Death and Storytelling

One of the distinguishing – though not universal – features of playing games is that you die.  The natural phrase people use – even small kids who’ve not learned it via experience – is to say “I died,” not “Mario died.”

This presents an opportunity for storytelling that a variety of games have explored over the last decade or so, as part of what makes the experience of games unique.  Games make things personal: when something happens, it happens to you, not a character in a book or a film.

When characters die in books or films, it might be startling, or shocking, but it’s experienced differently when we’re dealing with games.  Two of the iconic moments of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare involve experiencing death.  The first is where the player is driven around in the back seat of a car, clearly a prisoner.  We can look around, but not move: this is a Half-Life style opening where we get information about our context and environment, and then something will happen where we can take back the control that is our assumed-state in playing games!  …Only nothing happens.  We get put up against a wall.  A guy in a uniform turns up with a gun.  Any moment now we’ll get to act!

Or not.  You get executed.

It’s startling when it happens, but it’s not as mindbending as the next time.  The player is in the position of an American soldier whose helicopter has been shot down on the way to recovering a nuclear weapon.  No problem!  We expect to bounce from the wreckage and fight our way from the wreck back to safety while the game shifts dynamically from a vehicle section to more standard FPS fare.  Except instead we crawl from the wreckage, vision grey, gasping in pain, while a mushroom cloud blossoms above the city.

It’s the dawning helplessness of that moment that stuck with me more than being executed in the initial sequence.  Crawling as fast and as far as you can away from an oncoming apocalypse that you’re increasingly certain that you’re not going to survive…. but trying anyway, because what else can you do?

And rather than having that described to us, we feel it ourselves.  Do we give up and wait to die?  Do we keep on and hope for the best?  Whatever happens, however that feels, that’s us, not a character intended to stand for us.

That’s what games can do that nothing else can: confront us with what could be our own last moments, and do so directly – without the mediation presented by experiencing the world through the protagonists of books and films.  Sure it’s fictional, but the feelings and emotions that go along with it are real, because part of playing the game is investing in it.  I think we’ve all seen too many hurled controllers and friends who’ve shrieked and tried to dive out of the way of a horror leaping out of the darkness to say that games don’t feel real.  The question is, what do we do with it?

Playing with death in games and what it means isn’t exactly new.  The lowest of low-hanging fruit on the subject is Planescape: Torment all the way back in 1999, since the whole nature of the plot was to have the player of the game experience dying as distinct from losing.  When you die in Torment, you wake up again shortly afterwards, sometimes in the city Mortuary depending on where you are, which can be Inconvenient.  You can also resurrect your teammates when they die, assuming you follow an obvious option early in the game and are alive to use the ability yourself.  The whole concept is that you are playing an amnesiac immortal, and the start of the game presents you with the mission of restoring your own mortality so that you can finally die.  Death in Torment can occur as an option in conversation, such as where a woman who belongs to a society obsessed with experiencing as much as possible asks to murder you so she can experience being a killer without the consequences of killing someone mortal.  If you agree, your death is described in detail… as is your conversation with your killer afterwards.  It can unlock XP, as is the case when you finish the ‘quest’ of helping the woman experience being a killer, or gear – such as an occasion where you ask someone to dig through your entrails looking for past clues you might have left yourself hidden inside your own chest cavity, and they find a ring concealed long ago.   Death is just something that happens.  System Shock and System Shock 2 played with the idea of devices that would respawn you upon death, but which cost a number of resources per resurrection.(1)  This might have been a relatively paltry cost, but the psychology of it was important: sure, you get reborn, but smarting from the wasted ammo you used in the fight that just killed you, and aware that the resources used to bring you back are reduced – even if it was by a token amount.  On one occasion,  I was mugged by a pack of hybrids just down the corridor from a rebirth machine, meaning that they heard the noise of the machine activating and came to investigate.  My vision came in while still in the machine to see a hybrid peering in the door before charging at me with its screaming friends.

I didn’t get reborn that time, despite being able to afford the cost.  The only thing that makes sense to me was that the hybrids destroyed the machine, and the level of thinking that had gone into that boggles the mind.  Again, what I remember feeling was foreboding and helplessness as I realised I’d led the enemy right to my nest.  The only outcomes possible were going to be chillingly awesome – like what happened – or immersion busting, if I’d kept respawning into an endless murder-pit.

Failing to die in circumstances where you expect it can also be powerful:  I remember falling into water during the final levels of System Shock 2 and getting hopelessly disoriented.  I waited for the ubiquitous oxygen bar to appear and provide a timeframe for my demise… but it never did.  The dawning horror(2) of realising that I no longer needed to breathe was amazing – particularly when aware of the fact that the currency of upgrading your stats in the game are referred to as ‘cybernetic upgrade modules,’ and recent comments from SHODAN where she praised the way I was “transcending the weakness of flesh.”

