The Inconvenience of Death

Exhausted and broken, lying horizontal in a spectral arena of unknown origin, the skulls of previous failures lingering overhead like vultures ready to feed off the carrion of my own inadequacy. I always knew my optimism could lead to ruin, but now as all semblance or modicum of my own ability seeped slowly away I knew – at precisely that moment – Pillow Talk would never grace my unworthy grasp. I had died in Bayonetta again.

Death is a fate many gamers have been subjected to. Psychologically, our tolerance is easy to explain; a fair challenge is something no self-respecting gamer wishes to walk away from, nor do we want software to get the better of us. Few gaming experiences come close to the raw cathartic thrill of besting a gruelling gauntlet of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Curiously, few developers seem willing to get creative as far as death is concerned, given how commonplace it is. That’s not to developers haven’t already tried, the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time treats death as the result of the Prince’s own poor storytelling abilities, uttering remarks such as “no, no that wasn’t how it happened” when the player misjudges a leap and lands face first onto a bed of spikes. Another recent example, Demon’s Souls, kills the player mere minutes into the tutorial and, depending on their abilities, the player will spend most of the game in soul form. Technically speaking, the player is almost always dead.

More likely its gamers themselves who place greater significance on death, imposing their own limitations to personalise their experience and make it more interesting, treating a single death as the end of their adventure, for example. I’m reminded of the Nuzlocke Challenge, a webcomic based on the author’s experience of playing Pokémon Ruby to a strict and rigid set of limitations, pushing the humble RPG into the realms of senseless masochism. To quote one of these rules from the site: “If your Pokémon faints consider it dead and release it.” The tension raised by these limitations must be terrifying, every clash potentially spelling the end of hours of effort and your intensely raised party.

Investing 49 hours into Bayonetta made me wonder how Platinum Games could have made death a non-issue whilst still maintaining replay value and difficulty. The score the player receives at the end of each chapter is largely dictated by the quantity of deaths, coupled with the total amount of sustained damage. Bearing that in mind I came up with an interesting idea:

When the player reaches zero health, the player automatically enters the out-of-body stage seen in a couple of chapters though they are completely invincible. As health is recharging, minor enemies are spawned so the player can seamlessly integrate their combo before, during and after death. The player would receive a healthy amount of combo points whilst their sustained damage total ensures that they are unable to obtain gold, platinum or pure platinum trophies unless they choose to repeat stages and hone their skills. This ensures that casual players can appreciate the game much easier as death is no longer an issue without alienating the hardcore crowd.

Death is very much akin to the ‘win’ mentality that defines games as a medium. Given that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, death predictably becomes the ‘losing’ factor, a state which exists purely to be overcome. I’ve often compared dying in video games to the jail on a Monopoly board, frustrating certainly, but I sincerely doubt the experience would be as exciting without it (as exciting as Monopoly can be anyway). Interestingly, one of 2010’s most innovative games Heavy Rain treated death as a plot device, weaving character deaths into the plot as if each character was part of something far greater than themselves. By refusing to offer a ‘game over’ scenario, Heavy Rain opens itself up to a wider audience because skill was no longer an issue.

If death must however maintain a place in mollycoddling mainstream releases, it must learn its place. A game which prides itself on its child-friendly appeal like LittleBigPlanet arguably has no right to be difficult. Especially in multiplayer where each player competes for equal screen time amidst constant and concealed death traps, leading to many an off-screen death. Surely it constitutes towards a form of false advertising, filling a cutesy platform game with levels seemingly designed to make under tens and adults throw mighty tantrums? 2008’s well meant but fatally misjudged Prince of Persia reboot was universally criticised for its lack of challenge, having an AI character rescue the player from their own mistakes, resulting in gamers and critics alike all crying out for death in unison.

In the grand scheme of things, I doubt developers have ‘reinvent people’s perceptions of death in the video game medium’ scrawled on a Post-It note on their whiteboards. Though I trust I’m not alone in wondering why death hasn’t been treated with more respect and integrity, given how it has been there since the birth of the medium. It seems unlikely that death will celebrate a renaissance but this article needs an ambiguous but satisfactory sense of closure, so allow me to end by wondering whether time will indeed tell…