Cheating death

Imagine you’re at a play–live theatre with an ensemble cast. The lights are dim, the set is immaculate, and the performances are impassioned and engaging.

And then, half an hour in, one of the actors flubs their line.

Instead of the other actors taking it in stride, everything stops. The stage goes dark, and you hear the director yell from offstage that they’re going to try it again from the top.

But it happens again, this time only ten minutes in. They restart again. And again.

It’s a pretty horrible way to tell a story.*

The sting of the Game Over screen is, often, no less awful, and for exactly the same reasons.

Narrative flow is tricky business when you place a lot of agency in the hands of the player. There’s no guarantee that they’ll head in the direction you want or attempt the things you’d like them to do. Often, the player will wander so far off the path you’d like them to be on that there’s no real way to recover, such as walking off a tall cliff or face-first into a bullet. These are called “fail states”–situations where you have no choice but to hit the rewind button and pretend that none of this ever happened.

Sometimes this is a problem, sometimes it isn’t. In a lot of older games, the fail state was the primary motivator, nipping at your heels as you aimed for that high score list. But when you’re trying to tell the player a story, hitting rewind can be unforgivably jarring.

A lot of early game designers polarized on this problem. Probably the most prominent example of this was the difference between many of the early graphical adventure games produced by LucasArts and Sierra Online. The two companies were producing games that played largely similar to each other, with one clear difference: in Sierra’s games, your character could do something that would make it impossible to complete the game–or even die–while LucasArts’ games kept the player on a tighter leash, preventing the player from doing anything that would throw the game into an unwinnable state. It’s easy to see why both companies went down the paths they did. On one hand, you had player agency and freedom, which made the worlds seem much more immersive–and threatening. On the other, you had games that were much less frustrating and told streamlined narratives, since the player’s decisions never resulted in them being jettisoned from the story.

Over the years, avoiding fail states became the standard for adventure games. It just made for better storytelling. But other genres soldiered on, embracing the tension and freedom that fail states brought. After all, how scary would mechanized Nazis be if they weren’t capable of killing you?

Of course, we’ve been talking about these things as though these were your only two options as a game designer: either you let the player wander off the path, or you keep them on a leash. But a handful of developers have been looking at this from an entirely different angle. What if you could have the player objectively fail, but keep that failure from stopping the narrative cold?

The trick has to lie in the narrative itself. Some approaches have been quite literal–David Cage, the designer behind games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, has tried with varying degrees of success to allow the key player characters in his games to die, and have that death work itself into the narrative going forward. The consequences are real, but not game-ending.

But that’s hardly the only example. Here are some of the other ways games are cheating death:

  • Bioshock – Upon dying, the player is resurrected into a new body to continue their journey from the nearest Vita-Chamber.
  • Bioshock Infinite – When the player has run out of health, they’re rescued and nursed back to health by their companion, Elizabeth.
  • Dark Souls – After death, the player continues to play as the undead.
  • Far Cry 2 – The player is saved by a companion, who pulls them to safety.
  • Infinity Blade – Upon death, the player assumes the role of their previous character’s heir.
  • Portal 2 (multiplayer) – The player’s robot is rebuilt.
  • Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – The player’s death is viewed as a failure of the narrator, who slipped up in telling the story and must correct himself (a comicly literal solution).
  • Prince of Persia (2008) – The player is saved from death at the last second by their companion, who delivers them to safety.
  • Rogue Legacy – Upon death, the player assumes the role of their previous character’s heir.
  • The Secret World – When the player dies, they pass to a spiritual plane from which they must resurrect themselves.
  • Zombi U – The story continues after the player’s death, the player then assuming a new identity.

* Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run can be the exceptions that prove the rule

4 thoughts on “Cheating death

  1. Have you tried State of Decay? It’s rough around the edges, but the best zombie game I’ve ever played. There is no main character. You simply have an initial character then meet a couple of dozen survivors in your travels with varying skills and motives. If you persuade them to join your community, you can play as any of them. They are surprisingly well developed and voice acted for the type of game it is. When they die, they die, and it can be very jarring to loose your favourite character. My fave was a female marine who was on leave in the area when the apocalypse struck. I loaded her up with good equipment and went searching for food at night in an abandoned farm. I got sloppy, searched through a noisy toolbox for weapons, and attracted a huge horde. The barn only had one working door and there was no escape. I had to head back there the next morning with two other characters, clear the horde out with fire bombs, and collect her belongings. She had been eaten.

  2. I really like that. I mean, it seems like one of the more obvious ways to deal with death—just shift perspective and keep going. It keeps death meaningful.

    On the flipside, I played through the first hour or two of Sleeping Dogs this month. Drove me insane. The opening scene has you running from cops, and if you slip up, the game ends because the cops catch you. If you’re successful? You’re treated to a scene of the cops catching you. That’s about as awful as you can get in terms of fail states and narrative.

  3. Jamie says:

    In Pokemon games, you “black out” when your team has all fainted, but no one ever dies. It’s great, and not kiddish at all. The consequence is that you lose money because you lost the battle.

    Half Life’s “Oh, that was wrong” is a nice touch too – the whole universe doesn’t want you to die, so you just… don’t.

    I understand that the idea of a “another guy” is based on the arcade origins of games, but I’ve been finding myself having a lot more fun when games don’t make you die at all.
    Personally, I’ve always had a huge issue with death in games – particularly with games that force you to die in order to learn methods against certain instant-death actions or combinations. I don’t like dying as a standard game mechanic: it definitely doesn’t feel as powerful as treating death with permanence.
    Games that take joy in how you die (like the Dead Space series, for example, which is known for its horrible death scenes) are just miserable for me.

    Dying isn’t fun and it breaks both immersion and the flow of gameplay. It’s a hard stop. Definitely a game mechanic that needs to be tackled better in the future.

  4. Evan says:

    Hey everyone, if you don’t know about it, be sure to check out Aaron’s two-part post at the Fictorian blog, “From Zork to Halo and Back Again” ( The first part is up today, the next one tomorrow. And Aaron, go ahead and cross-post it to your blog if you want; we’re not especially proprietary about our guest content. Anyway, the post is really, really fantastic, if I do say so myself.

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