What Modern Warfare 2, BioShock 2, and Mario tell us about the eternal footman.
I walked into the bedroom where she died; the yellow curtains were drawn and gave the room a honeyed glow. She was in the narrow twin bed she'd slept on, covered in sheets that she'd bought sometime in the 1960s when they'd still been in fashion. Her eyes were closed and my dad had crossed her hands over her chest and put three roses in her hand, one for each of her sons. All those horror images I'd imagined earlier suddenly seemed impossible. There was nothing ghastly or haunted about her body. It was just empty and the idea that it could ever have been otherwise was ridiculous. She had stopped. She was dead, and that was all.
Death is everywhere in videogames, a colloquial representation of failure. From the earliest days, you were given three "lives" to try and best the patterns of enemies and obstacles between you and the goal. Every lapse in reflex, memory, or reason led to death in the form of an obliterated pixel cloud radiating outwards. You did something wrong, it says. Pac-Man dies, Mario dies, Marcus Fenix dies, Gordon Freeman dies, Cloud dies, and even Sims can die.
When it became possible to play games against computers instead of people, the looming death metaphors became formalized. Static board game icons gave way to moving images that intimated an ever-increasing number of ways to die. Your space ship exploded under alien laser fire in Space Invaders. Pac-Man seemed to swallow himself whole before disappearing from the board. Pitfall Harry fell victim to gaping alligator mouths and scorpion stingers. Little froggers were crushed by cars. Jumpman was assaulted with rolling barrels, sent spinning and then dropped flat onto his back with eyes cryptically closed. As the digital ooze of early videogame design began to take shape death became the natural incarnation of fail states. It's an important distinction to keep in mind. Death in games generally has nothing to do with death. It's a lie based on a creative inability to communicate player failure in a more honest way.
The most common use of death in modern games is as a reset function. In games like Resident Evil 5, Kane & Lynch, Final Fantasy XIII, Battlefield Bad Company 2, and God of War, death operates according to the laws of Mario. You're punished with gnarly contortions of violence and then magically reset to try again. Death is treated like a flubbed line during movie production. The director calls cut, the actors are sent back to their opening marks, the extras are reset and, if you're lucky, there'll be a quick note about how to do better next time. Hit the X button to duck. When you see the grenade indicator pop up, you should probably run somewhere else.
Death becomes a kind of learning tool when used in this way. It gives players a chance to memorize enemy placement, level design, and attack patterns, getting an advance peek at what is coming their way. In exchange for this advantage, you're asked to manage the frustration of repetition and the growing sense of tedium it brings. These tend to bring out the most extreme reactions, both in players and in the game worlds.
Watching the death animation after Chris Redfield is caught by a skin-masked chainsaw zombie in Resident Evil is not a pleasant experience. Hearing a teammate yell "Kane, you always **** up," as you lie dead on the ground in Kane & Lynch is a little discouraging (would that all games were this honest with their dunder-thumbed players). In these games, the conflict between what the game is telling you happened and what actually did happen is widest. What is effectively an obedience school swat on the nose passes itself off as the end of all things. Who says gamers aren't drama queens?
Some games offer a variation on this model, making death a systematically significant inconvenience. When your character dies you aren't simply reset, but rather interrupted and put at a disadvantage when you begin again. Dungeon-diving games like Baroque, Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, and Shiren the Wanderer best typify this approach. When you die in a dungeon you're sent back outside without any of your equipment, while all the gold and experience points you'd racked up before death is lost. Instead of diving right back into the morass equipped with a little more knowledge of what not to do, the game sends you to the remedial class until you've found new equipment to get you back into dungeon fighting shape.
Slightly less punitive, but still in the same family, are games like Too Human and BioShock. In Too Human, death leads to a literal act of resurrection, the price of which is a mind-numbingly tedious animation that seems to take longer every time you're forced to endure it. Levels aren't reset and you are mercifully left with all your loot intact, you're just forced to watch the game carry on without you. This is death like that time in elementary school when you wore a cast on a broken leg and spent an afternoon looking enviously out the window at all your friends in the backyard playing in the pool.
Rapture gets on with itself when you've died in BioShock, leaving you a dull trot back through some empty rooms to get back to the Big Daddy fight that you'd rushed into a little too thoughtlessly. If there happens to be a healing station around, Splicers and some human bosses will heal themselves while you're busy rematerializing in a test tube. Distressingly, you'll still have lost all the ammo you used in your previous life, which makes it especially tempting to exploit the system by hacking away at everyone with your wrench and just dealing with the inconvenience of respawining (not the most flattering term for rebirth). There's an implication that the game world will endure even without your heroics. The player is less a movie star on a set and more an unexpected guest intruding on someone else's time.
