Death in Video Games — It’s Just Not Realistic

Watching your character die is part of the gaming experience. Even when I breeze through a game on casual difficulty, I usually have one or two deaths before I beat the game — and when I crank up the challenge to hardcore difficulty, I expect to die on a regular basis.

This doesn’t happen in every game. Braid is an awesome example of a puzzle platformer that doesn’t let you die — at least not in the traditional sense — because you can rewind your actions to redo them. This spares you having to see the GAME OVER screen or start over from the beginning of the level. (Even so, this game is really, really hard.)

A more recent example for me is XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This tactical turn-based strategy game sets you up as commander of XCOM, an organization that protects the planet from invading aliens. As commander, you send soldiers into the field on rescue and reconnaissance missions (for a start), issuing commands from the safety of mission control. To me, this is incredibly realistic, because you don’t die. When a mission goes haywire, you don’t reload. When you lose a soldier, you don’t have the option to revive him. Your entire squad could get wiped out… or you may be forced to abandon a mission before you lose that last soldier to alien forces. But you don’t die. You pull your team together and tackle your next mission.

For me, this type of gameplay is much more challenging, because the consequences have long-lasting impact. In RPG or FPS games that have you attacking with a squad, you can typically resurrect a teammate or just finish the quest and watch him come back to life as if by magic. In XCOM, when a soldier dies, he’s gone for good. And if he’s a decorated soldier who has been promoted and equipped with special attacks, his loss has a great impact on the success of future missions. In other words, it’s time to start training new soldiers to replace him, fast.

Obviously, this idea — this whole not dying thing — wouldn’t work in most game genres. Players need stakes, and in a typical fighting game, it’s life or death. Still, I might like to see games with healing worked into the story so it makes sense. Perhaps resurrection is a power that can only be used a certain number of times, and each time you lose something else — a skill, or you become weaker, or you have to sacrifice something (or someone) to fuel the magic.

It would also be cool to have a video game that forces you to abandon your deceased character and play as someone else, such as a squad mate. This would give you a limited number of lives for the entire game; once all the playable characters are dead, it really is game over.

I could see these games being more realistic and more challenging, but in a fresh way. Sure, you might not die the first time, but limited lives for the entire game makes the stakes much higher in the long run. It could be a nerve-wracking challenge… or it could just be really, really frustrating. Even more frustrating than dying at the hands of a boss over and over and over…

— Ashley

13 thoughts on “Death in Video Games — It’s Just Not Realistic”

  1. I never played the very first Rainbow Six, but I played its sequel — Rogue Spear. You might not know it from the modern iterations but R6 used to be a strategy game; you’d be given intel and a map of the house/hotel/boat/etc. you were trying to defuse the terrorist situation in, and you’d assign team members to various squads and give each squad its one course through the map. Checkpoints and instructions were included, so for example you might establish that “At callsign bravo, team one will proceed to and secure this hallway, and team two will move to this door. At callsign charlie, team two will breach from this side while team one enters from the back…”

    Prior to each mission you hand-picked your team from an assortment of characters, each of whom had specialties and skills specific to that person (you know, like actual soldiers with actual expertise). Thing is, if someone died during a mission (and you didn’t restart the mission from the beginning), that person was really dead for the rest of the game, and future missions required you to pick from whoever was left. Theoretically you could actually lose the game because Team Rainbow had been completely wiped out, or because you no longer had a large enough team to handle the next terrorist situation. By far the most realistic handling of death I’ve ever seen in a game.

    And as such, of course, completely impossible for many genres, particularly ones with a central protagonist.

    That said, on the horizon is that Zombi-U game for the WiiU. While this isn’t reason in itself to play the game, it sounds like the player gimmick is just what you’re looking for: you play as a random survivor of the zombie apocalypse, scavenging for resources, fighting your way through harrowing situations. When you die — that is, when you are killed by the zombies — you must begin as a new survivor. Catch is, you now hunt down your former (now zombified) self to gather the supplies you’d been carrying.

    One caveat to all this, though: challenge isn’t necessarily the best of things, particularly if it can cripple your experience. The “true game over” you allude to would make such a game absolutely impossible and inaccessible to many (and all non-hardcore) gamers. Moreover, it could be a huge turnoff for even the hardcore crowd. I’m reminded of my time with the first xbox Ninja Gaiden, a game notoriously difficult to progress in. I was approximately halfway through the game when my xbox malfunctioned, requiring me to get a new one. I was able to transfer most of my saved filed via memory unit to the new xbox, except some games weren’t compatible with the memory unit, including Ninja Gaiden. Faced with the prospect of having to fight my way through so many hours of gameplay all over again, I refused. It wasn’t worth it, and I wouldn’t enjoy it. The challenge was nice while it was temporary, but the moment a replay became mandatory the appeal was lost.

    All that’s to say that if the game is hard enough to actually run the risk of losing all your characters and needing to start over, it’s also likely hard enough that you won’t want to start over after losing so much invested time and energy. Which, of course, is precisely how Rogue Spear operated — so maybe take a stroll down nostalgia lane to test the theory?

    1. I will have to play Rogue Spear! Thanks for the info on Zombi U too — I’ve been hearing about that game quite a bit lately, but I never looked into the details. I love the idea of having to play as another survivor and track down your previous zombified character; it’s very close to the kind of thing I was imagining would be fun and realistic in a game.