In this case, and in the context of System Shock 2’s pervasive theme of body-horror, when I expected to die and found that I was fine, it made a big impression and even raised questions about the extent to which I qualified as human.

I like it when games put some thought into the consequences of how death is framed as a part of play – and the possibility that enemies might wreck your rebirth machine is a big one.

But by far the most striking engagement with death as a part of play in games that I’ve run into recently has been Portal 2.  This would seem to be an odd choice, since the implication of the game is that whenever you die, it’s a definite break in continuity: no respawn machines, and no rewinding time.  In fact, that’s some of what made it worse.  As we negotiate the bowels and memory of Aperture Science, players encounter a series of gels that alter physics in fascinating ways and which are all horrifyingly dangerous.  As Cave Johnson says:

Oh, in case you get covered in that Repulsion Gel, here’s some advice the lab boys gave me: [sound of rustling pages] “Do not get covered in the Repulsion Gel.” We haven’t entirely nailed down what element it is yet, but I’ll tell you this: It’s a lively one, and it does not like the human skeleton.

I still remember the absolute chill that went down my spine when I was careless and got coated in blue goo.  My instinctive assumption was that I’d need to reload the level and try again… but nothing happened.  No in-game acknowledgement that I’d just ruined my skeleton.  I reloaded anyway, because – you know – people need their skeletons!  And I got coated in fatal blue goo anyway, because I’m not very good at games.  I remember feeling sorry!  Sorry because I couldn’t spare escape the fate that I’d doomed myself to as soon as blue ooze slurped across my monitor.  After that initial level, it was less bad: I’d already been exposed to murderous smurf-juice, so more wouldn’t hurt,  right?

But when I hit the white portal-relocation goo it happened again: my monitor went white as I was covered in the same top-secret moon-bukkake that had already killed Cave Johnson, and I felt utterly mortified.  As soon as that happened, I was going to die skeletonless and coughing out my lungs.  I went back and tried again, but couldn’t do it.  For all I know, it may be practically impossible to finish the game without getting gooed, but I experienced it as a failure that cast a horrifying shadow across the rest of the game.

Portal 2 is about escape.  About finishing the job from Portal of getting free from Aperture Science and out into the world that’s still out there – whatever that world happens to be.  But as I rode that elevator out of the depths of the facility with tears in my eyes as I was serenaded by turrets, I knew that I was not going to have my freedom for long.  That was an amazing feeling, triumphant and bitter-sweet – and one I can’t be convinced isn’t also thematic:  My escape had a cost, and freedom in the outside world was worth a long-life underground.

As I listened to GlaDOS’ farewell song as the credits rolled, the line “You’ve got your short sad life left” was like a knife twisting in my soul.  I know that it might have been intended to be short and sad compared to GlaDOS’ immortality, but in my heart I know it’s an acknowledgement that I’m doomed because of what I went through down in the bleak depths of Aperture Science.

Games are a very personal mode of storytelling.  The people who play them feel responsible for what happens during play because, well, to a great extent they are.  Experiencing death, and being responsible for that death is an angle in storytelling that isn’t possible outside of games, and I think that playing with those possibilities are a real opportunity for storytelling power.  Last Breath from Ludum Dare(3) makes the experience of death in-itself tactical as well as thematic, for example, and Portal 2 made a huge impression on me despite the fact that everything we’ve talked about here was implied rather than part of the game itself.  Dear Esther is all about experiencing a pathway to the grave(4) – though I do wish control hadn’t been taken away at the end: I’d have jumped.  It was the obvious thing to do, given everything that had come before.

Death matters, and I’m delighted that it’s becoming an increasing part of the complicated weave of storytelling possibilities that games provide for us.


(1) The rebirth chambers in Bioshock lacked even that token cost, and I think that was a big part of why they bugged people so much: there was no disadvantage to getting yourself endlessly killed.

(2) A similar process of gradual, dawning revelation lies at the core of Small Worlds by David Shute, even if the emotional complexion is different.

(3) Last Breath available here.

(4) Quintin Smith at Rock, Paper Shotgun writes about a similar experience in Norrland, by Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström.


  1. Ava Avane Dawn

    Although not commented upon, the resurrection in system shock has the role of filling us with horror at the thought of identity dissolution too, typical of cyberpunk themes. Just who are we when coming out of that chamber? Here we have those damn organic monsters out to make us a part of their utopic community where dualities, identity and free will dissolve, and the god damn resurrections may have an even pricier cost because we know not even if we still have that free will or what we are, without the benefits of being one of the shiny happy (non)people.

