Video Game Deaths: Are you really a hero?

Hiroshi Sukarazaka wrote a light novel called, “All You Need Is Kill”. Despite the engrish sounding title, the novel is pretty great. It follows a soldier fighting in a war against aliens. After his initial death, he finds himself in a time loop. Very Groundhog Day-esque, but instead of becoming a better person, the protagonist becomes a better soldier. Each death is a learning experience for him, and each time time reverts he is a little more knowledgable of himself and his enemies. I loved it. Ate it up. The soldiers drive small mechs called “jackets” to fight the aliens. Fuck yeah.

But the reason I’m posting this is because the author’s afterword struck me as interesting. Sakurazaka stated that he got his inspiration for the novel from video games. Sakurazaka said he received no satisfaction from completing games, because he died several times along the way. The king would praise the hero, saying that the kingdom was saved only because of him. Well, of course, every time the hero died he was able to retry. Naturally, the hero would save the kingdom.

So in video games, how special is the main character? What justifies dying and retrying? Some games do this well, like Dark/Demons Souls, Kid Icarus, immortal characters, or characters that control time. But is Mario special when he saves the princess? Are the Hunters in Monster Hunter good because they can kill a towering beast in three tries? Is Snake the legendary soldier when he can load a checkpoint?

Logically this can all be explained. The “retry” in video games is a do over. To revert before the crisis. As if it never happened. Cannonly, Link saves Zelda without ever dying. Same with Mario. When the character dies, time is reverted to before the princess was doomed.

But role-playing games are the worst about this. Kefka goes God mode, destroys the party, game over. Then, time is reverted, and the characters grind for more EXP so they can kill Kefka. In Oblivion and Morrowind, you are a nobody, that becomes somebody. But how? Because you can do what the other NPCs can’t, revive from a save. These are games designed to immerse the player. You are a part of this world while you play. So at the end of the day, do you deserve to win?

Granted, this is a in depth look at entertainment. Yes, I understand that games wouldn’t be fun unless you could reload a save. I see the line between fantasy and reality. These are all just thought-provoking concepts after all. But ever since Sukarazaka planted these thoughts in my head with his writing, I find myself being less satisfied being a hero.

About Chris "Kodoku" Detrick

Hello, my name is Chris Eric Detrick and I'm a currently a student at Virginia Commonwealth University and a freelance video game writer. I'm stationed out in Richmond, Virginia and looking for work. My blog has been featured in Freshly Pressed and since then I have only grown as a writer and journalist. You can contact me via email: chrisericdetrick@gmail.com
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86 Responses to Video Game Deaths: Are you really a hero?

  1. Hecubus says:

    Right on! I’ve been thinking more and more about the very same topic. Death seems to be irrelevant in video games. There is very little in terms of risk versus reward. When you die, you often click a button labeled ‘”respawn,” and proceed about your way with little to no inconvenience. Nice essay!

  2. one of the reasons i’ve never really been able to really invest in video games as much as my friends and peers is the retry part. in an actual story, a novel or a film, there is no do-over, so when a character dies, you actually feel impacted. when a character keeps coming back to save the day, it just seems less emotional, and if you allow video games to warp your imagination, it can lead you to get the wrong impressions about life and death (though you have to be messed up in the head already to let that happen, if you ask me).

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      Video Games are like any form of entertainment. The same people that would get warped on games would get warped on television or soap operas. So generally, there’s always a disconnect for people of right mind.

      But yeah, I see your point. Video Games are very bad about it. But as I’ve stated a few times, some games can handle it very well.

  3. Andrea says:

    I never really thought about it like that. Usually, you just just hit continue, reload and go on your merry way of leveling up. Good read. Thanks!

  4. Daniel says:

    I think this ‘retry’ that comes with most video games is okay now, but with CGI and virtual reality breakthroughs in graphics becoming more and more real, in an age of people surrounded by screens their entire lives, this concept of retry could become a major problem in real life.
    As the boundaries of realism in games blur with our experience of reality, explaining to children that their pet is gone for good with no chance of ‘retry’ could be one of many major issues as a result of it in the future. Great article! :-)

  5. xenogirl says:

    But the retry is at the heart of video game addiction… if I had to start the entire game over every time an orc impaled me, my gaming would be sadly short-lived.

