The iLL Panel is a series where the iLLGaming staff pick their brains over topics related to the game industry. Given the nature of our staff, it can end up being either a mosh pit of fanboy nerdgasms or a bitter fight usually accompanied with death threats and all-out war (ok, maybe we’re not that extreme).
After a break of 4 months, we return with a topic that repurposes the destiny of every living being to the world of Video games. Taking part in this iLL Panel are Sahil, Anikait, Tathagata, Ajay and Chirantan.
Games throw us a challenge as we try to outsmart or out-maneuver them, hoping to achieve victory. On the opposite side of that glory awaits failure and there is no better way to convey it than the death of your in-game character. “Death, a failure state employed by games since the first platformers.” Chirantan starts off the panel.The panel starts off seeking a simple answer for the age old philosophical question. What does death mean? More precisely:
What does Death in mean a Video Game?
Sahil starts off oldschool with each life tied to a coin you insert in the arcade machine. From there we move onto home consoles where death was Game Over, forcing you to restart the game. Early on in the life-cycle of console games, since they had to compete with arcades, the only way to offer lots of replayability for your money was to force you to restart in case you failed.
Chirantan questions the motive behind it from being a message of failure or insufficient skill, a failed experiment with the mechanics of the game or just a way to break the game. Tathagata sees a different message in the death scene as a rebuttal from the developer for being blind and rash to the design of the game resulting in the inevitable punishment. Such is the definition of a fair death that makes sense. He also expresses a dissatisfaction for insta-death scenarios like Quick Time Events (QTEs) as they are opposite to the pace of the game, being a distraction from its core mechanics. A fan of Dark Souls games, he loves how death in games like Souls is given meaning by action and lore unlike other games that just quickly throw you back in the action. Anikait sees death as an opportunity of improvement. “Learning and failure, they go hand in hand as every time I die, the motivation to perform better increases”. Ajay feels that death has been always as the biggest way to say objective failed. As most games are very linear in their objectives and if the player failed to complete the designed challenge, the only solution is to kill the player. In most games avoiding death is the main scenario, the focus of battle is equally divided with beating the enemy as with preserving your own health bar.
Death does not necessarily have to be of our in-game character as even the deaths of Non Player Characters (NPCs) can have a lot of meaning. Killing an NPC can close possible quest lines, killing a boss brings satisfaction. Sahil reminisces the original GTA where he found Zen in thoughtlessly killing NPCs. [pullquote]Death does not mean the end[/pullquote]While Tathagata reminds us that in Dishonoured, the more you kill, the bloodier the future of Dunwall becomes, Ajay counters that there are some games though, where death does not mean the end. A concept of progress with failure where you fail the objective, but the game still carries on, although with a possibility of penalty or an altered storyline. Notable examples: Banner Saga, Game of Thrones and Heavy Rain; if a character dies, your story changes. In State of Decay, once you die you actually lose the character and their abilities, so you start with a new character or someone from the crew of your now-dead character.
Ajay remembers the best use of death in XCOM: Enemy Unknown where death and strategy go hand in hand. Death of units can change the game form being in a strong position to barely surviving in one attack. Chirantan mentions the unpredictability of other genres like rougelikes which can use death to affect just such a twist. We all agree that death is handled differently based on the genre of the game. In most team-based games, it is commonly a respawn. In single player it is a checkpoint restart. In strategy games, death means an economic and /or a military setback. The point of every game (more or less) is to survive as long as you can, from the point you begin the game till the end, an example of which is Papers, Please, where death means the end of the game, but you don’t even die at times, you end up in prison as an alternative failure state.
Anikait brings to our attention that while most games focus on the death part, there are good games where the respawn can be something you look forward to as well.
“Death in Sunset Overdrive is awesome, as you get to see so many cool respawn animations.” Breaking the fourth wall, the game mocks death like when some big boss mocks your character by saying they will die, your character comes retorts, “You will die, I will respwan right here”, a nod to the Deadpool game. Chirantan joins in talking about Super Meat Boy fondly for its replay of all your deaths when you beat a level. Tathagata points out MOBAs where death is a huge penalty, wherein tactics may fall apart and the enemy team can crunch you in seconds if one team mate dies. Similar mechanics can be seen in Evolve.[pullquote]True death is very rare.[/pullquote] Looking at these different trends, Sahil reflects how in today’s open world games, death technically doesn’t mean a death. Your story stays, your character stays, you just respawn. Basically, you’re immortal as far as your vitality goes. If you die, you just respawn, with a minor monetary penalty that’s easily covered by your in-game income. And this is the case with most of the modern games from Deus Ex: Human Revolution to Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag.
