Taking Death Out of Games
With every video game comes failure. You're presented with a challenge and obstacles to overcome, and there's a guarantee that at some point you won't succeed. This will, of course, result in some sort of punishment. In the vast majority of games, the protagonist will die and the player will re-spawn and try again. In other words, there's not much of a death at all. And in many games, there's not even much of a punishment. Mario may take a hit or fall off a cliff—but he'll be back in seconds, and the only consequence is having to do the last sixty seconds of the level over again.
So why does Mario have to die? If the only result of failure in gaming is a brief screen of text telling you you messed up and a restart, why do developers even bother integrating this faux mortality? Some games do have a permanent death feature, but those are generally a thing of the past. For the most part, any kind of death video games, whether graphically violent or cartoonishly silly, is nothing more than a minor annoyance.
Death likely remains in video games to make the player feel shock or shame for their failure. You took a sniper shot to the head, now your character's brains are on the floor. Don't you feel guilty? But at this point, most gamers have become pretty numb to seeing their hero get obliterated. If Link is just going to be magically resurrected every time I run out of hearts, why am I even trying? Where's the suspense in the story? Ganondorf doesn't stand a chance if he can't even kill me!
World of Warcraft is an especially bad offender. This game has your main character's ghost literally returning to the carcass. WoW takes no shame in admitting its characters are immortal. What's stopping every living citizen in the entire Warcraft realm from ambushing Deathwing, the Lich King, or Hellscream in a giant flash mob if the only consequence of death is a ghostly stroll back to their bodies? I realize it's just a game mechanic to allow the player to keep his or her beloved hero, but it really subtracts from the tension of the story if there's nothing to lose. Mysteriously, certain NPCs die permanently in the storyline, never to return again. Hmm.
Why can't a mission failure result in something other than a phony fatality?
Well, a few creative developers have come up with great alternatives to protagonist death that provide the same player punishment, without relying on infinite resurrection.
Bioshock Infinite, for example, has the hero Booker DeWitt get saved by the medical expertise of his companion, Elizabeth, every time his health is depleted. Booker's vision fades to black, a heartbeat fills his ears, then he sees Elizabeth coming to his aid—injections and all, and he's back in action. I thought this was a fantastic way to keep the action of the story going while still making the player look bad for letting Booker take so many hits. You realize you failed, without having to imagine a supernatural scenario where unlimited Booker clones exist to take the original's place.
In that vein, certain Metroid games seem to feature that very concept. Save points in Super Metroid, Fusion, Prime, and many others insinuate that Samus's body is being mapped for cloning in case her original form is destroyed. Dismal, yes, but at least it doesn't insist on divine intervention to keep the game going.
Some other games have gotten even more creative in avoiding protagonist immortality. In the Wii U's Zombie U, the player controls a random zombie apocalypse survivor. At least until that character dies. At that point, the player will be given an entirely different survivor and start fresh, never to see the previous character again. This is a really innovative way to allow the player to progress through the story mode without having to use a hero with a weirdly indestructible soul.
The old Wario Land games for Gameboy pulled out all the stops and made Wario literally invincible. He can't be killed. Instead, the developers created clever puzzles and level designs that would simply hinder Wario in some way—or physically move his body to a previous location in the level. That way, instead of dying and starting over, Wario just gets stalled, or pushed back a bit.
In Kirby's Epic Yarn, Kirby and Prince Fluff are rescued from the brink of death by an angelic yarn creature that lifts you out of pits and sets you back on land. But taking damage or falling off the stage will result in a massive loss of gems, the in-game currency. Again, punishment without immortality.
I want to see more interesting alternatives to in-game death. It goes without saying that perma-death is a little too harsh on the player, and can turn a fun experience into a stressful, controller-throwing crucible. And I do believe we can do away with the problem of infinite resurrection without resorting to that.
Do you have any other examples of innovative death mechanics? Have your own opinion about death in video games? Let me know in the comments!