You Are Dead 4

You’re a bril­liant, rogu­ish indi­vid­ual with plen­ty of expe­ri­ence evad­ing and dis­arm­ing traps, but this one is com­pli­cat­ed. The tim­ing of the blades is tricky, and you know that a false step means at the least a hefty injury, which, since you’re deep in enemy ter­ri­to­ry and a great dis­tance away from any prop­er med­ical care, is essen­tial­ly a long-form, suf­fer­ing ver­sion of a more griev­ous stum­ble onto one of those glis­ten­ing spikes. Still, your beloved sig­nif­i­cant other is on the other side of this trap (and many, many oth­ers), so there’s only one option: for­ward. You trail right behind the bristling wave of spikes, leap­ing around the spin­ning pole that some evil man tied a whole bunch of swords too, and come out of a dar­ing roll beneath a swing­ing log cov­ered in cruel hooks… right into the path of a lanc­ing saw blade that tum­bles down from the ceil­ing, ring­ing melod­i­cal­ly off of the stone cham­ber’s walls, and straight into you, clean­ly sep­a­rat­ing your arm from your trunk. You scream and tum­ble for­ward out of the trap, and as your vision start to go black from the sear­ing pain (because of course some­body had to POISON the saw), your last thoughts are of your beloved Henry. The angle of his smile and the way his eye­lids bunched up when he was sur­prised. The shame you feel, know­ing that he’s dead or worse now that your res­cue attempt has failed. Or at least, they would be your last thoughts if you weren’t stand­ing right before that same gaunt­let of traps, remind­ing your­self to dive after you get past the log.

There is per­haps no game trope more per­va­sive than non-persistent char­ac­ter death. Even peo­ple that have never touched a con­troller are well aware of the trope. What are the most com­mon caus­es of the “Game Over” screen? Health bar is empty. Breath has expired. Bomb went off. And your char­ac­ter is most like­ly bleed­ing, diced, drowned, atom­ized, eaten, insane, turned into a zom­bie, or maybe just falling off the bot­tom of the screen upside down and with a shocked look on his face. But Game Over is not the end of the line. You get options, assum­ing that the game does­n’t just take you back to your most recent check­point auto­mat­i­cal­ly. But for the most part, you find your­self back in your hero’s skin five min­utes prior to the most recent gris­ly demise.

This week’s Additional Pylons is focused on the tra­di­tion­al pun­ish­ments games use to illus­trate play­er fail­ure, and we’ll start by ask­ing, “Did you real­ly have to kill him?

Did You Really Have To Kill Him?

Unlike other forms of art, games demand some level of chal­lenge, as Bill has demon­strat­ed in an ear­li­er post. Challenge means that there must be some chance of fail­ure. In fact, the chance of fail­ure makes games all the more fun; if the first attempt at a level or boss results in fail­ure, when you come back the sec­ond time and use what you’ve learned there’s a much greater emo­tion­al pay-off for your suc­cess. You feel like you have: A) learned some­thing and B) van­quished a foe that has trou­bled and beat­en you in the past. Such an expe­ri­ence of fail­ure, as many hero nar­ra­tives demon­strate, can be a great moti­va­tor for improv­ing one’s mas­tery of the game and one’s abil­i­ty to trounce a par­tic­u­lar foe.

Death is eas­i­ly the most com­mon way that devel­op­ers pun­ish play­er fail­ure. There are of course a great many rea­sons why char­ac­ter death is so pro­lif­ic. The first is that it is an easy nar­ra­tive way to express total fail­ure. There are, per­haps, fates worse than being evis­cer­at­ed, but they take too much time to present believ­ably and pow­er­ful­ly with­out sub­ject­ing the play­er to an exten­sive expe­ri­ence every time they fail, and that (unless it is the point of the game, in which case: How inter­est­ing, I’d love to see your game) is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to expe­ri­enc­ing the meat of the game. And so the char­ac­ter gets evis­cer­at­ed, or suf­fers a less grue­some, but equal­ly final, fate.

Death is also an attrac­tive option because it is deci­sive: char­ac­ter death rep­re­sents a con­clu­sive end to the nar­ra­tive. The play­er won’t ask, “Wait, if bar­bar­ian lord Grimsplit was just beat­en uncon­scious and cap­tured, could­n’t he then escape and foil the evil wiz­ard’s plan any­way?” if Grimsplit’s organs are lay­ing on the ground. But the quick return to the last check­point com­mu­ni­cates that this end was the “wrong” end­ing, because it did not end in the char­ac­ter’s suc­cess. The fail­ure that ends in death is dis­card­ed as dross, and the game resets to a spot where the play­er can pur­sue the “cor­rect” end­ing. In other words, death enforces the nar­ra­tive in games that con­tain a non-flexible story.