  6. xenogirl says:

    PS congrats on your new “Freshly Pressed” status!

  7. herbieshoose says:

    have u heard about the game called zombiU for the WiiU? when you die in this game, you die! you have to take the body of another character, leaving the character you previously inhabited free to roam like a zombie trying to kill your new character! you have one change to steal your previous possessions from your previous body, but other players have the same aim.

  8. Nick Ladd says:

    You should try out “The Binding of Isaac” when you die you go back to the very start of the game, very tough but very rewarding.

  9. Thomas says:

    Great piece you wrote here. Although I was left hanging a bit. I was waiting for you to answer your own question. Oh well, guess I hit ‘reload’ and read it again. lol

  10. mcvillainous says:

    I always feel as if I’m cheating when I go ahead and re-try after a death. But still, it’s all those re-tries maybe, the never giving up part that makes you a hero at the end?

  11. The way video games are set up it is virtually impossible to win the game without dying. I love Oblivion and Skyrim (but my fav will always be Oblivion) and you cannot play them on full without dying or cheating. Mods are set up to make the games more fun and even harder. I write mods and I get complaints if they are “too” easy or too light or whatever would take the challenge out of them. I have listened to people and a lot of them consider a game not worth playing if they get through it without dying.
    I see the point; I understand the concept; what I am saying is that dying is as much a part of the game as any other part. You learn and you evolve. The one game I have seen successfully overcome this idea is Wizard101. In it, you don’t die; you are defeated and are instantly teleported to safety to recharge and try again. I have watched and am almost certain that when you received too much damage and it goes to zero, it almost immediately goes to 1 and you don’t die. I have thought about what you said before this and, while I concur, I do not see it changing my enjoyment of gaming.
    Scott

    • watlington says:

      I agree with you completely, dying does not make a game less enjoyable. However, the more you die in a video game the more you feel disconnected from the character, meaning it feels more like what it is, a game. The real pieces of work are the ones that make you fear for your character’s life, as if it is as precious as a real human life at times. The best examples of these games would be survival horror, but even those have began broadening the horizon into games such as Dayz, a game featuring perma-death that is much a social experiment as a game at times. I love to see people trying to tear down the walls that separate gamers from diving deeper into the world they temporarily inhabit, and I applaud developers who take the risk of breaking the mold in hopes of creating the next step of the video game evolutionary process.

  12. Interesting take on the video game, something I have not really thought about before.

  13. “All We Need is a Real Life, not a Half-Life”

    As an avatarial character in a pre-fabricated world, with a limited number of trial/error outcomes, one is bound to be a couch hero/heroine. RPGs and FPSs are fun to play, they blur the role of imagination and reality. Plus, the immortality of one’s avatar in any given uniform, promotes risky behaviors which normally the player would refrain from in real world scenarios. Nerds, chubby kids, and middle-age men (generally unsatiated by their everyday living roles) can lead their lives as accomplished, networked, desirable versions of themselves, while the video game/computer game industry thrives on the acceptable side of the Uncanny Valley.

    Interesting blog… I will take a look at the book you read,

  14. supashmo says:

    Hmm. Never playing games the same again. Ha, who am I kidding, I’ll die, respawn 30 times, and still call myself the king of everything. Escapism? Yes indeed! Awesome post.

  15. S.C. says:

    A lot of games on the 8- and 16-bit systems didn’t give you that safety net, I remember. Then there were games like Prince of Persia that let you die as much as you liked, as long as you completed the game within a way-too-short time limit.

    Of course, when I was a kid I didn’t appreciate the philosophical value of having to start the game over. Instead I yelled at the TV and threw my controller.

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      Actually, I wanted to touch on older games, and how a “lives” system could be a metaphor for the determination of the avatar. “Did Mario fall in a pit? He climbs his way up and starts again.”

      I decided against it because I figured it wasn’t a clear enough point. Thanks for reading though!

  16. ericjbennett says:

    They’re actually making a movie based on “All You Need is Kill” with, for some reason, Tom Cruise playing the lead. Great article.