    • Kevin Veale

      Absolutely! I have schemes to write an article (though it’s probably not a good fit for Nightmare Mode) about the rise of horror texts that threaten identity rather than physical harm…

  2. BaronVonSlothenstein

    Very nicely done. On the topic of body-covering goo, have you considered the intersection between death and butterings? Would be interested in reading a followup on that theme.

  3. Tssha

    Really, really interesting. Very insightful as well, as I think for all of us, death in video games is a very personal experience…and yet, one we can all share with two words: “I died”. Those two words can mean failure, either temporary or permanent. They can lead to amusement, if the death was in a particularly spectacular fashion and there was even the slightest hint you were going to pull it off with your hide intact. The punchline, if you will.

    This article really spells it out; how compelling the medium is. It can even express death in a new way, as it allows you to experience it yourself (without the attendant consequences attached to dying in real life, i.e. dying).

    I know there’s a lot of things that only the first person perspective of a video game can do, not just death…but thanks for illuminating this one in particular. It’s a new perspective for me.

    …also, I may have to try out CoD4: Modern Warfare now, if only for the death part of it. I hadn’t even considered playing this game before. Thanks for that.

    • Kevin Veale

      Glad you don’t mind spoilers! And you’re absolutely right about how much gets folded into “I Died” as a statement. I mean you wind up with people in games like TF2 having contests about how stupidly they can wind up dead, or even stumbling onto that kind of fun by accident with the advent of the ability to take video footage being brought into the game.

      Then we have Super Meat Boy’s level-summary screen where clouds of Meatboys hurl themselves fatally into screwups…

      It’s interesting stuff, even while entirely leaving aside more dramatic, shocking or personal contexts for dying.

  4. GPC

    I think one of the most memorable experiences with in-game death for me happened in Heavy Rain. Partway through, I glanced at the achievements, and saw one was, “Make it to the final encounter with all four characters still alive.” At that point I realized, ‘Wait, the characters can die in this game?’

    Having seen the plot shift expertly whenever I made a decision, I realized that, yes, the characters could die, and if they did they would die for GOOD. And it would change EVERYTHING.

    [Minor spoilers ahead]

    Immediately after realizing this, an in-game psycho serial killer knocked me unconscious, tied me up in his basement, and prepared to experiment with my body until I was a corpse.

    When the game gave me a slim, time-sensitive chance of escaping, my heart started pounding. When the psycho came back, and I had to fight him in hand-to-hand combat, the whole scene was visceral and terrifying. And when the last motion in the battle involved me pounding down with my controller to drive a power drill through his twisted heart, it was immensely satisfying.

    I actually had to pause the game for a bit to catch my breath, and let the relief wash over me.

    Somehow I doubt I would have felt that surge of adrenaline if I knew it was like every other game and I’d get a ‘Game Over’ screen followed by a ‘Reload Game?’ prompt.

    • Kevin Veale

      That’s a really good example, and reminds me that I should play that game.

      One of my recurring schticks is discussing how games work because of the consequences of the decisions people make in playing them, and death can play into that significantly. The trick is that games and death are frequently not entirely internally consistent – such as Final Fantasy 7 where characters can be revived from death right up until the point they can’t because of Plot – but they need to be consistent *enough* to work within what the player is invested in.

      And if you suddenly find a Life Or Death situation like that, I can see the experience being extremely powerful.

  5. Poing Critter

    You paint a clear picture of the effect that physical mortality has on you as a player, and by extention *players.* How does this compare to the effect of the prospect of death in games where you know logically that it’s never going to happen?
    For example, there are a wide variety of hidden object/adventure games available at the moment that have a very heavy theme of death, but the character is working to rescue others rather than themselves. Often they will simply refuse to go down corridors that are too poorly lit, for fear of a passing grue.
    In these games the process of furthering the plot becomes a conversation between character and player, where both desire the same outcome, but have vastly different abilities. I, the player can remember where useful items are and interact with them, but only the character can tell me which items are useful or give me detailed information about what is happening in their world. Neither of us are capable of much alone, but we are distinct from one another. Thus the game motivates me with the prospect of the character’s failure in her task, her fear (it’s almost always ‘her,’ which is an awesome thing, but an issue for another article,) her sense of imminent death, but not directly mine.
    I have encountered one or two of this style of game where the character has a health bar, an initially terrifying prospect, until it becomes obvious that health is a kind of key system. Our heroine is very ill, and using a lump hammer to crack a wall takes a toll, so she must find more health packs before she can climb a ladder. It is not that we might die, it is that she is weak. The prospect and evidence of death are all around us, but not a direct threat.
    So these game use death as a builder of atmosphere and urgency, but not the direct spur to action or punisment for wrong action that you describe. I am sure it can be used in other ways as well, but I can’t think of them right now.