Death is also just the nat­ur­al pun­ish­ment in cer­tain gen­res, even out­side video games. Zombie games should typ­i­cal­ly fea­ture char­ac­ter death as pun­ish­ment, because it is the­mat­i­cal­ly impor­tant. There are, per­haps, other ways to pun­ish fail­ure in a zom­bie game, but there’s no real impe­tus to seek out alter­na­tive pun­ish­ments when your audi­ence expects char­ac­ter brains to get eaten.

But the trend I’m exam­in­ing runs deep­er than avatar death. What I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in tack­ling is the model of pun­ish­ment that char­ac­ter death epit­o­mizes. The model applies to a wide vari­ety of game-play sit­u­a­tions: say you had to take actions to pro­tect an impor­tant non-player char­ac­ter, and then fail. Almost every time, the nar­ra­tive won’t con­tin­ue while dis­play­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of that char­ac­ter’s death or cap­ture; instead, the nar­ra­tive will end (even though the hero is obvi­ous­ly still capa­ble of action). This is in most cases a good thing; if the game was going to be less enter­tain­ing and less effec­tive as art with­out that char­ac­ter, then the nar­ra­tive reset is prefer­able. But let’s take a crit­i­cal look at this model, which resets the nar­ra­tive in instances of play­er fail­ure.

Tabula Rasa

As men­tioned above, the nar­ra­tive reset func­tions to enforce games with a sin­gle story-line, and the trope is so enmeshed with video gam­ing as a whole that call­ing it a dom­i­nat­ing theme isn’t real­ly doing the trope’s pro­lif­er­a­tion jus­tice. It’s a trope that is total­ly unique to video games, since it only enters the expe­ri­ence as a result of play­er fail­ure. But what are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the nar­ra­tive reset model?

First, the emo­tion­al and artis­tic impact of the fail­ure is stripped away by a nar­ra­tive reset, which is rather obvi­ous, but it can also alter the impact of the scenes that fol­low the reset. A nar­ra­tive reset can make the last ten or fif­teen min­utes of game not count, and any emo­tions evoked in those ten or fif­teen min­utes will be evoked again the sec­ond time around, but nat­u­ral­ly with less inten­si­ty, like watch­ing a movie scene twice in a row before mov­ing on to the next. Repetition of a scene can kill dra­mat­ic ten­sion and con­ti­nu­ity, and the nar­ra­tive reset model has the poten­tial to screw with the impact of an imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing scene that depends upon the themes and con­tent of the repeat­ed scene.

Second, it removes the nar­ra­tive risk of the death of a main char­ac­ter except at the very end of a tale. The char­ac­ter will only real­ly die if the game devel­op­ers want him to, and every­thing else is reset. Other tragedies may occur as the devel­op­ers wish, but there’s a vir­tu­al guar­an­tee that the main avatar of the play­er is going to sur­vive until the end of the game, at least. It cre­ates an even greater expec­ta­tion that a main char­ac­ter will sur­vive than even other forms of nar­ra­tive art. This trend has some roots in logis­tics, since killing off a main char­ac­ter before the end of the game requires a large amount of extra pro­gram­ming, assum­ing that the devel­op­ers actu­al­ly intro­duce a new char­ac­ter and not just a palette-swap.

This trope is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad thing; artis­tic tropes become tropes because they work well and fit the genre. And a game need not sub­vert this trope in order to be enter­tain­ing or good art. However, sub­vert­ing tropes is a great way to tell diverse sto­ries that the trope itself can’t sup­port, and there are often sto­ries that spring out of the sub­ver­sion of a trope.

Don’t Fear The Reaper

Some of the best games I’ve played have sub­vert­ed the trope of char­ac­ter death to a greater or less­er degree. Prince of Persia, for instance, mere­ly calls atten­tion to the trope, and incor­po­rates it into its own over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive by rewind­ing time and, even when the char­ac­ter DOES actu­al­ly die, explain­ing it away as a slip-up in the Prince’s sto­ry­telling. The more recent Prince of Persia does away with char­ac­ter death com­plete­ly; there are still minor penal­ties for fail­ing, but the nar­ra­tive is never inter­rupt­ed. Braid pulls a sim­i­lar trick; the char­ac­ter can die, but time can be rewound indef­i­nite­ly. In Planescape: Torment, death would set you back, but it was part of the nar­ra­tive since you could­n’t real­ly, truly die; you’d just wake up in the mor­tu­ary, feel­ing stu­pid for try­ing to take on a whole flock of var­gouilles.