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      I read that, and I keep wishing it’s false, and that they’ll stay true to the source material and pick a Japanese actor.

      But they won’t, and I will end up gritting my teeth and watching it anyways. Here’s hoping it’s atleast a good film!

  17. J.X. Hunter says:

    Interesting article.

    Any game that uses reload as an excuse for bad level design and balance does not hold my interest for long. But if death and reload is the rare exception, and pointless deaths can be avoided by observation, thinking, and effective use of resources at hand, then I can suspend disbelief if I die once in awhile. Tough challenges are what brings the fun but that means pushing players to their limits. And that means you’re going to die now and then. I don’t see any way around it. It’s a fine line for designers.

    One brilliant exception to this rule was Planescape: Torment. Dying was part of the story. It advanced the story. It was not just a reset and do-over. The deaths never felt pointless or arbitrary, I could always do my best to hang on as long as possible until things got just too tough. It was a unique and memorable approach to handling the matter.

    A more recent MMO, Lord of the Rings Online, handles it by changing the terms and conditions. You never die, you are defeated. This forces you to retreat from the battlefield to a regional rally point, and you suffer a setback. The setback has temporary morale consequences that affect your skills and abilities for a time, and it inflicts on you financial consequences: the cost of repairing your equipment. If you press on aggressively right after a setback and are defeated again, without having fully recovered, your setbacks can stack up to put you even farther away from the battlefield, reduce your abilities even more, and require a longer recover period. You can choose to go do other things while you recover after a defeat. The designers clearly try to balance challenges so you rarely end up in a repetative cycle of die and reload if you are in a good team (fellowship) and are properly prepared. So it’s death without calling it death. And it’s also a way for them to earn money by selling revive items that put you back into the action quickly :D

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      Very intresting. I cited Dark/Demons Souls in the article. I feel like they did death well. From the start, you realize you’re in a distorted warped world. So it’s implied that every time you die, you’re further away from retaining your humanity.

  18. jeffitron says:

    I grew up playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Solstice, Metroid, and Battle Toads on the NES, The only one of these games that had a respawn code, or a password to restart the game was Metroid. If you died in Solstice after hours of play. You died. The game started over from the beginning. Same with Battle Toads and TMNT. They were extremely difficult and frustrating, but fun. And if I died, it was never a hard stretch for me to imagine that I was not the same Zitz, but another toad that was charged to take up the quest to save the princess. It was a video game that I was playing. Programmed to be difficult, so as that I would lose. I was an avatar. I was visually writing a novel as I played. Every death a moment of writers block. The fun came from simply beating the game, even if I died over and over and over and over and over.

    I did find though, as new games and systems came out, the games got easier, with more opportunities to save. They were still equally satisfying, as the environments became more immersive, the mechanics more difficult, the stories more of actual stories. But there was something missing.

    Of course I am not a hero when I beat a video game. The character that I was playing is the hero. I have simply closed the pages of another book. And as the purchaser of the game, I do deserve to win.

  19. Re blogged. Nice blog sir.
    Please visit http://theguyleftbehind.wordpress.com
    Our fellow mankind are suffering, do your part.

  20. kitchen says:

    I should buy this novel “All You Need Is Kill”..I started playing video games and what i like most about it is that I can express my extense emotions through playing video games.

  21. *Cyan says:

    You have a point there.
    It is true that all you need is to click a button to mend your mistakes and restart the game, though I think this may help you to see the difference between fantasy and reality as also in life and death, if you know how to interpret it. Even so, games can represent much more than just being a hero. I don’t find pleasure in having to repeat several times a boss battle, but what I love is the story itself (if there is one) where you can end up learning something. I believe games hide a bit of reality in a metaphor form that we have to solve or find. Each game may have a lesson or maybe it’s just up to us to decide if we want to learn something from it.
    Same happens with books. Only that in there you aren’t capable of any interactions. But you find as well immersed in a world with plenty of possibilities, even though you don’t take them.
    Personally I love both books and video games for the same reason. They both can teach us important things that we shouldn’t forget:

    Wanna be a hero???
    In the end it’s true that there is no best way to be a hero than living your own life, making your own mistakes and learning the lessons. There there are no “replay” buttons.

