Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending time playing Rogue Legacy, maybe it’s because I’ve been avoiding the Dark Souls franchise like the plague, or maybe because I use games like Grand Theft Auto as stress relief, but I’ve been spending some time pondering death in video games. Not on the impact it has on the player (because, let’s face it, more often than not, there’s not enough games that actually carry a visceral impact), but more of the mechanics of it. How games handle this conceit. And what happens afterwards.
Now, there are plenty of games out there that have a bit of a “penalty” involved in the death of your character. You’ll lost some of the currency of the game world. You’ll drop in experience, potentially making your character weaker. You’ll lose some of the progress that you’d made, and be forced to replay sections that you’d already completed. Or, in some instances, you’re put right back to square one, a fresh start, with the knowledge of what’s to come ahead, and the hope that this time, you’ve properly prepared for it.
Some games make a living off of death. Not in a bad way, but take a game like Rogue Legacy, for instance. Unless you’re the most amazing player to ever play the playing, you’re not beating the game on your first run through. It’s a Rogue-type game for a reason. The difference with this, aside from the pretty graphical facade it presents, is that what you’re doing in one playthrough is actually meant to help future playthroughs. Get enough gold, and you can unlock something cool for the next generation. Enough unlocks, and you’ve opened up a new character class. It’s a cycle that continues, but one that has grabbed a fair share of players, because you just keep doing a little better each time, because you’ve got more tools available to you. And, because the game itself randomly generates your setting each time, you also get the fun of exploring a new place, all in the attempts to finally move past the zone that’s been vexing you, to see what lies beyond.
Of course, while it isn’t happening as often any longer, with games being much larger in scope, but there are still some throwbacks to games of my youth, where a death would either force you to restart the game entirely, or at least cause you to need to restart the level. One game that springs to mind on that aspect is Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, which is a rhythm/runner game (as the title cleverly hints at). Death in this game just resets you to the beginning of the level. And yes, you, as the player, has an idea of what’s upcoming. The trouble with this (and, honestly, part of the fun/frustration of the game) is that the more times you run into something, the more likely it is that you’re not going to be able to respond quickly enough the subsequent go-around. Especially in games where a rapid-fire response is needed, more deaths makes it harder to respond as nimbly, partially because your muscles are becoming fatigued, and partially because it’s sometimes difficult to see all of the enemies pop-up through the cloud of “I almost passed this damned level after 32 tries”. But maybe that’s me.
All that said, I actually really enjoy that different games have different mechanics, and that many games have mechanics that make sense in the grand scope of the game itself. After all, in a game universe like the recent Saints Row, the entire thing is so incredibly over-the-top that a punishing death experience would just turn people away. When a rhythm game forces you back to the start, it helps work your rapid-fire response times. And games like Dark Souls, because they are meant to be slower, more methodical experiences, really benefit from having the player’s character suffer an untimely demise, force them to lose some of their progress, so that they can learn the techniques that will keep them going further.
In a lot of ways, death in video games is a clever way to express dealing with failure overall in life. The failures may not be big, crippling ones, but almost all of them have something to teach, and things to help improve the person experiencing them, so that they are better equipped to handle a similar situation the next time it comes around.
And yes, that includes just avoiding the situation entirely. Sometimes discretion truly is the better part of valor.