Dead at Last: Notes on the Consequences of Death on the Virtual Body
In games that feature perma death, by melding narrative consequence to mechanical consequence, a great deal of meaning is added to even the most routine of skirmishes. Death makes play matter.
We like consequences and death in art, they create tension and meaning in situations that might otherwise be devoid of them. This is a large reason why Game of Thrones is so massively popular. First, the permanence of character death is fully actualized multiple times in the series, meaning that from one season to the next there is change far greater than “he and she are now in a relationship” or “the detective's investigation goes deeper.” Instead between seasons and episodes there is the backdrop of now missing characters, incomplete plot lines that may or may not be picked up as new goals and motivation for surviving characters. Second, a character's permanent death in a series makes living characters' lives uncertain. While watching the penultimate episode of this last season of Game of Thrones, I was earnestly worried that Jon Snow might not make it, regardless of whether this actually happens is informed by previous episodes in which major characters die and exit the series prematurely. Thus, there is tension not present in many other dramas too afraid to take out popular characters.
This same effect can happen in video games. The main character may often be vulnerable and impermanent (see G. Christopher Williams, "Dead Again: Notes on the Impermanence of the Virtual Body", PopMatters, 26 October 2011), dying many times before reaching or obtaining a goal, but the consequences of the player's actions are not necessarily confined by the same parameters. While most games do not feature permanent consequences for a character's death or other actions, I would like to highlight some games that do this and why I think these games are successful at doing so.
Dark Souls is a great example of using death as a way to create as well as an overall theme for the game. Through its difficulty, the player is guaranteed to die many times over the course of the game. Many difficult games feature a lot of player death, some examples include Battletoads, Ninja Gaiden, and Hotline Miami. It's not just the player's death, but also the consequences of death that are important in Dark Souls. The player has “souls,” in game currency and experience used to level up. When the player dies, they drop their souls as well as a bloodstain where they died. If they die again before picking their bloodstain up, their souls are gone for good.
This creates a tension in death that is not present in a game like Hotline Miami (which, to be fair, is more of an arcade game, and thus death is more amusing than frustrating). The player wants to avoid death so that they do not lose their souls, as well as get back to where they died. The game plays with the player's expectations and surprisingly kills that player in a variety of unique ways. This idea is ramped up in Dark Souls 2 in which the players total health is reduced (to a minimum of 50% health) every time that they die. Ultimately though, death in Dark Souls only creates a temporary problem that can be eventually be remedied. In games like X-Com: Enemy Unknown, Fire Emblem, The Binding of Isaac, and FTL: Faster than Light, death's consequences are much more permanent and threatening.
In X-Com: Enemy Unknown, a turn based strategy game in which the player moves military men and women like chess pieces to defeat an alien threat, death is very real and creates a huge amount of stress for the player. The player trains and uses the same characters through every mission, and as the characters are used more often, they gain more abilities in their specialty (such as becoming a better sniper). However, if a character loses all their health in combat, they die and are gone for good for the rest of the game. The player invests their time and energy into their characters, creating an emotional bond that the player does not want to lose. Ultimately though, the characters are replaceable should the player lose them. Perhaps in the future, X-Com's design team can develop these characters more fully (as it stands they have about as much personality as a chess piece), so that losing them is more important to the player than just losing a strategical unit.
By contrast, Fire Emblem, a similar turn based strategy game, does develop its characters and give them simple, but effective narratives that are cut short should those characters die in combat. In turn, the player feels more tension (similar to that generated by Game of Throne's narrative) due to the changes this causes to the plot, but it also adds more tension to the combat in the game. By melding narrative consequence to mechanical consequence a great deal of meaning is added to even the most routine of skirmishes. The combination is very effective and one of the defining features of the series.
In roguelikes, like The Binding of Isaac and FTL, death is handled in a more arcade-like manner, but it still holds a ton more weight than the average game. In these games, if the player dies, they must restart the game from the beginning. In return, these games are much shorter and change with every playthrough. Still, every time that the player starts a game, they are creating a unique character or starship with unique abilities that are permanently lost if they die. This again, creates a tension not found in a Mario or GTA game in which there are no or little consequences to death other than the feeling of failure and the need to redo a section (which can admittedly evoke powerful feelings if presented correctly).
By creating consequences for player death, these games uniquely break with the norm in video games in which the player's death is frequent and only serves to show the player that they have briefly failed. There are other examples of this and many games play with death as a theme. Frankly, death is so omnipresent in video games that it begs to be noticed. Characters are always dying or fainting as a result of losing all of their health, only to reboot a minute or two to do it all again. There is something strange about the hero's body in a video game that is certainly not present in films like Indiana Jones or Star Wars.
As games play with this theme, they are able to create something new out of something old. They expand the medium into something more than games like Watch Dogs or Thief (2014), which, while not bad games, mostly just try to perfect something that has already been done before rather than really do something new. When movies or books do this, they feel stale, maybe good for mass consumption, but poor for critical analysis. It is when the novel, film, or game starts to play with the audience's expectations and question what the audience assumes about the nature of the world, whether the fictional world or the real world, that true quality emerges. Games like Dark Souls and Fire Emblem explore the consequence of death and the way it relates to the player's own life in a way that other mediums cannot and that most games won't.