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      If we’re using metaphors and being deep, then there could be Game Overs in real life. Not all Game Overs or “lives” lost in video games means that the avatar has died. Sometimes failing an objective results in that dreaded Game Over screen.

      But we’re compelled to continue. We have to play through the failure. To learn from it.

      Life, I feel, is similar. Even though we don’t die, we fail sometimes. We have to have the resolve to hit Retry.

      • *Cyan says:

        I agree with that :D
        Yep, there are no “replay” buttons, but there may be “retry” buttons.

  22. All in all, I’m completely okay with the newer aged video games, but somehow I feel like I’m being cheated by them not killing me off and making some sort of punishment for it. If I’m not being punished somehow for death, I have ABSOLUTELY value in my life. I will throw myself off a cliff to get to keep something if I can respawn immediately. Even a time limit isn’t much…I can go get a soda.

  23. red1263 says:

    That’s an amazing post! And I now see that dilemma that you’ve presented on whether or not, completing the game truly makes on a Hero. I remember the older games where they gave you lives, yet only a limited amount of them, so I thought to myself, “Why do I get the sense of satisfaction after beating said game?” and I remembered when you finally lose that last life, you truly felt like you’ve let the World/Princess/Time-Space Continuum down. And it’s like those few lives/Fairies that you had were the metaphorical battle scars one receives in the Great War. So when you’ve beaten the game with that one last life left, you felt as if you single-handedly conquered the Universe. Heh, that’s my guess anyways, you don’t get that feeling in these newer games, at least none that I’ve played so far. Anyways, Very nice post!

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      You COULD think of it in another way I didn’t want to post in the blog (for fear that it would get a bit cluttered).

      When Mario falls down a pit, or a koopa knocks him out, he gets back up through sheer determination, thus, he used a “life”. Link is a better example, because he only looses a heart. If they fell into a pit, they cheated death and kept going, but this can only cheat death a few times.

      This would make new lives/heart containers symbols of the protagonist’s resolve growing. The further they get on their quest, and they better they do, the stronger their will to survive gets.

      That is, if you wanted to look at it deeply. lol

      • red1263 says:

        Ha ha ha, That’s exactly what I mean! I was hoping you’d see it like that, if you’re going to look, why not look as deeply as possible?

  24. starrypawz says:

    Interesting view.
    I like how the Assassin’s Creed series handles the ‘death’ thing as you don’t die as such you get ‘desynchronised’ and when that happens you end up back at a checkpoint but it’s sort of justified as you are essentially stuck in a giant computer and you are supposed to do things a certain way as thats how it happened in the character’s history and you are ‘reliving’ that life. Assassin’s Creed is also interesting as it actually shows character’s dying as in ‘dead for real’ but I don’t want to post too much about that as it would reveal spoilers and spoilers are bad.

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      Hahaa… Thank you for not spoiling. I still haven’t completed brotherhood. Lol

      But yeah, the desyncrinization is a great way to explain death in AC. I wish I had remembered it while I was writing the article to add it in.

  25. Peter says:

    Congratulations. Really interesting article.

  26. lizi says:

    This is awesome! I never thought of video game deaths that way. It made me set my mind back to reality. =))) ‘Coz sometimes when you’re so drawn into a game, you forget what’s real or not. Thanks for the blog post :D

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      No, thank you! :D

      And when you’re immersed in a game, it’s a wonderful feeling. But I can’t take all credit for this. This concept all came from Sakurazaka. I just put it on my game blog.

  27. dale100889 says:

    One game where death absolutely does matter is Dead Space 2 on it’s “Impossible” setting.
    On this mode you only get three saves throughout the entire game and if you die you go back to your last save point. Considering that the game is about 15-20 hours long you might end up losing 5-6 hours of game time through one mistake. Add this scenario to an already atmospheric and horrific environment and you have something not for the faint of heart at all.

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      That sounds… awesome. No, seriously.

      I bought Deadspace 1 & 2 during last winter’s steam sale. Unfortunately Deadspace 1 won’t let me save the game period, so I haven’t gotten past it.

      Definately might skip it and go to 2 now. Thanks for the info!