A third group of games treats death as permanent. There are no resets, fecund test tubes, nor mechanical angels waiting to save you from the consequences of failure. When a character dies in Fire Emblem, they're gone for good (though if it's the main character you're sent back to the last save). In Steel Battalion your mech could be repaired or replaced, but if you failed to eject the human pilot inside before a crippling explosion, they would be dead for good. Diablo 2 was similarly intolerant of failure on Hardcore mode. Die in battle and you're dead for good. The Way of the Samurai series is also equally unforgiving about player death, though those games were built with branching storylines that made the prospect of replay a little less monotonous.
While the moment-to-moment mechanics aren't dramatically different from other games, these titles encourage extra attention to tactics and their potential consequences. The most literal aspect of death is used to enliven the gameplay systems with relief at having survived another few minutes. In this aspect, the experience of death is something like having a toy taken away by a parent because you weren't playing with it nicely. It's the most technically honest of the three general approaches to death, and consequently, the most obscure.
Is there a better way to communicate player failure in games? Likewise, how could a game more honestly represent death as it really is, an irreconcilable mystery of ageing, living, and letting go? The most obvious answer to the first question is to simply remove the possibility of a hard fail state from the game. Player failure exists on a spectrum with death occupying the furthest possible extreme. In games like Endless Ocean and Nintendogs, fail states are beside the point. You might fail to pet a fish long enough to unlock a new factoid, or you might lead a client through a dolphin-less dive, but the only penalty is the absence of new content. You can fail an obedience contest in Nintendogs, but it doesn't limit you from playing with your dog, taking it for walks, cleaning it, or teaching it new tricks. These games are built around interactive systems that are rewarding enough to encourage repeat play without the lure of competing in a pass/fail environment. The motivation to continue is expressive and based on a positive experience you want to have within the system.
You can play through the majority of Heavy Rain before you ever encounter the possibility of character death. The game is filled with soft fails, and you can bungle almost every interaction in the game. If you shake the controller too quickly during the shaving sequence you nick yourself and have to start again. If you hit the analog stick in the wrong direction you can fail to open a drawer or fumble at an object you were trying to pick up. It lacks the masochism of total failure, but it's every bit as interactive as games like Modern Warfare and dramatically more mutable. When death does arrive in the game, it's not a fail state, but a moral choice with confounding weight, which seems appropriate for a story about murder and its effect on victims' families.
In David Shute's wonderful Small Worlds, a combat-less game about discovery and exploration, systemic failure doesn't exist. You control a pink stick figure in extreme close-up, surrounded on all sides by darkness. As you begin to explore the camera slowly pans back to record the terrain you've discovered. There are no enemies, no combat, and not object-interaction. It's a literal exercise in ambient discovery and you can't fail, die, or be reset. Climax's Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (one of last year's most exceptional games) is filled with a similar sense of fear, wonder, and uncertainty. The entire game is non-combative, and most of the time you simply move through empty environments, uncovering dramatic details with your flashlight. There are several chase sequences in which you can die, but these are walled off from the main part of the game and intended as disorienting jolts of bitter adrenaline. They're a mechanism to induce momentary shock and traumatization. You don't win these sections, you escape them.
Jason Rohrer's Passage is another game without failure but still encompassed on all sides by death. Every moment of gameplay brings you closer to your bodily departure, ageing your character as he walks. At first he grows bigger and stronger, but soon enough he starts to bald and hunches over in a slow degradation that ends with a headstone. Daniel Benmergui's Today I Die is a game about resurrecting a woman from a deep murk, performed by incrementally solving small environmental puzzles and rearranging words in a sentence until she is brought back from a world of shades into one of light beauty. There are several puzzles where you'll be attacked by inky creatures while trying to complete an action that requires thought and reflex, but there isn't a fail state here either. The shades block your forward progress but they don't drag you backward or cause you to be reset.
The wonderful thing about death is that none of us are excepted from it. We might have different taste, know different people, or even speak a different language, but we are all bound by the gravitational pull of our eventual ends. To look at the games we play is to encounter a child's encyclopedia of the most primal elements of that coming cessation. We know more than that, by now.
We aren't children anymore, but we still speak to each other that way in the games. I died fighting a bi-pedal robot in Metal Gear Solid 4. My grandmother died in a trailer park in her sleep. I can still hear her shrill voice lilting around the Danish word for bird, a tremulous falsetto that matched her shaking hand. I remember how still and heavy that hand was, crossed over her chest in the mid-afternoon light.