Death – What’s the Point?

Remember those times in GTA IV when one would suddenly get a phone call triggering a plot-critical mission? In some ways, these missions are a genius idea; reminding you that the game´s storyline exists even when you don´t feel like walking into a glowing yellow spot on the ground. It trims off some of the suspension of disbelief that sandbox games of GTA IV´s nature usually require.

On the other hand, it´s hard to prepare for an unexpected shootout, so poor Niko had to walk into the warehouse were this critical plot-point was taking place lacking body armor, decent shooters, or even full health. Naturally, this led to poor Niko having to respawn at the local hospital a few minutes – or in game-time, six hours – later. But while Niko could be miraculously reanimated, the same could not be said for the tension of the situation.

Having to die, respawn and laboriously drive back to the warehouse completely crushed any sense of importance the scenario might once have possessed. The second time around, you don´t really care.

Even in the best of games, is dying ever anything but a disappointment? Since games nowadays often aim to give film-like experiences, the bitterness of death is made all the worse. But if you could not die or fail in any way, the point of the game is kinda removed. Exciting parts in say, Call of Duty,  are exciting because of the threat of death, so removing it altogether is obviously a bad idea.

It´s a tough balancing act when developing action games: Make the game too easy and the suspense is gone, make the game too hard and frustration takes immersion´s place. It´s why Halo 2 and every COD since then has recharging health: So I can feel in danger when the game wants me too, and not walk into fights that I can´t win because I forgot to step on a health pack in the last room.

There are developers who perform this balancing act without resorting to the recharg-o-health method. Valve´s Half-Life games, for instance, stick to the vintage med-pack system, but place said med-packs exactly right, so the player is frequently close to death, but seldom dying. I lost count of the amount of time my health was at the 2% mark when I was playing Half-Life 2, but the amount times I actually died could be counted on one hand. And when I did get offed, despite it being my own stupid fault (Note to self: don´t hold exploding barrels in front of your face when under fire), it was still the worst part of the game.

It´s not dying that makes games interesting, it´s the possibility of dying, and developers are realizing this more and more. Alternate methods of dealing with death are being experimented with, and though not always a success (Bioshock´s vita-chambers), there are interesting things going on with this aspect of games.

Maybe someday, we´ll have the FPS where you never die but always think you´re about to. Until then, I´ll be wrenching Big Daddy´s to death, knowing my only loss is time.


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Author: Magnus Risebro View all posts by
Magnus Risebro lives deep in the bowels of Norway. He writes about videogames for
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  • I think Minecraft has done a pretty good job with deaths. There’s always a sense of fear when you go deep into mines with a lot of good gear. You try to remember how to get to wherever you are because if you die, all of your stuff is dropped at that point and you need to come back quickly in order to collect it. Plus, lava will automatically destroy the stuff so if you’re near some….well have fun rebuilding your tools and armor.