  28. jasli98 says:

    Yeah, you have a different way of looking at the age-old practice of playing video games. But isn’t it really the satisfaction of playing that counts? Isn’t that the only reason we play video games at all, just to blow up monsters onscreen?
    :) Check out my blog! thesolutiontolife.wordpress.com :)

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      Yeah, blowing up monsters is always great, so long as you keep it mindless and disconnect to that fictional world. Lol

      I did check it out, and was impressed, and if my phone is working right, I should be following it.

      • yeah you can be a reckless as you wish in games….but here is a revolutionary if radical gaming idea…..when you die the software self destructs….end of game…..or better still when it self destructs it destroyes your xbox and tv……or …..the controller electrocutes you to death…….death and violet game are no longer a trivial matter and the games would be approched very very diffrently……..somehow i dont think this idea is going to sell though……….lol

      • but just another point…..the opponents in games are reckless too……….in my style of game they too would have to be more realistic……..also the opponents would have to not behave like preprogramed predictable drones……i think my electrocution by controller game would have to be played against real online players and not computers….. ……….i mean in a real war it is very seldom that some guy will just stand up in the middle of a firefight and charge you head on ensuring his almost certain death…………………….

      • Chris Kodoku says:

        I doonnttt think your game would sell very well. :P

      • jasli98 says:

        Thanks!

      • what can i say…i guess my electrocution game would only be for very serious hard core gamers….lol….ill compromize though …it will only shock you enough to throw you across the room whereby you may or may not get other injuries…..it would certainly make you think twice about the concept of death………..

  29. Aviis says:

    I would say that the restarting is actually important for the hero… because it shows how you dont give up and continue to try to stop the villian. Of course your not as heroic or what ever, but the way you struggle and try to over come the challenge makes you a hero already. You don’t have to save the world in order to become the hero, its how you try again and again to make a difference… this probably has nothing to do with your topic… but im just throwing this out anyways… either way… interesting concept… i does make me think about heros!

    • Aviis says:

      i soon realize that this wasnt the main point of the article… but still i think its a valid statement to throw…

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      No no, I think it relates. In the comments, people have mentioned “lives” and I’ve given metaphors for lives being cheating death through sheer willpower.

      • ok i shall compromise……..you buy a character or a soul with which you play the game….call it a subscription…..when your character is dead you are out of soul and have to buy a new one……obviously im only playing with ideas and my motive is to get people to attempt to create or play more realistic games where death is a more serious occurence…….if death is truly fatal in some way then people will play with this more realistic mindset of not dying………more skillfully.

  30. aefountain says:

    That is what made EQ such an amazing game. You took a severe penalty for death and had to return to your corpse to regain your items. Frustrating but challenging. Video games are far too easy now.

  31. Liz Alexander says:

    This is why I like to think of it more in the lines of parallel timelines than the same one. In the first timeline, my Nord warrior died by a giant’s billy club. In the second, my Nord Warrior avoids the giant altogether, gets some experience and shouts under his belt, and then goes and kills said giant. :D

  32. gamesfemme says:

    Great post! World of Warcraft is the worst for this. When you’re leveling from 1-85, it’s guaranteed that you’ll die many, many times. Even at max level, you’re going to experience a ton of deaths, especially if you raid or do dungeons.

    I’ve been playing for so long that I barely notice now when I die, but this post has got me thinking more about the role of deaths in the game.

  33. thespacebetween2 says:

    Hey I never finish games even with lives…. Can’t get buy last level on sonic 2, can’t even get their on the other sonics!!! Have I ever finished a game? No. I must just be crap….. Check my link
    This is my worpress blog

  34. madhaus7 says:

    Man, this was a cool post! This is what blogging is all about: putting a voice to these types of original thoughts. I’d have to agree that video games would be pretty madness-inducing if the character couldn’t be reloaded. But with the lengths games go to in order to develop an encompassing plot line, it is a possibility for them to handle this set piece in a unique way.

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      I can’t take too much credit, as the entire idea was Sakurazaka’s. But thank you none-the-less!

      People in the comments have given a few examples, but I think Assassin’s Creed might actually handle death the best. When you die, you’re desynced. So it’s like your mind is wandering.

