The Inconsequential Game Over: Dying for a Change

It’s 1993. I’m playing on my NES. I’m about to fight Bowser at the end of Super Mario Bros. It’s time for dinner, however, and my dad has called into the living room probably five or six times. I don’t want to eat because I’m about to finally save Princess Toadstool, but I’m seven and I have no choice so I put it on pause.

When I come back, after eating and doing the dishes, my console’s turned off. I stare in horror at my dad who is now watching television. And because the original game didn’t let you save due to technological limitations, I find myself back at the first level when I finally turn the console back on. There are eight more worlds left to go and I will never get close to the end again.

Games have been flirting with their portrayal of failure and game overs for years–they’ve been dodging the subject of death for even longer. Arguments have been made for and against severe consequences in the digital world for over two decades. Each game treats the topic differently. Some don’t let you save often if ever, others put a checkpoint around every bend. Sometimes, a game over screen means starting from the beginning while other times it just means restarting from an earlier level. And, in the case of Super Mario Bros., saving and thus restarting without penalty wasn’t possible until later titles in the series–the game over screen was permanent, whether it was reached by personal failure or an external error. When Mario failed, it was all over.

When I had to restart after being so close to the end of Super Mario Bros., it killed the game for me. Today, realizing I never beat the game, I wonder why it bothered me so much. For some reason, I felt entitled to a save feature and a restart, but it makes me wonder why restarts even exist in video games in the first place. After all, there are rarely second chances in any other forms of entertainment–nor are there any in real life. Yet in video games, it seems, we take them for granted and get disgruntled when they aren’t there.

Perhaps we shouldn’t.

Back in 1998, Sierra Entertainment bought the rights to Tolkien’s Lords of the Rings series. The topic of virtual death quickly became forefront in their hype machine for their upcoming MMORPG. It cropped up first in an issue of PC Gamer where the developers discussed gameplay elements of Middle-Earth Online such as dungeons, character customization, and player vs. player combat. While explaining what happens when a character dies, they touched on a concept referred to as “true death” that they hoped would be able to be put into the world.

Much like the name implied, true death meant that your hobbit, your dwarf, your elf–they lived a single life. In this version of the Middle-Earth, death was meant to be as real as it is to us right now. Unlike other video games, there were no restarts or resurrections in MEO. If a stray arrow pierced your heart and your screen faded to black, you never came back from it.

Unlike Sam and Frodo, you never get to return to the Shire if you fall down in battle. Sierra had planned a real and tangible–quite horrifying, really–consequence for failure.

I suspect it would have never made it into the actual game anyway, although the concept was interesting. It was hard to imagine being implemented correctly due to game balance. It would be a nightmare for developers to ensure that players didn’t get griefed needlessly by malicious players and that an untimely server disconnect wouldn’t wipe out someone’s elf forever in what was then the age of 56K modems and disconnects. There was also the question of what players would do if their character did die, as MMORPGs are on the whole very character centric. Would they become disenfranchised and quit? Or simply play as their character’s daughter or son, inheriting some of their wealth for another adventure? Unfortunately, the game was never completed so we never got to see the idea in action and what effects it would have had on the gaming world. Sierra’s parent company, Vivendi, bought the rights in 2001 then relinquished them to Turbine who eventually did the version of Lord of the Rings Online that we all know about. And Sierra, broke and out of steam from their vacation in Minas Tirith, didn’t touch on the genre again.

In other MMORPGs, death has had a much lighter penalty by comparison to what could have been. Some of the harshest of the genre in terms of difficulty level, Everquest and Lineage II both gave a loss of experience upon death that was extremely noticeable at higher levels. Final Fantasy XI, in turn, copied them shamelessly. Turbine’s first title, Asheron’s Call, took heed from Ultima Online and experimented with players losing their most valuable items when they died–although people just started to carry expensive throwaway items with hopes those would drop instead of their rare Olthoi helmets to combat it. A death in World of Warcraft costs equipped items their durability and requires a long corpse run, but durability became a laughable punishment as gold started to get easier and easier to make.

In fact, death in World of Warcraft is so light that after a wipe in a raid, players are often back into the fray only a minute or two later. In the upcoming expansion, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, it’s rumored that there will even be raidwide resurrections for guilds of a certain caliber–thus removing any punishment whatsoever. Deviating far from the MMORPG norm, Blizzard seems to have chosen to make death more trivial with every patch. But it wasn’t always this way. In other Blizzard titles, death wasn’t such a laughing matter.

Blizzard’s Diablo II is somewhat famous for its hardcore mode. The game had two modes–normal and hardcore–but hardcore was renowned because if you died once, your character would be dead forever. Items were lost as well unless the player was playing with others and they were able to loot their corpse. It was a choice, but a rewarding one. Completing a game in hardcore mode brought players notoriety. Players were rewarded for not dying doubly so whereas players who died in this mode were punished unbelievably hard. They lost everything. While some games had used this before as a feature, Diablo II did it best. Players got social status and credit as a gamer solely for surviving.

Other games have continued on this path of optional difficulty, but they didn’t revolve around death and game overs quite as much as Diablo II chose to. Difficulty levels exist for a reason–although most simply introduce more health to enemies or decrease damage output. They aren’t particularly brutal in their consequences, even if their difficulty is enormous. Resident Evil’s difficulty levels make players extremely fragile, making a simple run-in with a zombie become fatal if they even touch you. But while you should make no mistake, they’re hard, you can restart as many times as you want. It doesn’t have a long-term effect. In Left 4 Dead 2, realism mode makes the infected harder to kill and takes away obvious gameplay features like items glowing from a distance so they become harder to find. But none of these modes really touch on death, even if they allow you to die faster.

