Are We Done Dying in Video Games?

One thing Sunset Overdrive wants you to know is that it’s okay to die.  Play around and enjoy the mutant blasting without worrying too much about your own health or slowing down to hide behind cover, this game is no fun if you play conservatively.  The game doesn't penalize you for playing fast and loose; in fact, the game has loads and loads of fun animations to announce your immediate resurrection.  And, it’s true, dying in the game is never really an issue. You might die once or twice on a mission and have to restart, but most of the missions are brief enough that death never sets you back more than a few minutes.  Heck, this game is so dead-set against causing the player frustration that if you’re ascending a tall tower or fighting a boss high above the city and happen to miss a jump and fall, the game immediately teleports you right back to where you fell.  Feel free to experiment, the game says, and don’t worry about the consequences.

If the games we’ve played lately are any indication, the future of gaming seems to be that death doesn’t matter.  Many games treat death like it doesn’t even happen.  Dying Light takes the Dead Island approach in returning you to the action after deducting a few points, which makes death somewhat penalizing but ultimately not that threatening.  Destiny respawns you quickly or – in certain areas - lets you respawn nearby or once someone heals you, which means death is only really an issue if you let your teammates down.  The Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed series both bring you back in to the action after a brief loading screen.  In each of these games, dying is a brief interruption but never much of an actual hurdle.

We get it, bringing players right back into the action and politely ignoring their death keeps the player engaged but it definitely lowers the stakes.  Clearly there’s a tradeoff in games between bringing the player back instantly (yea Stick It To The Man!) and making each death potentially set you back some distance (yea Alien: Insolation!).  Letting the game bring you back into the action quickly keeps the game from ever getting frustrating and minimizes the chances of a “rage quit” (a term Sunset Overdrive taught us).  Making death impactful raises the chance for frustration but also raises the suspense of the game.  The alien in Alien: Isolation would not be nearly as terrifying if you could anticipate respawning in a nearby locker once you died.  Games like Alien: Isolation, however, are clearly the minority; the trend now is very much in favor of the low impact death games.

While the trend seems to be leading towards making death as benign as possible, there are some very creative approaches to dying in games as well.  The most innovative take on death from recent games comes from Shadow of Mordor, which incorporates your character’s immortality into the story.  When you die in the game you respawn at a nearby tower and the orcs who killed you get promoted and become more powerful.  Other gamers have reported that this mechanic can make the game very difficult if you die repeatedly but it never really did for us; for us, it was just an innovative way that gave your deaths consequences in the world.  We prefer this to the approach many games take, namely, politely pretending your death didn’t happen and discretely respawning you nearby.  Here your death is enough of a setback to make you want to avoid it but not so much of a concern as to keep the player playing excessively conservatively. But more to the point, the game doesn't pretend you didn't die, your death becomes part of the story.

So what’s the future of dying in video games?  We’ve already argued for making Mordor’s Nemesis system part of every game from Batman to Assassin’s Creed.  The idea that the game would incorporate your death into the game world while returning you to the action immediately really works.  Whether future games will want you to be afraid of dying or anxious to explore will probably depend on the types of game; survivor horror will lean towards the impactful dying while shooters and platformers will probably prefer the stress-free dying.  More than anything, we have definitely evolved past long load times; whatever approach the game takes, getting the player back into the action right away is always going to be imperative.  Otherwise, there’s certainly room for creativity and innovation however and it’ll be interesting to see what other designers create.

So we'll be looking forward to seeing what innovations are out there for incorporating death into the game.  Games like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect let you kill off side characters which created a slightly different story each time, there may be ways to expand this story-telling mechanism in future titles.  It'd be fun to play a superhero game in which your deaths were noted by the local civilians who could comment on it when you pass them on the street.  Games might even incorporate both mechanisms and have some sections of the game where death is no big deal and others where death sets you so far back that you work hard to stay alive, sort of a Sunset Overdrive/Dark Souls crossover.  Heck, I think I would buy that game just to see the death animations.