Maybe there’s an argument to be made that videogames are enjoyable because they allow us to cheat death; reload, continue, reincarnate. But that doesn’t seem to ring true. The enjoyment comes not from the ability not to die, but knowing that if we do we can start again. Dodging death is an essential part of the reward process in videogames, so it’s perhaps fitting that we can create as strong a relationship with the stick (dying, horribly, again and again) as the carrot (making it through without getting Goomba’ed or shenked).
In recent years, there’s been a move to take death out of equation of computer games. In some cases this works well. Why impose arcade conventions on the increasingly open-ended experiences modern games offer? Games like Halo and Gears of War however conform to the tenets of old school games but are sanitised. Your health regenerates if you regroup for a brief moment. Health packs and buddies help you out at every turn, even on the harder settings. You’ll only find yourself dying in first-person shooters in extended firefights or through extreme ineptitude. To me, it seems they’re following a rotten trend in RPGs. There’s no incentive to play better, only play longer. If you hide for a bit, pop out and shoot ineptly and retreat again, you can reliably make it to the end of the level, unspectacular but succesful. Dying is an essential benchmark of how well you’re conforming to the game’s standards. Without it, you might as well be watching an interactive movie. Here’s a few examples of how dying can really shape the experience of playing a game.
1) Goldeneye 007 (Nintendo 64) – Goldeneye 007 is understandably cherished. Away from its night-wastingly brilliant multiplayer, it offered you the feeling that you were Bond in the single-player campaign. The difficulty levels were carefully integrated, expanding your objectives to ever more intricate and enjoyably spy-like aims. So as you stole documents and lazed locks, you began to feel invincible, like Bond himself. It’s at this point you start seeing the death screen a lot. The illusion from the rest of the game is broken at this point – you are not James Bond, however many cell door keys you attract with your magnetic watch. The jarring ignominy of watching Bond, James Bond, die reminds you of the gap between you and the character’s usual exploits. Goldeneye, thankfully, isn’t in general an especially cinematic game (3D graphics hadn’t then quite reached the point where every game producer makes cutscenes like they’re freaking David Lean) but dying in the game is an exception. Instrumental noises stab in, as you watch yourself die from a variety of different angles by faceless Expendables. It’s like a horrific outtake from one of the films and you will be seeing it a lot. It’s a bit like the moment that opens every Bond film, hideously reversed.
2) Mario Games (multiple platforms) – Manys the time with that you’ll get to the end of a castle with a final life intact, save your game with deep relief, only to realise you’ve moved to about half an inch from the edge of the sofa. Dying in Mario is hard to explain because it’s always far away and always close. In Super Mario World, you’re sometimes on the top of the world, riding Yoshi with a fire flower and a spare powerup in the tank, unstoppable. One mistimed jump and your Yoshi’s barreled down a pit and your attempts to grab him back have wound up with you in the ignominous state of little Mario. The pressure’s on. You reign in your cocky playing, waiting to see what’s up ahead, carefully judging each jump. It’s too late, you clipped that fireball, jumped into the abyss or did just about anything but stay on the incredibly specific path mapped out for you by Shigeru Miyamoto himself and the game screeches to halt. The music stops and you watch your little guy stiffen into death rictus, fly up in the air in a cruel parody of his natural state and the jingle plays. In my head, that sound effect is as closely linked with failure as a tuba Wah-Wah-waaaah. It’s not like most games today in which you can skip through and reduce the humiliation. Even though it lasts under three seconds, the breakneck speed of the game and how abruptly it stops makes it seem an eternity. Yet sometimes it is a helpful reminder – 8 bit games used to be about brutal memorization (any one who has played the second level of Battletoads will know what I mean) and a few extra seconds to watch what your mistake was could actually prove very helpful. The opportunity to map out a better path is vital. You have to watch yourself die in order to use it as palimpsest to write a better story, one where you make it to the end of the stage.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Of course, Zelda’s psychological torture begins long before you actually croak. Get close to your life limit (and at the beginning of the game this is easy enough) and an obnoxious winking noise plays nearly-constantly, upping the pressure. Playing Link’s Awakening (the series’ first Gameboy outing) was easy enough; flick down the volume on the side and you’re free from the pursuit of the distracting bleep. But when Link made his way to 3D, the fear of downing the controller for a second, even paused, to mute or quiet the television was too much to bear. You’re forced to stride on, until some pathetic creature spat a nut at you or a spider span too close. As adult Link, you felt as though it was part of the hero’s quest to die heroically (even if you had to trek through a rat bastard dungeon for the fifth time). As child Link, it’s another story entirely. As you are struck, Link’s gasps and the surrounding scenery fades to black; he staggers forward and collapses, making wounded noises. It’s quite a dark sight. In the early part of the game, you’re encouraged by most of the characters to see your quest as a childish game. Dying as child Link is especially painful to see because it feels like a lark gone awry; you’ve led a child astray and then cost him his life. It’s not a frequent sight (the game’s fairly forgiving in the early part) but it’s one you’ll want to avoid after seeing it only once.
(Okay, I can’t find a video of Link dying, so here’s some fresh beats from the Ocarina of Rhyme instead).