"Death" in games is based on what happens in the real world when the body stops metabolizing. In other words, Death is the absence of life. Unlike in video games, where it is common to die from blood loss or massive trauma, Death in real life is often caused by less sudden occurrences. For instance, the most common cause of death in most organisms is the gradual shortening of the telomeres that cap off chromosomes after each cell replication. There are also many fatal diseases and maladies that a person in the real world can contract from both internal and external sources. For instance, one common disease that comes in many flavors is cancer. There is also AIDS (non-fatal, but contractors rarely survive), malaria, aneurysms, and heart attacks.
Death In Games
Death occurs in games where the main character in a game runs out health by such means as being stabbed, shot, falling off of high places, being run over by a vehicle, set on fire, eaten, blown up, crushed, smashed, whacked, punched, dropped on, suplexed, decapitated, etc. Virtually every video game has an aspect of death in some way, although how each game handles death varies from extremely similar to radically different.
Death is generally used to provide a level of difficulty for the player. The player is encouraged to keep their player character alive in order to progress through the game. Players are generally allowed to take some damage and carry on, but death forces them to stop.
Penalties for Death
Penalties for death range from having to restart the entire game, to being revived at the very spot you died. Most games have a save feature though, making death merely a nuisance.
Some games allow the player only one life, ergo if the player dies they must reload at an earlier point. It may be used for specific points in a game, such as the torture segments in Metal Gear Solid. At this points, if the player dies, he must reload the game. In some games, "permadeath" is in place. This means that the game effectively auto-saves when the player dies, resulting in the permanent loss of your character, or his " permanent death". This is the most extreme penalty for death, and is rarely used in modern games.
More common are games where players have multiple lives. In these games, the player may be revived. Where the game chooses to revive the player can vary from game to game. Some games simply revive the player in the very spot that they died, which is likely the most lenient penalty for death. Some games make the player restart at the last checkpoint they have reached, which can be a somewhat more stringent penalty. In many games, the spacing of checkpoints can be a major concern, as checkpoints that are too far away can make a game very difficult, or very frustrating. Other games force players to revive at a safe point, which may be a save point or a safe house located in a central location. These are arguably the toughest penalties for death.
In addition, some games exact additional penalties on the occurrence of death. Many games will strip the player of any items or experience gained since the last checkpoint or save. Some games, such as MMOs or RPGs, may exact an additional death penalty, in the form of an EXP loss or a fee for revival. Games such as Torchlight have expanded on this idea, offering players a choice to either respawn at the very same spot, and incur a monetary and experience penalty, respawn at the entrance to the dungeon and incur only a monetary penalty, or respawn in the town, but incur no penalty.
As example of a particularly tough penalty for death is Steel Battalion. In this game, if you were killed while piloting a mech, you not only died, the game would automatically delete your entire save file, forcing you to start a new game from the very beginning, making the entire game pointlessly difficult. This is very rare, although some games are adopting "hardcore" or "challenge" difficulties that incorporate this feature.
Other games, such as Prey offer very minimal penalties for death, only asking you to optionally kill a few spirits to refill your health before returning you to the exact spot in which you died.
Uses of Death
Death has a variety of important uses in videogames.
By increasing the penalty for death, or decreasing the number of times a player is allowed to die, death can be used to add difficulty to a game. Without the fear of dying, a player can plunge through the game without paying attention or effort, since there is no recourse to poor decisions.
Death can be used as a story telling mechanic in games. Throughout a game, player characters can frequently enter into a state of "death" by having their hitpoints reduced to 0. They can be revived with spells, abilities, or items. This can happen repeatedly, and at times it is important for the player to even induce death on characters to defeat bosses. However, for the story purposes, the characters do not die, even with 0 hitpoints they appear in cutscenes. During one part of the game, an important character is killed by the main villain during a cutscene. During and after this cutscene, items, spells, and abilities to revive this character cannot be used, she is "dead" permanently. This helps make the story moving and impacting to the player.
Death can be used to provide additional tension or urgency to games. Since a game is ultimately fake, players often have little fear of actual harm and can experiment freely. While this is a fun use of virtual space, at times the game wants to encourage players to take the game seriously. Death can be used to help players enjoy tension the way the game was designed. For example, in the Metal Gear Solid series, the player is encouraged to work smartly and stealthily. When this fails and a player is discovered, they are encouraged to work their way out of the situation by finding cover or fleeing. Once discovered by enemies, it is unlikely that the player will be able to avoid death, and this causes the player to work within the game experience.
