Morituri Me Salutant

(death animations by Paul Veer)

If Death were a game designer
By Petra Rudolf 

Fail. Die. Swear. Reload.

Again, you mewling kitten of a gamer, you put some swearwords to use and reloaded. Of course, it wasn't you who kicked the bucket. All that the death of your Alter Ego leaves behind is a tiny stain on your pride.

But I, the Reaper, shall not be a mere representation of your petty failure!

I'll rummage through my games old and new, and produce evidence that there is so much more to death in these stories and game mechanics. You shall feel dread at the rattle of my scythe, and gnaw your keyboard as you try to decide whether to sacrifice your beloved NPC or yourself. And in the end, you may choose to die purely for the sake of the story to continue. (Oh, this will be fun.)

When was the last time you died in a game and thought: "This can't be how it ends?" Never. Because dying doesn't usually mean death. Not for you, but for your character of course. I'll just handle you as one, as you're both my job. But for you to think "this can't be how it ends," a game needs more than permadeath. Just mind this word: Permadeath. A questionable attempt to recreate the meaning of yours truly, after turning me into a gameplay element. Hah! I presume you'd miss me after all.

Nothing against the gameplay element. I'd be bored to death – pun intended – if I only played characters who can't die at all. What I don't excuse is cowardice: Edging around the lingering knowledge that I am waiting for everyone in the end. I'm not even sorry about your guinea pig. I'm beyond being sorry. I've got a job, and I don't like it being a shallow and dull formality. I want death in games to be interesting again. 

Mortals like you are sissies when it comes about dealing with death, because it means feeling pain over losing someone, be that your guinea pig or the NPC who grew on you. Of course that's not the same as losing a real friend – it's a game, I get it. But that's no excuse for a game designer to shrug my presence off half-heartedly. I, for my part, would delve into gallows humor and the macabre, like in good old Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. I'm itching to play an actual role again.

NPCs seldom die in funny games, but they definitely do in the darker and grittier variants. The Witcher does a great job there. Player decisions lead to the demise of polygonal friends after real-life days of adventuring. It's a treat to watch a player gnawing their fingernails while they try to save one NPC, knowing the decision will doom another one. Remember that one possible ending of Witcher 2? The one where you're going badass together with Vernon Roche, and have to choose between saving your helpful love interest Triss by letting Vernon head into a deadly rescue mission by himself; or helping Vernon and knowingly leave Triss to torture and a likely execution. There is no right or wrong. No philosophy or morality will help you. That's when I'll be on edge, eagerly awaiting you to lead me to my prey. That's the fun part. The final decision.

Many games get that, but so few make use of this situation. Some try. Fable 3, for example, let you decide the death of your talky girlfriend or some innocent people, but unlike The Witcher, they didn't prepare the situation thoroughly. Fable just set the stage, pretended that you cared about talky girlfriend, then summoned me to wait for your next click. Well, I give a damn. There was none of the impact that I like about my job.

By impact, I mean this: You grinding your teeth, biting your tongue, crying out "nooo!" so your roomie asks what's wrong. Impact as in personal immersion. Caring. Choices. Dilemma. The inevitable. For that's what I am – inevitable – and what games seem to blur and diminish ever so often. I am The End. Yours too, by the way. As well as The End of the many game opponents you kill (never again ask what I need a scythe for).

I'm not going to lecture you on morality. I have no use for moral nitpicking. Although, it's nice to know that I can use that moral nitpicking upon you to entertain myself. No, I'm not cruel. Just bored. And a bit overworked by your body count. Did you lose track of your numbers? Maybe an achievement will help you remember. Several hundred or thousand NPCs in one game are usual. Most of them have no names. They are targets.

Do you really feel threatened by ever-growing enemy hordes? I don't. After some minutes or maybe an hour of good gameplay, the endless repetition annoys me. In R-rated RPGs and story-heavy shooters, I expect enemies to be more. No more practically dropping dead at zero health points. People literally bite the dust, for sometimes I'm a bit late. That's not pleasant. Still no morality there: You identify with one person a lot easier than with many. If there lies one dead NPC after a tough fight, you give them some sort of credit. Given the choice, you'd probably leave them alive, like Logain in one of the endings of Dragon Age Origins.

There are mods for several Elder Scrolls games that make it possible for NPCs to yield and even offer you their loot just to escape with only their panties and their life. They're a bit less dumb that way, right? Less dumb also means more dangerous and harder to judge in advance; not everyone might yield. You would, I presume. I believe I saw you run often enough. You would run in real life as well. Do me the favor. In a job like mine, watching the manifold ways mortals try to escape me is my only entertainment.

Oh, okay, there's one thing I like even more: Watching how people go mad over dying or not. Facing me seems to be a terrible prospect. (Is it my looks? ... Mirrors go blind in my presence.) Most of you mortals back off when you encounter your dead ones, even if they don't shamble through the streets trying to eat your brains. All you know for certain is the ugly part that comes after my scythe.

Even uglier is facing the truth: How people slaughter one other. That you killed. You can always tell yourself that it is only a game. But you needed a game to force you to face your mirror. Spec Ops – The Line deals with death and killing at many levels, and most of all with its influence on mortal minds. It even does so despite hundreds of dead opponents. What is madness? What is reality? In the end, you will look back on this game and ask yourself what you did. Why you did it. I doubt there's another game out there that would lead you to such a gripping and exciting experience.

What about thoughts, dreams, wishes, conscience, soul, mind, afterlife? Hey, don't ask me! I find it amusing to watch you worry about it. That might actually make you less jumpy about our future encounter in real life. But since the usual death-by-critter only means reload, I shall employ different ways to get back into your games to deal with your Alter Ego directly.

One is to get you to sacrifice yourself at the end for the sake of others. The Skythian from Sword&Sworcery does. It works even without having an actual choice. I'm not overly eager about people thinking that their death solves matters; the story must fit. It does in the case of the Skythian. I revel as players realise that they don't gain but lose maximum health as the game proceeds. Step by step, I come closer.

The best dance with me was in the Nameless in Planescape: Torment. I've got my fingers in this story everywhere: When the Nameless awakens on a dissection table among mummified bodies; when he discovers that he cannot die; when he finds out what he did in his past incarnations; and when he finds out that he doesn't have much time left to regain his mortality, or get caught up in a Fate Worse Than Death forever. He will learn the answer to the riddle "what truly changes a man": To lose mortality.

Perhaps you will think about the Nameless when you reload next time, you wannabe immortal. You play character-based games because you're intrigued by the experience of extremes and exploration of the unknown. Try The Last Door, for example, a game that carries the spirit of Lovecraftian horror so well that I linger around not only to pick the dead characters off. As they say, death is only the beginning.