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These Video Games Are Categorically Fresh to Death

It's usually a tedious, cobwebby metaphor for failure—but some of today's video games have wonderfully inventive approaches to "death."

by Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
Feb 20 2015, 3:40pm

'ZombiU' image from the game's "God Save the Queen" trailer, 2012

How many times have you died in all the video games you've ever played? It seems a ridiculous question—most seasoned enthusiasts expect to bite the dust dozens or hundreds of times in the course of a single playthrough. And besides, as far as most games are concerned "death" isn't really death with a capital "D," but a tedious, cobwebby metaphor for failure. You wouldn't count up the times you've walked into a headshot while plugging away at a Call of Duty campaign, any more than you'd think about how many times you've banged your thumb while hammering together a house.

Occasionally, though, it seems important to know. I can remember exactly how many times I've kicked the bucket while playing Failbetter's naval exploration sim Sunless Sea, for example, because each of the characters in question is a kinsman of the others. Seven merchant-captains have given their souls to the game's ravenous underground ocean and, in most cases, I can recall exactly where their ships sank beneath the waves. Two fell to the cannons and pincers of second-rate privateers and sea monsters, just north of Fallen London; one expired a little more heroically off the Sea of Lilies, after wounding herself in appeal to the goddess Stone, who has been known to conjure up a morsel of coal for beleaguered vessels.

A fourth ran into similar difficulties but prayed to the fickle god Salt instead, and was mysteriously transported hundreds of leagues south to a ruin where he lost his mind (and crew) at the altar of an unholy temple. My most recent captain was the luckiest: she inherited her predecessor's sea chart, and put aside enough money to ensure a comfortable start for her own heir before going down with all hands during an ill-advised smuggling run.

Among the optional story objectives for each captain is a quest to recover your father's bones, which suits Sunless Sea's creation of a continuity between "playthroughs," but even without it, I'd want to visit the places where my predecessors met their makers. It's not just that they didn't—quite—die for nothing: you'll always be able to pass on a small pittance to the next captain along, be it a favored deck gun or a trusted officer, even if you can't afford to commission a will. It's that I want them to know that it wasn't for nothing, wherever they are.

'Sunless Sea' makes sure you respect death with every new life you're given

Games that make us think this intently about death—fearing it, planning for it, pondering its aftermath—are thin on the ground. Many developers still trade implicitly or explicitly on the idea of multiple, non-consecutive "lives," a concept begotten upon home format gaming by the coin-op titles of the 1980s and 90s, where you'd fork out per attempt like an Ancient Greek paying the Boatman for passage back across the River Styx.

Under this model, death equals not just failure but a complete existential rewrite, the deletion of everything up to that point in either the level or across the entire game—every decision or encounter, good and bad, every twist of fate. To snuff it in a game like Sonic the Hedgehog isn't just to make an end but never to have begun. A victorious character, meanwhile, can be defined as the sum of all the things that somehow didn't go wrong. This not only makes defeat seem all the more deflating, but robs the final, successful attempt of its thrill. You are simply the stone (or hedgehog) that was fortunate enough to roll all the way to the bottom of the mountain.

Perhaps this is a realistic way to think about death. I mean, for all I know you, the universe and everything that has ever occurred are all just figments of my imagination, doomed to be wiped from the slate the second my heart runs out of zap. It certainly makes for fewer headaches among game designers: "failing" the player and obliging a restart is easier than finding some way to weave that failure into the on-going narrative, or account for it in the make-up of the world.

'The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver' sent its protagonist spinning between planes of existence

Nonetheless, more and more creators are coming to see death as something a little more, well, invigorating—a variable that can be exploited, like an AI pattern. One of the earliest examples I can think of is The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, a gothic action-adventure from the PS1 era. It casts you as the jawless yet tremendously well-spoken husk of an obliterated vampire, Raziel, who has acquired the ability to flit at will between the material and spectral planes. Thus, when your fraying meaty self gets clobbered in Soul Reaver you aren't thrown back to a checkpoint, but shuttled to a parallel, otherworldly version of the level you're in.

A less-ambitious developer might have achieved this switchover by spraying all the walls black and making enemies a bit see-through, but developer Crystal Dynamics goes the extra mile: courtesy of real-time streaming tech that was fairly brain-boggling at the time, environments flake and twist grotesquely into new alignments, their physical properties suspended. Hitherto out-of-reach platforms can now be pounced upon, flooded chambers investigated and iron gates waved aside like bead curtains. True, if you get the crap kicked out of you by the denizens of the spirit world an old-fashioned reload is in order, but the game's sense of how death might be a transformation rather than mere cessation is otherwise persuasive.

'ZombiU': get munched by one of these guys and you have to restart as a whole new character

Ubisoft's ZombiU takes the idea in a grislier direction. Here, you play as one among many survivors of a zombie outbreak, who must roam a festering London in search of things to hit corpses with. Allow the undead to get their molars into the character in play, and you'll have to start over with a new survivor. Your options at this stage are two: you can carry on with whatever you were doing at the time, minus all of your carefully hoarded equipment, or set out in search of your now-zombified former self and ask it nicely to hand everything over, preferably with the aid of a baseball bat.

These transformations need not, of course, be literal. It's impossible to discuss death as a design variable without cocking a wary eye at From Software's Souls series, which is due to re-enter the fray later this spring in the form of tacit Souls sequel Bloodborne. In particular, 2011's Dark Souls has a peculiar fascination with the concept of undeath, which carries a spiritual resonance that compares to the concept of sin in certain forms of Christianity.

Succumb to the spear, ax, or boulder-sized fist of a rampaging demon and you'll resurrect at a bonfire without any of your experience points and, crucially, without the benefit of your Humanity. In the Souls mythology, Humanity equates to a higher chance of stumbling on valuable items, greater resilience, and sunny good looks, while those who have "gone Hollow" appear as emaciated wretches and are unable to converse with certain non-player characters. You can restore your Humanity at bonfires, but there's a catch: while Human, you may be invaded and hunted down by other online players who are in thrall to one of the realm's nastier gods.

Restoring your humanity in 'Dark Souls' can be advantageous, but carries significant risks, too

To die isn't just to have to try again, in other words. It's to be metaphysically tarnished. To restore yourself, conversely, is to declare yourself deserving of a sort of semi-divine status among the ranks of your fellow strivers, and to face boldly up to the additional tribulations this entails.

It's a fascinating reworking of old ideas about progression and rebirth in video games, which has actually shaped how I think about mortality when I'm away from the controller. Other games have tried to invest the concept of undeath with a similar grandeur, but most merely pick up on ideas established by Hollywood, such as the view that zombies are an allegory for the working class and vampires, aristocrats in coffins.

The key point in all these examples is that the death of a player's character is no longer a non-event, but a step on the road that's as charged with import for other characters, the player or the world as any other. It's a powerful elaboration of a theme that has preoccupied games developers for decades, but which has rarely been approached with much intelligence. Touring the eldritch waters of Sunless Sea, I am conscious in a way I rarely am in a game of all the deaths I've undergone to bring me to this point, and of all those that are still to come.

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