You still respawn and live another day to kill the hordes of undead.

It’s just not the same as being unable to save a game for its whole duration or facing the loss of a character forever due to a simple mistake–for better and for worse.

In games based on stories, such as most RPGs, death tends to have a predictable role as a plot device and nothing more. Players get knocked out in Final Fantasy and there is virtually no penalty for this. Throw a Phoenix Down and it’s like nothing ever happened; Selphie Tilmitt’s back with even more energy than before. It would have been interesting if in Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth killed a character whenever they got knocked out permanently. Of course, it wouldn’t have worked, because players would be lucky to make it to the end with even Cloud Strife left. Maybe something simple instead like the ability to change the storyline directly–what if he could have killed Aeris at any point in the game, a cut scene triggered the first time the player let her die in combat to create a feeling of causation, as though the player was directly involved in Aeris’ murder by their own incompetence and inability to keep her alive in a battle.

But alas, death was simply a scripted event in the majority of Final Fantasy games and otherwise didn’t matter. It’s a plot element–nothing more. Failing as a whole was meaningless, too; your whole party getting knocked out only sets you back to the last save point. There was no consequence at all. And in other games like Pokémon, death doesn’t even exist. Since it’s mostly a kid’s game, it’s not too surprising that the creatures can’t even die, but it’s still disappointing. Starting back at a PokéCenter only sets you back a few minutes and leaves no punishment for failure–no lingering game over screen with a real impact.

I remember when Heavy Rain was sold as the game where any character could die at any time, and it would change the story even if it wouldn’t provide a game over screen. It sounded cool and difficult. The reality was somewhat different, though. The introduction still contains an unavoidable loss of life and, even if you can choose how some people die, it’s a scripted choice. It’s inconsequential.

It’s a tight line to walk. Developers have to make their games fun and challenging. And death is hard to define, though it certainly is an element that can up the challenge or take it down a notch when removed entirely out of the equation. It can be a nuanced plot device or a method of challenge, but developers frequently stray away from it for fear of doing it wrong. Some have, of course, embraced it and used it well. Bioware is particularly brilliant about death sometimes as seen with Baldur’s Gate 2 and its permanent death gameplay mode as well as Dragon Age’s character deaths. In Bioware’s Mass Effect, you can choose who lives and dies by who you send on a mission near the end of the game. It’s a defining and sad scene, as you’ve spent many hours getting acquainted with these characters–one of them even having a chance to become Commander Shepard’s lover. But without an option to save both based on performance, it becomes a little less meaningful. One of them will die and you’re only choosing. You can’t save them by any means possible. Mass Effect 2, conversely, learns from its predecessor’s mistakes. It allows players to set up a party on the final stage of the game that can either succeed or fail depending on how well Shepard has defined their roles and won their loyalty. It largely gets it right, showing a good example of performance related to death–and their deaths are quite horrifying, should they happen. As Kelly Chambers dies in a vat of acid, dissolved into nothing more than bits of blood and bones, Shepard’s failure shakes the player to their core.

You could have saved her, but you failed. Her death was the consequence of your poor judgment.

Developers shouldn’t be so afraid to use death to change their games more. From RPGs to FPSes, death should be more involved–either as a plot device with player interaction or a difficulty mode. Add new optional gameplay modes that make death permanent in action games and use character death in a more impressive manner in titles driven by their storylines. At worst, you end up with a frustrated player or two who are mad their favorite character died. But at best, you end up with a quirky game like Planescape Torment where death was used repeatedly in the game to move the storyline onward and spark quests–the player dying and being sent to the morgue is only one example of many.

Unfortunately, as long as developers avoid death like they do, games can’t evolve and the importance of consequence and the regret of failure is downplayed. As in the case of Heavy Rain, death becomes inconsequential.

But it shouldn’t be. After all, we would have never had Counter-Strike if its creator hadn’t been decided on making a player’s death have more consequence. Although just a simple FPS, CS made players wait until the end of the round once they died unlike most first person shooters such as Team Fortress Classic or Quake III where a respawn happened almost instantly after being fragged. While sometimes death was just a few seconds, other times it was minutes in competitive CS rounds. It made the game more tactical in comparison to other titles of that generation. It made players stealth around corners and lie in wait for what was coming rather than charge into the fray with their guns blazing. If you died, you let your team down for the entire round. This responsibility was different than most FPS games. And this changed the genre as a whole, arguably for the better, by giving diversity to titles with different styles of gameplay.

The thing both players and developers have to realize is that we don’t always need second chances. Sometimes we should feel consequences–or at least have the option to. We don’t need to go back to no saves like Super Mario Bros.–our technology has definitely advanced beyond that point–but we can explore different game over options. Instead of just losing experience when we die needlessly in a MMORPG, add a different penalty. And realize that character deaths, important elements in the plot, can be even more important when players help contribute to them. Let us save Brad Vickers from Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 next time, or at least have a say in how and when he dies.

I implore game developers to think outside the gravestone from time to time. I believe that gaming, as a whole, will be better for it.