In platforming/adventure games the hero becomes your physical extension into the world of the game. You feel bodily tension every time you press that button to jump over a hole or shoot at an enemy, therefore, each death becomes a small manifestation of your failure to complete a systematic process. Like missing a shot at basketball, these type of games give you the opportunity to quickly grab the ball and try again, which makes each death frustrating, but generally not going to ruin your day. Things like checkpoints and frequent auto-saves in modern games help as well. These type of games, like many, allow the player to become better with time and practice, moving through Merleau-Ponty’s acquisition of skill arc, from novice to maximum grip (where the player is so advanced that they try to test and redefine the limits of the system with their skills.) The amount of disappointment felt when dying as a player moves through these states of skill acquisition can vary greatly from mild annoyance, to a feeling of complete failure. Even the most experienced players frustration of failure is never avoidable. “Strong emotional states interfere with absorbing and reacting to new information. In a game, strong emotion like panic leads to ‘choking’, the failure to perform a task that you have perfected. For the gamer, emotional and physical discipline quite literally go hand in hand: get too caught up in a game and you risk swapping precision technique for frantic button mashing.” (Shinkle 911)
Death in video games comes in many forms, from falling prey to a mighty dragon, accidentally walking into a hole, or being killed by some anonymous soldier controlled by a guy in Norway. Death in videogames is something all gamers have to inevitably face almost each and every time they pick up a controller. From funny, to mundane, to frustrating as all hell, these small deaths can make us react in many different ways.
More often than not when you start playing a game the most fundamental concept is to kill or be killed by the enemy. Whether it’s stomping a Goomba or shooting a zombie, you are ready to attack without a second thought. Games let you become the ultimately justified hero who has all the reason in the world to kill the bad guys and save the princess. Sure you might know the rules and the game mechanics, but the stakes can vary greatly when it comes to your untimely videogame demise. In a series of articles, I will take a look at some of the different experiences of dying in platformer/adventure games, first person shooters, and in RPGs. (Keep in mind that this analysis is based on my own experience and a group of fellow gamers I have surveyed about their experiences with death in these different styles of games.)
The interruption of death takes the player out of that deeply immersed and physical state of being. The stunting affect of a death or especially a “game over” can vary greatly depending on the game’s execution. Unlike newer games where you are immediately re-started at the latest checkpoint with no further reminder of your failure, many old platform games offered a limited amount of lives and getting a game over meant sitting through a graphic/cut scene with it rubbing your failure in your face. The frustration of staring into the face of failure, like watching baby Mario be taken away in Yoshi’s Island, compared to immediately restarting a super fast-paced and short level like in Super Meat Boy, are incredibly different experiences.
When playing one of these games, most players would agree that the physicality of the flow of moving through a board is very important in completing a challenge. When I asked participants in my game over survey how they felt about these different types of consequences, there were varying responses, but there was always a difference in reaction to the different styles of game deaths. One participant noted, “If I die quickly over and over, I will be more likely to keep trying. But if I invest a moderate/long amount of time and fail repeatedly, I would quit after less attempts.” Another commented that the severity of older style game over screens had more of an effect on them, ” [They make me feel] disappointed, mostly in myself. I feel like seeing ‘game over’ is a commentary on my video game playing ability.” Although some commented that the pause in play gave them time they needed to cool down, “I feel that a longer game over screen gives me more time to compose myself for a retry. I usually take this time to think about whether or not I want to continue or approach the level differently. I feel rushed with the faster reloads, much like in an arcade setting.” Many players also commented on the aggravation of dying because of ”cheap kills,” due to game glitches or ill-conceived programming, opposed to a more deserved death from a fair, but challenging level. The idea of an unworthy death can of course stem from player error as well. One’s image as an unbeatable hero is no doubt hindered when a player accidentally walks into a hole or fails at a simple task. This kind of loss can undoubtedly be frustrating, especially when a long game over screen rears it ugly head. Luckily, most platform/adventure style games give you the kind of immersion that keeps you playing for a long while before throwing in the towel.
In order to be successful, the player must lull themselves into a state of immersion. When it comes to this type of game we are a slave to the system. There is no time to think about the consequences of our actions, and really no need to do so. Although we like to think of ourselves as the controllers of gamic worlds, in truth they are usually controlling us, helping us perfect a specific skill set to be more in sync with the machine,
“Gaming is a pure process made knowable in the machinic resonance of diagetic machine acts; gaming is a subjective algorhythm, a code intervention exerted from both within gameplay and without gameplay in the form of nondiagetic operator act; gaming is a ritualistic dromomen of players transported to an imaginary place of gameplay.” (Galloway 37)
This brings into question the true veneer of the control that games give to the player and how death disrupts it. We are being told what to do, and obeying the constructs of the systems whether we like it or not. The amount of control over a game we have (aside from choosing whether or not to play) is always incredibly minimal, but we have minimal control of only one thing: our deaths.
For next time, I will continue by discussing death in first person shooters.
Shinkle, Eugenie. “Video Games, Emotion, and the Six Senses.” Media Culture and Society. University of Westminster, London, 2008.
Galloway, Alexander. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture.” UP Minnesota, 2006.
Heather Hale (aka Videogame Girlfriend) is a freelance writer for Girl Gamer Vogue, Gamasutra, and Medium Difficulty. Check out her website here.