To Live is to Die: Death in Video Games

Death is central to the human experience. You’re born and a ways later you die. That’s a bit simplistic of course. A lot of stuff tends to happen in between those two poles; school, dating, maybe a bit of sex if you get lucky (pun intended). That said, the constant, looming presence of that fellow with the black robes and the sickle all but dominates the way many people see the world.

How much money is spent by women pumping chemicals into their face in some vain attempt to reject the fact they’re getting older? How many car salesman’s salaries hinge on men in the midst of a mid-life crisis buying that cherry red sports car out of the hopes that some twenty-something gold differ will jump their Johnson? We fight against death. We struggle against death. We dread the idea that someday we’ll be the friendly elderly guy waiting for the bus at and just hoping someone will sit next to him so he can regale them with tales of their youth. “Back in my day…”

It should be no surprise then that death is a central part of gaming. Whether you’re stomping goombas, saving the world from aliens, or just trying to eat those damn blue ghost, if you fail you die. The difference being of course that in a video game death is far from permanent. With a simple click of continue you can start over and try again.

The ease of revival has only grown more so with the progression of gaming, and with it the redundancy of death. Some games don’t even bother with continues anymore. Dying just drops you off at the most recent checkpoint. Where once virtual death at least held the horror of having to work through something hard again (last level of Ninja Gaiden…ugh), it now holds almost no power. Trial and error is often a perfectly acceptable stratagem for the modern the gamer.

That sucks to an extent. It’s why a lot of new retro games have struck a chord with older gamers. New games are great, but they don’t pose the same sort challenge or have a hold on the same sort of dread that many older games did. That said, it also allows newer games to be harder and use death in a different, often more meaningful way.

One game that really did this for me recently is Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. It’s a flawed game to be sure. Its difficulty falls and spikes seemingly at random. The combat works better at some moments and not as well at others. You can wrap it up on your first play through in under fifteen hours which may not be a bad thing dependent on your tastes.

Aside from this stuff though, it’s one of the darkest, most brutal RPGs I’ve played in a long time. You play as a guy whose earliest act in the game is to make a pact with the Norse equivalent of the devil and then kill his best friend. The remainder of the game follows you and a pack of equally jaded people as you fight your way across the countryside, accumulating power you’ll eventually use to fight and hopefully kill the titular valkyrie.

The key way of growing more powerful is to betray your allies. If you find yourself in a battle too difficult, or just feel like being a prick, you can boost one of your ally’s stats turning them into an unstoppable juggernaut for the entirety of the battle. The catch is that as soon as said fight finishes, that character dies permanently and can’t be revived. They often have no idea what’s going on and die in a state of panic that you, their murderer, have to watch.

Sometimes, it didn’t have much effect. Several of the characters are a bit flat. That said, there were moments where it got to me. Watching a daughter weep over the body of the father I’d killed. Learning that the man I’d just condemned was in fact not quite the emotionless villain I’d thought him to be.

It isn’t quite as effective as the death of your characters in Fire Emblem. You simply don’t get to see enough of your allies in Covenant of the Plume to care about them to that degree, but nonetheless it is a neat play on mortality.

Moreover, it is very much taking the easy way out. Powering up your allies is entirely optional, and as hard as the game can get there isn’t a single battle that can’t be beaten without it. When you choose to do this, you’re essentially saying that you’d rather murder someone than deal with a hard fight. Granted, it’s just a virtual person, but it still says something.

Covenant of the Plume is far from the first game to toy with death in an emotional way (Agro, no!), but it’s a recent example and honestly, not enough games are doing it. The neat thing is too that as the gaming culture develops into one where death is increasingly reversible, actual permanent death could have so much more effect. Remember how it felt when Aerith died?

No? Damn, youngsters with their Call of Duty and their co-op…

Fine, do you remember reading about how it felt when Aerith died? That was more than a decade ago and yeah, it was sort of devastating (didn’t make me cry) and very few games do that. Not that I’d want every game to have some dramatic moment where a main character is offed, but it would be nice if developers as a whole were to put more effort into jerking our emotions around. Blasting aliens is cool but having a bonified reason to want to is better.

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2 Responses to To Live is to Die: Death in Video Games

  1. GiantQtipz says:

    have you played Bioshock. if you die in single player, you will respawn in a chamber nearby without penalty, and everything else remains the same (you don’t go back to a previous save)

    the best part of it all is that there are health packs. i never used my health packs because if im low on health, ill just allow myself to die so i can respawn with full health and finish the job.

    • Stew Shearer says:

      Indeedily I have, and yes, it made the game feel a trifle too easy. Thinking back I don’t know why I bothered buying health packs. I should have spent all my cash on ammo and just let the spawn chambers do the work for me.

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