The Death of Death in Videogames and the Integration of a Post-Death Mechanic

Monday, January 19, 2009
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou'art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie,'or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

-John Donne

Videogame death--which is this essay's raison d'etre--has often been exploited as the ultimate punishment for hitting that enemy, missing that jump, or taking just one too many bullets . For Mario, Master Chief, and Marcus Fenix, the real enemy is not Bowser, The Covenant, or The Locusts, the real enemy is death. Death into a pit, death onto a spike, death into a ball of fire. Death can result in a "Game Over," continue, or loading screen. Death, in other words, is merely an occasional irritant, a niggling hiccup, a momentary interruption of gameplay, where a player takes a moment to savor the impersonal punishment of not playing well enough. Our player breathes, presses a button, and tries again.

Many games nowadays attempt to curtail the use of a loading screen (more prominant than a "Game Over" or "Continue" screen nowadays) by the implementation of time-reverse mechanics into the gameplay. This mechanic sees excellent use within the platform genre, in games such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy, Jonathan Blow's Braid, but time-reversal also appears in racing games (Grid) and first-person shooters (Timeshift). If our gamer takes too long completing a task, misjudges the distance of a gap, or, in some cases, dies, a simple button-press allows for a do-over, following a slo-mo recap of the mistake in reverse. The mechanic does not eliminate death altogether, but attempts to allow our gamer a way around it, a way to postpone the Reaper's arrival.

The age of the "Game Over" screen--a phenomenon of eastern developed games--is coming to an end. With the dwindling popularity of video arcades in America and the increasing popularity of home consoles, a developer's need to include such a risk/reward system, centered on staying alive, is slowly being deconstructed. More and more games include a type of in-game death-substitute in order to bypass the traditional "Game Over" screen, the moment when arcade gamers were prompted to "Insert Coin" in order to continue playing a game.

The critically lauded and successful game from 2K Boston, Bioshock, utilizes an in-game mechanic called "Vita-chambers," where a deceased player is "respawned" without any major interruption to gameplay. The Vita-chambers come with their own lore, as well, further integrating them into game world. From the Bioshock Wiki:

"Vita Chambers are an invention by Andrew Ryan, which allows a person who has died to be 'regenerated' at any nearby Vita-Chamber. It would seem the Vita-Chambers were available to the public at one point, but were closed down maybe due to Ryan's command, or so Little Sisters could collect ADAM. Or perhaps they were going to be available to the citizens of Rapture but were never fully activated."

This integration of the death mechanic into gameplay, keeping our gamer continuously within the game world, places more emphasis on the progression and story of the game--the what happens next--as opposed to the challenging moments where the player faces onslaughts of enemy "splicers" and lumbering-but-powerful "Big Daddies"--the pure gameplay moments. Die, and all you do is respawn (a mechanic taken from various arena style first-person shooters; Quake, Unreal Tournament, etc.) at the nearest Vita-chamber, some of your health regenerated, all of the world unchanged. The de-emphasis of gameplay for narrative shows the developer's preference for this aspect of the videogame over others. In the coordination between the storytelling element and the progression of the player through the game is a continuous, uncompromising narrative vision, allowing players to become fully immersed in the world without having to restart. In film theory, the continuous form of narrative is termed the "invisible style" or "Hollywood style"; in The Art of Fiction, John Gardiner has famously called prose of this sort a "vivid and continuous dream."

Bioshock is an example of a game that attempts to bridge the obvious "game-ness" of videogames with an invisible aesthetic, a world that our gamer can enter and there remain. It does this partly with its Vita-chambers and heavy emphasis on storytelling.

More recently, game designers have attempted to do away with death altogether, taking a step away from this tradition, from the worry of dying and the need for players to develop techniques to stay alive. One example of this is found Ubisoft's new franchise reboot Prince of Persia (2008). Here, upon plummeting off a ledge, our gamer watches as his magical sidekick Elika offers her hand and pulls the player-character back up to a nearby ledge. Or if the player's character is about to fall in battle he is immediate pulled, by Elika, from beneath the chop of an enemy's sword. In Prince of Persia, the death mechanic is avoided altogether with the intrusion of a non-player character. These sorts of development choices maintain that "vivid and continuous dream," exclude death from the risk/reward schemata, and allow the narrative to be highlighted as one of the main reasons for our gamer to play.

Too Human, developed by Sillicon Knights, utilizes a similar mechanic to Bioshock. When our player's character, Baldur, dies, a Valkyrie descends from the heavens, carries him up to "Valhalla" while our gamer waits for Baldur to respawn some distance from where he died. And while the Valkyrie most certainly fits in with the Norse Mythology that Too Human draws so heavily on, the logic behind the mechanic is not as wholly integrated into the experience. Although the idea that Valkyries descend to carry norsemen off to Valhalla is an acurate one, the Norse believed that conquering death was an honor reserved to great warriors fighting for their cause--Valhalla was a place that those warriors would not wish to leave. The mechanic Sillicon Knights implements in the game contradicts the general Norse lore they're drawing so heavily on. The effect is not a "vivid continuous dream" but instead confusion on the part of our gamer.

It's yet to be seen how this mechanic will be integrated into future videogames, although we can safely say we haven't seen the last of it. (Another game that implements this type of mechanic is Fable 2--when the player-character falls in battle, s/he "heroically" lurches to his/her feet, knocking all enemies around to the ground--this fits perfectly with the "heroic" motif.) With games being viewed more and more as art, narratives will emerge that necessitate the developer's need to remove death from the equation. The only question left to ask is: "How will death be killed next?"