Guest Writer: Death

It seems more of you are keen to have your voice heard here on TSA, with another guest article landing in my inbox this morning. This week ashw92 has decided to chip in his two cents on death in gaming.

Death is an ever present theme and tool in our favoured pastime of video games. Excluding sport games, it’s hard to think of a title which does not deal with death in one way, shape or form. They do, however, approach and execute deaths in a wide range of ways. From the throw away nature of a death in early platformers such as Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog which simply meant you started the level again, through the triumphant slaying of enemies and bosses like Ganondorf in the Zelda series to the genuinely emotional demise of characters in titles such as Heavy Rain.

This recurring theme means that when death appears in games, it is taken as nonchalantly as possible the majority of the time. Nobody mourns when someone picks you off with a head shot causing your kill to death ratio to dip slightly and never does an individual face a tearing emotional decision about slaying a 600 foot tall Greek god who may or may not be your father.

The throwaway nature of death and killing in a video game is an odd notion when thought about. Death in general could hardly be less of a throwaway subject; it is one of the most difficult and harrowing experiences to witness and the killing side of the coin is just as extreme with many soldiers returning from combat with intense cases of post traumatic stress disorder. I highly doubt Modern Warfare 3 will include a post game level in which you struggle to reintegrate into society due to the atrocities you experienced in conflict.

[drop]Few games deal with death in a serious and emotional manner or in a way similar to that which it is dealt with in everyday life. As I mentioned before, Heavy Rain is one the few in this minority as is L.A. Noire which portrayed grief and difficulty in coping with loss, the Golden Butterfly case being a particular stand out. Seeing a husband whose grief is further strained by his suspect status in the case certainly carried an emotional impact, as did witnessing a young girl dealing with the death of her mother. The feeling the story evoked was aided by the Motion Scan technology displaying the emotion on the characters faces; it genuinely made me sad for a loss that actually did not occur in the real world.

While I am happy to accept that all games cannot treat death in such a fashion, in some it simply would not work or fit, I feel it is important for games to treat death less as a solid victory or an unimportant game mechanic. The inclusion of more difficult decisions when disposing of enemies and more of a emphasis on the emotional side of death is something that would not only aid the story but also help gaming to remove its perception as the cause of violent acts among young people. Furthermore, deeper, stronger themes and connections with the characters you engage with are one way to ensure a game stays in your mind longer; leaving you with more of an attachment to the game increases your likelihood of returning for the sequel.



  1. Nice read, short and sweet. I did like Heavy Rain’s approach, but I’d much rather be able to continue without heavy consequences for accidentally pressing the wrong button. As for NPC death, it’s great when games really make you feel sad and especially when it’s your fault a la Mass Effect.

  2. Nice article and something to ponder over :)

  3. agree with all this, death has become all too meaningless in modern gaming with all the save anywhere infinite continues and constant respawns.
    Whereas modern gamers probably won’t stomach the one or three lives then have to start again right from the beginning a good way to attach a bit more meaning is to have an involved story with deep characters, like brilliantly mentioned in the article. Makes the whole thing less transient and for a few minutes at least alludes to something deeper.

    The difference between Motion scan and non-motion scan is paramount to this, its one of the few difference between this gen & the last other than a few more pixels. I hope as many games as possible get it and the dreadful lip sync of the weirdly empty mouths and staring eyes is a thing of the past.

  4. great article :) I liked the idea of when a character died in Heavy Rain they were then removed from the story. Also at the end (my particular ending) I felt very sad for the death of ethan after his long and hard journey to….I don’t wan’t to spoil the story.
    By the way that Golden Butterfly case took me ages to 5 star without a guide, that Eli Rooney was so hard to nail in the interview. Still it was a very emotional case.

  5. Good article :)
    I agree that death in many modern games does not hold the significance it once did but it highly depends ont he genre of game. Playing Call of Duty for example you have no time to dwell on the death as your instantly thrust back into the action via respawn to get revenge.
    Role Playing and Adventure games on the other that have you invested in a story and set of characters for 30-40+ hours is different. You get a better feel for the characters and develop a bond of sorts. When one of them is killed its sad. Im sure many of you know what I’m talking about when you first saw Aerith’s fate in FFVII :(

  6. Excellent article. =) Most games nowadays seem to treat death as if it was nothing. But there has been a game or two every now and then which show an emotional scene when someone gets killed. Final Fantasy(not sure about the newer games as i have only played 13 and haven’t got that far) used to deal with Death with such emotion, that you as the player would feel the same emotions as the main characters who witnessed a character’s death. I cried when thingy died in Final Fantasy 7(i don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t played it) and i think everyone who saw that scene for the first time did as well. Some deaths can enrage the player as intended and make them want to hunt down the SOB who killed him/her.

    I love it when a game shows emotional depth. Heavy Rain was not scared to show this, as the entire game seemed be bursting with it. When Shaun is killed within the first hour of the game,i was saddened by that and you see how his death affected the family in the next stage of the game. But some games can make the player feel guilty for causing the death of someone. Fallout 3 and New Vegas always made me feel guilty for killing someone innocent and i feel that more games need to do that. I may have gone off topic with this.

    I wish more games would invest emotional depth when dealing with death instead of “oh he’s dead.” “Oh well, it happens.”

    • Erm, spoiler alert?

      • Oh crud, i just remeber it was the other kid. It is in the first hour but i didn’t think that could spoilt it. Sorry for spoiling it. :( I should have censored the name.

  7. Is Demon’s Souls also worth a mention? Yes, it does have a slightly throwaway attitude to death, but it also incorporates it as a gameplay mechanic.

    • completely forgot about Demons Souls, dying is a major part of the game considering how many times you do die :L not quite the same as the importance of death in a game relating to the article but it is certainly a different type of death

  8. Can’t help but mention Dreamfall again. Although the motion capture and character animation wasn’t good, the more serious and realistic approach the developers took to the characters and story made death feel very significant, as they weren’t treated in such an expendable manner, and you spend enough time with them to allow yourself to care about them. In my opinion it probably has one of the most powerful endings of any game.

  9. I was just thinking – did I submit something and forget? Lol nice piece, interesting, I really like these guest writer articles.

  10. Interesting article. Games and ‘death’ have a difficult relationship. Back in the day if you lost all your ‘lives’ that was it and you would have to start the whole game from the beginning. In modern day games that try to tell a half-decent story the main protagonist can’t die permanently so checkpoints, regenerating health and save games are necessary mechanisms. The opening level of Homefront I found quite sombre for a shooter: watching helplessly from a bus as a child and his parents were manhandled by an invading force was quite difficult.

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