All of these have a rather straight-forward treat­ment or sub­ver­sion of char­ac­ter death, but they do main­tain a sim­i­lar model of pun­ish­ment; even if the reset is jus­ti­fied by the nar­ra­tive, it is still a reset. Because of play­er fail­ure, the nar­ra­tive was inter­rupt­ed, and so the play­er is returned to the same sit­u­a­tion and given anoth­er chance to assert the prop­er nar­ra­tive. Is there the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a dif­fer­ent model of play­er pun­ish­ment?

I pro­pose this out of my expe­ri­ence with role-playing games, in which play­er fail­ure can be expressed in a mul­ti­tude of ways and can serve to enrich the nar­ra­tive instead of inter­rupt­ing it. I real­ize that this would prob­a­bly be intense­ly dif­fi­cult to build, but what if a game does­n’t threat­en the char­ac­ter’s life direct­ly? What if a char­ac­ter becomes injured, with all the penal­ties that would imply, and a char­ac­ter’s goals or affairs become vic­tim instead? And if the nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues, the pun­ish­ment for play­er fail­ure con­tin­ues to haunt the play­er as the story con­tin­ues. This could allow for real­ly rich nar­ra­tives. Failure is occa­sion­al­ly some­thing char­ac­ters have to deal with, but it’s almost always a part of an inflex­i­ble nar­ra­tive, and so the play­er does­n’t feel as invest­ed in the fail­ure as he or she oth­er­wise might. If the play­er’s fail­ures are com­bined with the char­ac­ter’s, that means a huge decrease in dis­tance; when the hero acci­den­tal­ly lets the vil­lain escape and that vil­lain starts to kill peo­ple that the hero loves, the play­er will feel those deaths more acute­ly if their fail­ure played a role in let­ting it hap­pen.

Games have begun to reflect play­er choice in the nar­ra­tive, to a greater or less­er degree. BioWare games are par­tic­u­lar­ly good exam­ples of mak­ing play­er choice mat­ter. But I’m sug­gest­ing some­thing else entire­ly. What if play­er skill became a decid­ing fac­tor in the nar­ra­tive? What if the pun­ish­ment for play­er fail­ure played out in the nar­ra­tive? I sug­gest that such a game would real­ize nar­ra­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties that no game has before.


Character death and the nar­ra­tive reset model is found in the major­i­ty of video games, and as I’ve tried to explain here, the trope has some dis­tinct nar­ra­tive ram­i­fi­ca­tions, and I doubt that I’ve exhaust­ed the con­cept. So, what do you think? Do you think there’s some­thing to my sug­ges­tion of a game that explores the nar­ra­tive results of play­er fail­ure, even if it is a night­mare to pro­gram? What other pos­si­bil­i­ties do you think exist in sub­vert­ing the nar­ra­tive reset model?

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at

4 thoughts on “You Are Dead

  • Matthew Schanuel

    That’s pret­ty awe­some, and I whole­heart­ed­ly approve. I haven’t played Wing Commander, but I may have to now.

  • Bill Coberly

    Have you ever played the old Wing Commander games? If your skill was bad enough and you died, well, then, you were dead, but if you were bad enough to screw up but good enough not to die, they would do stuff like kill your wing­man, instead, there­by caus­ing you to play through a whole dif­fer­ent game with the con­se­quences of your fail­ure.

    I haven’t played it in for­ev­er, but I remem­ber it being pret­ty sur­pris­ing the first time that hap­pened to me.

  • Carol

    I hate to admit it — but once upon a time I played Runescape — and I remem­ber with hor­ror dis­cov­er­ing that when you died you actu­al­ly LOST most of the items you were car­ry­ing.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    I’m play­ing through Demon’s Souls right now, and the mul­ti­play­er actu­al­ly requires that some­body be a deceased phan­tom in order to work. The nar­ra­tive has a dis­tinct place for char­ac­ter death, but it also does­n’t real­ly uti­lize that mechan­ic for any nar­ra­tive or dra­mat­ic pur­pose.

    Still, you die a lot in that game, and it only takes once to reduce you to a phantom-state, which you stay in until you kill a new boss. And that is tough as hell.

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