      I also agree with you about difficulty alienating a lot of players if it’s too extreme. Sorry to hear about your Ninja Giaden experience! Personally, I tend to play on lower difficulties to breeze through the stories and unwind at the end of the day; I only increase the difficulty for games I’ve already played to death.

      But I like the realism of a true “game over” — not just a game over screen that instantly reloads at your previous checkpoint. (Related to that, I know some people are really into traversing Skyrim on foot, never using fast travel, because they want that realism.) I guess the bottom line is, there’s a big difference between realistic consequences in games and just plain cruelty in game design. Difficulty should pose a challenge (if you want it) but never be so harsh that it makes you give up. Which is why I’m not sure the whole “game over — it’s really over” thing would work, even though I’m really into the idea… Hmm.

      1. Hope you enjoy Rogue Spear, whenever you get around to it. I have a problem (maybe just chronological snobbery?) when it comes to playing old games; graphics shouldn’t be so important but I guess for me they usually are. Otherwise I’d probably have picked it back up again myself.

        As for Ninja Gaiden, I got over it ^_^ I then bought Ninja Gaiden 2…and proceeded to have the game auto-save in an impossible situation where the enemy I needed to kill to progress was trapped behind an invisible (and impenetrable) wall, thereby precluding continuation and necessitating a restart yet again. Needless to say I’m extremely nervous at the prospect of playing future Ninja Gaiden games.

        I think the salient point is player agency. I love that you have the option of walking everywhere in Skyrim, but I’d never use the fact that some people like that as a basis for removing a fast travel system from the game. To that end, perhaps some sort of hardcore mode that had to be toggled at the beginning of the game and that would disable the save function? Your progress would be documented by the game’s auto-save function, (so I guess if you rushed over and pulled the plug before it registered your death, you could maybe beat the system, otherwise) forcing you to accept your losses and officially terminating the game if you died. For players not interested in stakes that high, that mode would simply never be toggled on.

        Which, I suppose, is a little like the infamous Badass “virus” bug going around ( in Borderlands 2, albeit the option isn’t supposed to be available to the player and (more importantly) doesn’t work too well in a persistent, multiplayer environment.

    1. I just read your post — so true! I feel like being able to respawn encourages people to do whatever they want without fear… a game like Skyrim is especially forgiving because there are soooo many ways to die, yet you can save your game at any moment and then just jump from a high cliff and see what happens, or attack some guards and see how long you make it before they kill you. Then when you die, you just respawn and carry on with your latest quest as if nothing ever happened. I suppose that can be really fun, but it definitely takes some of the tension away. Would be cool to see consequences other than death… maybe something more lasting, too!

  2. XCOM is one of those games that is defined by its difficulty. We’ve seen a steady decline of games that are tough to beat over the years whether or not it’s due to the way you die. I can see folks like us telling our grandkids about the days of “NES hard”.

    1. Yeah, that’s true. I appreciate XCOM because it’s an entirely different type of gameplay, with entirely different consequences, than the typical RPGs I’m more used to playing. And I agree that games are becoming very easy these days. I don’t mind that because I like to play on casual difficulty my first time through a game, but still, when I played Mass Effect 3 for instance, I had to increase the difficulty more than once during the game, because the lower difficulties didn’t require me to take cover or do anything other than run in and shoot. It was boring. And that had little to do with the way you die, as you said… easy games can change the gameplay and realism entirely!

  3. I actually never thought of it that way. If video games were to raise the stakes that much higher, it would make for an interesting and refreshing game. You would be forced to pay attention more, use better strategy in combat, and work harder at getting to the end without having your character permanently expiring on you. But I also think what makes games great is when you die, you get several chances at life while in the real world you don’t get a second chance or a third or a fourth.

    1. Yeah, and I can see how having to restart your game after a single death would be incredibly frustrating — even demoralizing. So I suppose the chance for death would have to be much more rare than it is in most video games now… and that could change the game’s content and story quite a bit, as they would have to revolve around quests that involve realistic consequences other than death.

      But I agree with you too that being able to respawn — or having several chance at life, like you said — is actually one of the cool things about games, too! Even with things other than death, in life, when you make a mistake, you don’t get to take it back. Video games are much more forgiving than life, and I suppose that’s one of the reasons I like to unwind with them so often… though I hadn’t thought about it like that before you said it! Good point.

  4. I am currently working on an article on the Immortality of Death in videogames, and in it I propose a videogame that does just that- “games with healing worked into the story so it makes sense,” but not in the traditional sense like Prey or Bioshock. If you are interested, I could send you the paper!

  5. Hey Ashley. In your article, you say you’d like to see a game where your character “really” dies, and where you have to go on with your partner… Well guess what : I got a game for you !
    Actually, I just discovered your website, so I’m not sure if you’ve played it already or not. And, truthfully, when I see the list of your favorite games (nearly the same as mine), I guess you already have.
    But anyway, here it comes : Heavy Rain. In that game, whenever a character dies, the story actually continues, with him (or her) dead. You then go on with the other playable characters. No healing, no “continue”, etc…

    Oh and just for the joke, another game that forces you to play with the “other” characters when one dies : Lemmings. I know, I know, just joking…

    1. I have never played Heavy Rain — mostly because I don’t always have access to a PS3 — but have heard so many good things about it. Thanks for the recommendation! I had no idea that was how the game handled the death of playable characters, so that’s one more thing to add to my (already long) list of reasons to finally pick it up.

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