Don't Hit Reset

Tom Mc Shea looks at how permanent death can create a strong emotional connection.

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Death. The word settles in your stomach, cold and heavy. An inevitable fate, and always much closer than you'd like. Fading into the pages of history is a terrifying and sobering prospect, and that's why we relish an escape from this gloomy outlook. Video games are a safe haven. Checkpoints, extra lives, quick saves, and continues all shield us from life's ultimate end, perpetually giving us another shot to correct our past mistakes. And yet, when games embrace the inescapable reality, the gravitas of each moment is profound. One false step could spell your doom, so you move carefully, stay alert, and count every small blessing you receive.

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Fire Emblem: Awakening views death with a calculated gaze. As you march into war with knights and archers by your side, you understand that not everyone will join you for the return home. If an enemy mage conjures a ferocious fire blast, or a rival horseman gets his full weight behind his mighty axe swing, your allies could meet their untimely end before you can think of a contingency plan. Once they're struck with a fatal blow, they fall to the earth in slow motion. The music is momentarily silenced, and memories rush through your head. Virion's detached arrogance. Olivia's humble exuberance. Anna's buoyant brawn. All left behind as you continue onward.

Fire Emblem: Awakening views death with a calculated gaze.

The temptation to hit the reset button is undeniable. Henry, with his dark sense of humor and darker spells, joined your party only moments before his early exit. Yarne was almost reunited with his mother before a stray arrow ended his life. It would take no more than a quick button press to erase your failings and start over with a clean slate. And yet, such a moment of weakness would topple the tower Awakening so expertly erects. The cost of war is ever present, and the people who join your party do so with full knowledge of the approaching end. Sacrifice is a theme interwoven throughout the story, so to run and hide from failure would be a disservice to your friends who died fighting.

Death has surfaced in games other than Awakening. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the soldiers you develop and grow attached to, named after your friends and family, can die from the nefarious alien attacks. And once their limp bodies crumple to the concrete, they're left there forevermore, alive only in the memories of those they served with. Final Fantasy Tactics makes your heart race. When comrades fall, a timer counts down the rounds left until they pass into the light, so you rush to their side as quickly as possible, to save them from an irreversible slumber.

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It's a mechanic that seems to go against the very nature of playing a video game. You're supposed to find solace within a virtual world, run away from the terrible demands of everyday life. Games should be a barrier that prevents bad feelings from infecting us, a sweater that wraps us in its protective warmth. And yet, when dire consequences loom, a game with permanent death doesn't push you away. Instead of being bleak and foreboding, it's empowering. The emotional connection between you and the fictional denizens strengthens the deeper you get into the journey. You're invested in the lives of your characters, in protecting them when danger strikes, and so you continue to play, even though each moment is fraught with tension.

To run and hide from failure would be a disservice to your friends who died fighting.

Video games let you explore difficult situations from the comfort of your living room. Because nothing can hurt you when a controller is in your hand, you can experience events that would be catastrophic in real life. We don't like to think about how death would affect us, what it would be like to lose someone we're close to. But games like Awakening and XCOM conjure this feeling of attachment in meaningful ways. When you spend hours with characters, learning their histories and hopes, building them to be powerful and durable, and then they die, it's like being struck in the stomach. You've grown attached to these characters, and enjoyed seeing them grow and mature, and then their lives are cut short before you were ready to say goodbye.

And that impact doesn't dissipate when the next battle starts. It intensifies. Whereas before, you relied on the irreplaceable expertise of your fallen comrades, there is now a hole in your plan that can't be filled. When you bond with a character on both an emotional and intellectual level, when the character arc is as intriguing as the character build, then the penalty for death becomes much more scarring. Game writing may stumble at times; it may be stiff or lifeless. But when you create situations in which you strategize and scheme, guide your characters along the perfect path to dominance, and then see your hard work die in a dizzying flash, it hurts.

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Such severe punishment in most games would be difficult to handle. There are times when you want to run and jump without worrying that your next leap could be your last. But developers shouldn't shy away from such a system if it fits the themes of the games. Think about how often you've had squad members fight beside you, absorbing enemy blasts without so much as a scar, and yet you're supposed to care when they die in a prerendered cutscene. Such a disconnect between the action and the cinematics is all too common, but by injecting the fear of losing a partner during the gameplay, the connection to the events can be more affecting. It would be a tough balancing act to include such a punishing death system while still keeping the core action entertaining, but by experimenting with how we experience death, a world of possibilities unfolds.

Imagine if the permanence of death surfaced in modern military shooters. Would you be as willing to sprint into an open courtyard, picking off assailants high up in the balconies, if one sure bullet could end your run? Or what if your careful, calculated approach put your compatriots in harm's way? By using this mechanic in genres in which death is usually no more than a slight setback, it would add weight to your actions, and better communicate what the men and women of the battlefield are going through. If you stumble, if too many of your fellow soldiers die, you may not complete the mission. Your enemies would win. The same dread could work exquisitely in survival horror games as well. What's more terrifying than knowing your adventure could end if a monster corners you?

Experimentation with death has gained momentum recently, but has yet to become a wide-spread aspect of game design. Games are pure entertainment for many, and having to look death in the eyes is a daunting prospect. But spend some time protecting Clementine in The Walking Dead or braving the dangers of the Butcher in Diablo III's hardcore (permadeath) mode, and the emotional impact of these games will have you clamoring for more developers to subvert your expectations of virtual death. Game don't have to always be an escape. Sometimes, the most powerful moments are those that draw on real-life fears.

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