Then there are games where death is not a threat and Tathagata gives examples like The Unfinished Swan and Journey to support his argument. Sahil excitedly pitches his idea of deathless games with FIFA and PES, soon spiralling into an out of control list of games without death such as WWE, Don Bradman Cricket, Candy Crush Saga all the way to a lonely man’s heart in Solitaire. Eventually we move on after some order is established.
Dumbest excuse for killing your character?
“Does greed count?” asks Tathagata as he narrates how he jumped off the Ropewalk in Anor Londo after reading a message left behind another player saying, “Try jumping, hidden treasure ahead”. Sahil blames real life for interfering with the game; those doorbells, phone calls and a loud voice from the back of the room of your dinner summons. Ajay remembers his surprise when he was digging up a grave in Wasteland 2 and a dog nearby saw him and started to attack. When he retaliated against the dog, the rest of the town joined in with the dog to wipe his party. Apart from the stories within games there are times when your death is not your fault. Ajay expresses anger over Never Alone. “I died because after I managed to traverse through the platforming, my AI companion failed and I had to restart”. Anikait was annoyed by Ori and the Blind Forest as he had to manually save the game and backtrack a lot. Tathagata points out that some games lack a retry option like Splinter Cell, Hitman and Dishonored. He suicided his character every time he was spotted striving for an ‘unseen’ reputation, a practice also followed by Anikait. Similarly, he had to kill off his character repeatedly in Limbo to try and figure out the puzzles. Chirantan feels that the dumbest deaths in the game occur when artificial walls prevent you from exploring anywhere besides the chosen path. “The do-not-cross-this-area-even-though-it-is-rendered-in-game death is really dumb. Followed by falling-through-the-game-world death.” Tathagata cites a similar example where in Battlefield Hardline, if you go off map while turning in your aircraft, you are killed and it is listed as a suicide.
Other unpopular death scenarios are QTE failure, Death by lag, death in vehicles that easily explode and failing to grab ledges when you can clearly see your character make the jump. Ajay found drowning in the original Assassins Creed annoying yet exploitable, as until the later instalments of the series, most guards and other characters would instantly drown in water, something Sahil relates to in the earlier versions of GTA as well.
CR – Probably that eye operation gone wrong in Dead Space. I also like the Sniper Elite Kill Cam.
TR – Being thumped by Smoug’s ass. In terms of visual gore it will be any death at the hands of Noob Smoke of MK9, the duo rips apart the body into two.
SA – The deaths in Left 4 Dead always get to me. Watching the zombies rip you out in shreds, and then, tragically watching you
AV – Alien vs Predator has aliens ripping off your spine. One of the most memorable death is when the head is sawed off in Resident Evil 4 or by pyramid head in silent hill.
AM – Death in Shadow of Mordor is punishing and evolves the game play.
Has the regenerating health system made in-game death less meaningful?
As most modern games forgo the sytem pioneered by the old-school fps games that had you scavenge every nook and cranny for medpacks and armor, that desperation of surviving death loses its sheen. However, Bloodborne is a good example of health regeneration done well, since after the enemy hits you, you have a time window to return the strike and gain some of your lost health back.
So permadeath, what do you think of that option?
Ajay feels permadeath has always been a hardcore scenario for seasoned gamers who want the additional challenge. Anikait and Sahil too find it useful but not something they would want enabled by default as that would greatly limit the audience. Tathagata counters with his dislike for the option as he prefers the Souls way of death having a lesson for you to try again. Ajay notes that some genres strive on permadeath like rougelikes and others like Five Nights at Freddy’s.
Bonus: More stupid ways to die.
Blowing yourself up with a grenade.
Running Out of Ammo.
Failing Escort Missions because the AI is stupid.
When someone in real life disturbs you in a game that cannot be paused.
Exploring the map and ending up getting one shot by a high level mob.
That seems to be the death knell for this iLL Panel. What does death in video games mean to you? Tell us in the comments. Until next time, iLL out.