Death can also be used to increase a player's immersion into the game world. This can be done with interesting integration techniques. For example, the Grand Theft Auto series usually prides itself on creating a fully immersive and believable world. Despite this, death is handled in a completely unrealistic way. No matter how violently the player dies, they always awaken at a hospital, as though being shot dozens of times before falling off a bridge were survivable.
Provide a Strategic Element
Games such as Fire Emblem use permanent character death to encourage players to load more often. When a character is killed off during battle, they are lost forever, causing 95% of players to load the game to prevent the character's loss. Despite this, it is highly likely that the remaining 5% of players will be able to continue to progress through the game with the remainder of the party. Therefore, these players must balance losing a possibly powerful character forever with the prospect of not being able to clear the mission. Also, decisions made to sacrifice a character to gain an advantage take on a serious, strategic tone when that character will be lost permanently.
Many games use death as a scoring calculation. Games such as Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil all track your number of deaths will playing the game, and use that as a part of the calculation of your rank at the end of the game. Additionally, players may challenge themselves to "no death" or "flawless" runs through games, especially popular with older sidescrollers such as Super Mario Bros. and Contra.
Problems with Death in Games
Death in games sometimes causes severe problems in games. Generally these problems are related to poor game design and frustrate the player.
Poor Checkpoint Placement
Poor checkpoint placement, as well as poor save point placement, are major symptoms of problems with videogame death. There are several subsections within poor checkpoint placement that each deserve their own mention.
- Infrequent Checkpoints - When checkpoints or savepoints are too infrequent, death may result in players having to repeat long stretches of gameplay. This can be frustrating to players.
- Checkpoints Just After Difficult Sections - Checkpoints that are placed just after difficult sections often do little to help the player. The player may have to repeat large sections of the game, only to die at the very end, the most difficult part, and then be forced to repeat easy sections over and over.
- Checkpoints Just Before Difficult Sections - Seemingly contrary to the previous entry, checkpoints just before difficult sections can be equally troublesome. In these cases, the player may struggle to clear a very difficult section, and then may be unable to save his progress. Instead, he may die on a relatively easy follow up section, but then be forced to struggle through the difficult section again. Ideally, checkpoints are placed both before and after difficult sections.
- Checkpoints Before Story Sequences - Some games have checkpoints just before lengthy story sequences, often followed by a boss fight. If the player dies during the boss fight, the player must then watch the cutscene or dialogue again. This can become incredibly boring and frustrating to the player. Having skippable cutscenes lessens this slightly.
Death loop occurs when a player dies in such a way that respawning automatically causes the player to die, and then repeat this process. This was a problem during the first generation of 3D gaming. For example, many people reported that games such as Call of Duty 2 would trigger a checkpoint while the player was under heavy enemy fire. When the player reloaded at the checkpoint, they would die within seconds, well before they had time to run to safety. The only cure was often manually reloading the game from the beginning of the level or an earlier save. Modern games usually have methods to avoid this; starting with Halo 2, the Halo franchise has a failsafe built in by keeping the last two checkpoints in memory, so that if the player dies within a few seconds of reloading several times in a row, the game would load the player at the previous checkpoint, costing them some progress but saving them from having to restart the entire chapter.
A similar example is the problem suffered by games in which the player only had one life. In the first Tomb Raider, players could save with low health and no healthkits, and find themselves not skilled enough to complete the next section without dying. Also, some games would cause players to lose weapons or items when dying, making progress through the rest of the level impossible, requiring a restart.
Steel Battalion is a mech game that has a specific eject button. If the player's mech is destroyed with the player still in the cockpit, the player is killed in the explosion. The game then automatically deletes the entire save file, forcing the player to begin again at the beginning.
Developer Glitchless was developing an MMO titled both "Race War Kingdoms" and "Dawn" in which player character death would be permanent. The idea was to encourage players to form police and other societal protections to preserve life. This game was never released.
Final Fantasy VII's use of permanent death of the character Aeris (without replacing her with another character, at least).