I’ve been playing The Messenger over the last few days, and for the most part I’ve been having a Grand Ol’ Time with the early-game, pure 8-bit homage portion; I just got to the (spoilers if you haven’t watched the game’s trailer or read anything about it) switch to 16-bit, where the game allegedly branches out into Yet Another Very Good Metroidvania. But I’ve also died a bunch, and every time I do, the game makes a conscious effort to get me to stop playing for good.
I don’t have a problem with dying in games. Celeste is one of my favorites from the past few years, and I think my save file is approaching a 5-digit death count. I played through Hollow Knight and Dark Souls: Remastered this summer, and roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon and Dead Cells are part of my regular rotation. I’m ok with getting spiked, and it’s not even that The Messenger is particularly difficult (it’s not so far!). My problem is with fucking Quarble.
See, the way death works in the fiction of The Messenger is that you’re “saved” at the last moment by a time-traveling imp named Quarble, who then hovers over your shoulder and collects a kind of tax for about a minute, gobbling up any currency you’d collect until his fee is met or X amount of time has passed. It isn’t an overly punishing system - the closest recent analogue I can think of is Super Mario Odyssey’s nominal coin fee - but it’s Quarble himself that drives me crazy. He’s a trope, the begrudging sidekick who has a real disdain for the protagonist, and in keeping with this is-it-an-homage-or-is-it-just-lazy characterization, the death screen is a close-up of the little red devil hovering over dialogue directed at the player that’s just a parade of insults and accounting. If he isn’t reminding you of how much currency you’ve lost to his death tax, he’s providing passive aggressive advice (“Pro tip: you want to avoid spikes”) or outright insulting you (“XX deaths already is pretty bad.”).
The whole game is very tongue-in-cheek and fourth-wall-breaking in a way that mostly works, and Quarble fits that tone, but making me sit through this parade of bullshit when I’m trying to engage with some tricky platforming isn’t the way to get me to stick with your experiment in retro-revisionism. It’s the same kind of old-school low-key “git gud” ugliness that labels lower difficulty modes “Can I play, Daddy?”, or that called you a coward for exiting the game.
It’s made me think a lot about “good” death sequences in other games, spurred in part by Clayton Purdom’s great piece on the A.V. Club about Metal Gear Solid’s Game Over screen. If a game isn’t going to snap me immediately back into the action, I’m not opposed to a little ceremony or advice. The issue with The Messenger is that I want to feel like the game is interested in keep me around. Challenge me, exact a toll, whatever, but give me the sense that you’re glad I showed up. Even Dark Souls’s “You Died” doesn’t gloat about having beaten you; it’s as blunt and straightforward as dodge-rolling off a cliff.
What about y’all: any death sequences that pushed you away from a game or that you thought worked really well?