 Spec Ops: the Line manages to do this by giving the player and the player character parallel experiences. Both are playing a game that no longer feels like a game. Both are confronted with the fact that they are trying to live power fantasies. Yet it keeps enough distance between game and player to offer a critique on the current state of modern shooters, as well as keep the player self-aware. In the end the greater good the player chooses is to accept the damage that has been done. Otherwise if the player chooses to live, they can continue to live out their surreal, hollow, rebellion.
Games use death in a variety of ways: as an incentive to win, a narrative device, or some combination of both. How they use them does not determine how successful the implementation of the device is, nor does death need to reflect its real world significance. However games are a unique medium for allowing its audience to die at all, and can explore death and how one dies, more intimately that other media can. Like run-on sentences representing the stream of consciousness in literature, or music evoking emotion in film, games use gameplay as narrative metaphor. And “dying” can be used and interpreted in many ways. If anything, where else would get the chance to: “Game over, would you like to continue?”
1. Juul, Jesper. The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2013. Print.
2. Extra Credits. “Spec Ops: the Line (Part 2).” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 15 April
Katherine Chi is a Taiwanese-American student of animation currently residing in New York City with her family and two pet beagles. She enjoys dissecting and creating narratives, drawing, playing games and playing games poorly.