  35. Lucas says:

    This is a emergent videogame discution nowadays, think of it like a new governement mode that just come up from the people. Is a very recent worry and I think that games and games developers are think their asses a lot to find a solution. I agree with the author. And A game that would change when you die? Like other planes and worlds of beyond? Is a complicated matter after all…

  36. Molly says:

    OH MAN I MISS ZELDA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Great post and congrats on being FP!

  37. Pingback: “Can it be that a man can disappear from life and live another time?”–Marty Robbins. « ruinedchapel

  38. NoSomebody says:

    Great post! IT reminded me to include death-handling into my Narrative Design ideas and not just leave it to the designers.
    I always thought Prince of Persia: Sands of Time dealt with this problem very well.

  39. Pingback: Can you be a (video game) hero? « Oh no, Aquaman is drowning!

  40. NoSomebody says:

    Reblogged this on IND Bureau and commented:
    This was on Freshly Pressed today and I found it very striking. I should aspire to write with this level of insight and clarity. In addition, it gave me something to add to my narrative checklist for game designs. How will my games deal with death? And will they do it well?

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      Thank you! In all honesty, I didn’t expect this post to get more than 30 views, so the clarity of this article, as well as some counter points would have been better, but thanks for taking an intrest!

  41. livingpieces says:

    Great post! I think I now understand my love for games that allow you to level-grind the heck out of your characters before pitting you against tough bosses :) I’m the type that hates to die in any game!

  42. L. Palmer says:

    It’s cool to have games that are continuous. However, when I took up the Splinter Cell series for the first time, I started getting frustrated with dying many, many, many times. Then, I resigned myself to the fact that I would be dying a lot in that game, and found it a lot more fun. Would it be more realistic for that to be the end? Yes. But, it is nice to have the safety net of a save point.

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      Speaking of Tom Clancy, I love Rainbow Six Vegas 1 & 2. It’s pridominately my favorite multiplayer game. But I die over and over, even in the single player, where I am suppose to be playing a elite operative, yet I would run recklessly into buildings with a shotgun.

      I feel it all comes down to how immersed you are in a game. If de-immersing yourself from the game makes it more enjoyable, then let Sam Fisher be reckless!

  43. Dan says:

    This is, after all, why the “Hardcore” difficulty or its equivalent has been added to any number of games.

    There is something incredibly disheartening, to me, in being able to come back over and over until I overcome my enemy in a feat of unstoppable vitality. No, I am not better than him- I am simply longer lasting.

    It means a lot to me when a game can take the need of the player for more than one chance, and combine with a creative approach that is less likely to break the illusion of risk and high stakes.

    Thoughtful and insightful article. Thank you!

    P.S. Have you had a look at ruinedchapel’s post on your topic? It’s worth checking out: http://ruinedchapel.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/can-it-be-that-a-man-can-disappear-from-life-and-live-another-time-marty-robbins/

    • Chris Kodoku says:

      Out-lasting your opponet can also make you a hero, if you think about it. You have a mission to do, after all. Is it fair? Not really, but SOMETHING is dependant on the player character.

      I did check it out. They did a great job with the subject.

      • Dan says:

        I thought so too, although you were of course the inspiration :)

        I agree. You know, the infinite lives scenario that pervades gaming has never ruined games for me- it’s just that doing something extra special to overcome it makes a game stand out.

    • replaying the senarios over and over does not make you a hero….you are just prearmed with prior knowledge of what awaits around the next corner…..deja vu….this is what makes games unrealistic……the opponents are drones that do the same thing over and over….ok sometimes with a little variation but generally there are two or three sub routines at most…..i believe it may be possible (im not a computer programmer) to design games where the events never repeat themselves…………….

      • the above applies mainly to computer generated characters of course…online gaming eliminates this to a certain degree but not totally……….

      • Dan says:

        We may be on the verge of doing something like this, but so far achieving true computer intelligence and freewill is pure science fiction. If the AI got to learn from your victories and mistakes in an oragnic manner, maybe the odds could be balanced.

  44. Pingback: Der Tod im Videospiel « Freies Feld

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