The Evolution Of Death In Games

When exploring the concept of game mechanics it is easy to get lost in such systems as movement, or battle sequences. These mechanics are instantly ingrained in the player's memory for they are items that the player must constantly interact with and set the overall pace of a title. But there is one mechanic that has shown a vast amount of change over the years in order to keep up with the ever changing medium of video games.  It is one that can cause a wide range of emotions within the player, from glee to frustration this system has become as fluid as gaming. We are of course talking about death in games or the dreaded “Game Over” scene. Throughout time games have all had one thing in common and that is including a win and lose condition. Players need to know how to be successful and progress, but there needs to be a counter balance to this idea to create a sense of challenge for the player.  Whether it is taking too much damage, falling out of bounds of the level or even failing a skill check the ways in which a player can fail changes from genre to genre.  

As the genres continue to expand the ways in which death can be used has changed astronomically.  The days in which death was just used to force a player to feed more quarters into the cabinet are over and games no longer rely on hi-scores to have the player progress so we need new ways to present death to the player.  We are in a period now in which we are witnessing a renaissance of the ever classic death mechanic in games.  Many titles now aim to weave a rich tale for the player to experience and enjoy and many titles now are attempting to leave the player learning something new, or experiencing life from another’s perspective. One title that is rather successful with evolving death and using it more of a tool to help push the overarching theme of their game rather than only using it as a tool to halt progress.  This title is Hellblade, developed by Ninja Theory in 2017 and winner of the BAFTA Games Award For Audio Achievement.  While on the surface this is a fantasy game dealing with revenge shrouded in Norse mythology and Celtic culture, underneath it is so much more.  Players are able to take a peak in the mind of someone with a mental illness and briefly experience what they go through on a day to day basis. The weight of this feeling can be felt throughout the audio and visual design of the game, but in order to really drive this point home they used death in an interesting way that can feel so haunting even years after playing this game.  Once you take too much damage you witness the death cutscene.  In this it almost feels as if the camera shifts to you the player watching the death of your character.  You cry out to yourself, pleading to move out of the way, to not give up before the final blow has been struck.  You are then resurrected at the last checkpoint but you then look down at your hand.  There you will see something truly terrifying, there is an inky blackness that is beginning to creep up your hand reaching its way to your head and with each death it continues to grow reaching ever further.  The player is plagued with the thought that once this darkness reaches your mind it is all ever and you will finally succumb to the dark thoughts that are filling your mind…

This genius way of presenting death to the player is a strong example of how a mechanic that is as old as gaming or rather life itself can be modified with the times to better tell a story and keep a player fully immersed even through starting over. Hellblade is just one example of how death has evolved through games and there are a plethora of other ways in which death has been addressed in order to better tell the story of the designers.  And as designers or players we must look further into these mechanics that we have grown so used to, to see how they can further be pushed to evolve the medium even further. 

Written By: Christian