Death is common in video games, and not just for the hordes of enemies that you mow through in any given action game. Video game heroes die a lot as well, even when they’re not supposed to, according to the story. The player will always steer them towards certain doom a couple dozen times per game, and sometimes that’s part of the appeal. Isaac Clarke from Dead Space and Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil 4 can die in some pretty spectacular ways, and what gamer hasn’t purposely killed their avatar at some point just to see what happens?
And yet, video game heroes almost never die. Not really. They just respawn at a previous checkpoint and continue from there as normal, but things are not normal. You have just seen the future. You know what’s coming and you’ll react accordingly, and therefore, the character that you’re playing knows what’s coming and will also react accordingly.
The infinite lives of video game characters present an interesting narrative conundrum: how does a writer create tension when the hero is essentially immortal? Most games just ignore this absurdity, even in those games with clever conceits to get around death. The Vita Chambers in Bioshock are just a magical item that no one seems to notice, and for some reason, you’re the only person ever revived by them. Altair and Ezio don’t know that they’re just simulated memories, so they can’t act on their immortality. We know they can’t die, but they don’t know they can’t die.
There seem to be two general approaches to resolving this disconnect: either the character acknowledges that he or she can’t die or the game itself acknowledges that its characters can’t die.
The downloadable game Limbo takes the latter approach. Like all video game heroes, the little boy in Limbo instantly respawns when he dies. Death is meant to be a learning tool, and like any tool, it gets used frequently. The deaths in the game are gruesome: the boy is impaled by a giant spider’s leg, is forced to commit suicide by a mind-controlling worm, is drowned, is cut to pieces, and is shot. Yet even though his deaths are gruesome, the game still encourages you to learn by dying. Players must embrace the boy’s deaths. We kill him on purpose in order to test a theory about a puzzle and then wince at the brutal way that he dies, never mind the fact that we knew exactly what was going to happen.
The child’s struggle in Limbo reflects the struggle of every respawning hero. His immortality isn’t used to advance the plot or develop him as a character, so his deaths are pointless in a narrative context. In this case, it’s only by virtue of being named “limbo” that the game brings attention to the disturbing and cyclical nature of a video game hero’s life, in which death is both horrible and boring at the same time.
Of course, this isn’t an issue if the protagonist that keeps dying isn’t human. In the co-op mode of Portal 2, you and a friend play as two robots that regularly get blown up and rebuilt by a reassembly machine. Here, however, their immortality is played for laughs since death is of no consequence to a robot. As the party responsible for this inconsequential sadism, GLaDOS herself pokes fun at this tendency of those trapped by the immortality granted by playing the game: “To try and make this course more exciting I asked the reassembly machine to not reassemble you. He refused. I understand, that would be like asking me not to test. Still, that would have been exciting.”
Like Limbo, Portal 2 uses its immortal characters as a commentary on gaming itself. GLaDOS constantly laments your inability to die. For example, she asks, “Without the looming consequence of death, is this even science?” She’s the player and we are her undying avatars. Like some gamers, GLaDOS wants death to mean more than simply respawning some distance away; death makes her game more fun. The robots Atlas and P-body are the perfect video game avatars — they’re specifically built for her testing game, and can be destroyed over and over again with no consequences — but they’re not very interesting characters. And GLaDOS wants to see her characters acknowledge the consequences of death, otherwise they’re no different from a plant: “You can’t test plants. We tried. They just sit there, never showing pain nor fear. That isn’t science.”
GLaDOS wants to enact a game like 2006’s Prey, which tries to use the immortality of its protagonist as character development. In Prey when Tommy dies, his spirit enters the spirit realm where he has an opportunity to fight his way back to life. His ability to resurrect himself is attributed to his Native American ancestry, which sets up some interesting inner conflict since Tommy is eager to leave his heritage behind. When the aliens force him to use an ability reserved only for Native Americans, Tommy is forced to come to terms with his racial identity. This is a part of who he is, whether he likes it or not. His inability to stay dead is part of a larger character arc of acceptance.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really explore this inner conflict. It’s a character arc that must be inferred since it’s not actually shown or spoken of explicitly. But what’s most interesting about Prey is that its resurrection mechanic is closely tied to ethnicity. It’s rare that a game associates a mechanic with a single ethnicity so explicitly, to the point where a sequel starring yet another generic white male can’t use that mechanic without breaking the fiction. Despite the game’s unwillingness to explore the consequences of resurrection and racial identity, it still manages to make immortality a central character trait since the mechanic is inseparable from the character’s race.
A game that’s much more effective at using immortality as character development is the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia. The plot has a wanderer, the Prince (in nickname only), getting caught up in a mystical battle between good and evil. Ahriman has just been released from his ancient prison, and it’s up to the wanderer Prince and the (real) princess Elika to seal the evil and save the world. As a magician, Elika can save you when you miss a jump by grabbing your hand and transporting you back to solid ground. You aren’t transported past the obstacle — so you still have to make the jump — but the Prince doesn’t have to die to get the game to reset to this point, and he knows Elika saved him from certain death. Much of their bonding is portrayed through this mechanic.
At one point in the game, you’re fighting a boss at the top of a tower and Elika is put under a spell. The only way to wake her up is to jump off the tower, forcing her to save you as she has throughout the game. However, there’s no clear indication that this is what you’re supposed to do. The boss just disappears, and you’re left staring at a frozen Elika. You can’t kill her, so the fight has come to a halt. The only hint that the game provides is that a piece of wall is missing that allows you to jump off the tower. This moment helps us bond with the Prince, as it’s a moment of genuine fear for our lives. Since we haven’t died in the game, this threat of death is stronger than it would be otherwise; we haven’t been made numb to the image of our character dying over and over again. The inability to die makes us more afraid of death when it suddenly becomes a possibility. This moment also helps us bond with Elika as it’s a literal leap of faith, faith in the mechanic that has consistently saved us before and therefore faith in Elika. It’s a powerful moment of player/character bonding.
This acknowledgement also works on clarifying clearly these character’s relationships. The romance between the Prince and Elika develops mainly through this mechanic. The Prince’s leap of faith from the tower is the culmination of their relationship and justifies his later act of extreme selfishness. When Elika sacrifices herself to seal the evil, the Prince immediately re-releases the evil in order to bring her back to life. It’s not a very heroic act, but it makes sense because, as we see over the course of the game, he quite literally can’t live without her.
A character that can’t die is a standard trope of gaming that’s boring at best and kills any tension or excitement at worst, but solutions are uncommon. Bringing attention to the disconnect between the character and their world provides fodder for satire, but beyond writing in a literal limbo, narrative justifications are limited in the medium. Personally, I’m more interested in games that embrace their hero’s immortality, using it as a tool to advance character and plot. Immortality then becomes a narrative tool that doesn’t fight its medium, but rather uses the medium’s unique traits in conjunction with traditional storytelling. Though it limits the number of genres that one can work with (since resurrection isn’t very realistic), it’s better than ignoring the issue. Sadly, that’s what most games do.
Ms. Pac-Man (Namco, 1981)
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