What Makes for a Good Video Game Death?


#1

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?


#2

Not a death sequence per se, but a similar general feeling to you: I don’t mind dying, I do mind my time being wasted getting to respawn. [Plus, I really dislike the Dark Souls / Shovel Knight / etc “you lose your stuff on death… but you can pick it up again, as long as you don’t die before you retrace your steps to where you lost it” - I’m overwhelmingly likely to die trying to recover lost stuff as well as coping with the usually threatening thing which killed me last time, so this is kind of just an extended way of saying “you lose all your stuff, but lets waste your time trying to play the level again, just in case you get it back”].


#3

I’m not even the biggest fan of the non-linear Castlevanias, but it’s hard to deny that SotN’s game over screen both kicks ass and is oddly comforting.


#4

The worst death sequence, off the top of my head, is unquestionably Too Human. I will go to bat for that game 'til the cows come home, but it’s another example of where adherence to the fiction gets in the way of good gameplay, as you have to sit and wait for a valkyrie to come down, stand over you for a second, pick you up, then slowly ascend to the heavens. It’s a solid 20-30 seconds every time.

More games I love that have shitty death sequences are the new Tomb Raider series. I don’t particularly mind gore in games, but some of these, particularly the various choking/drowning/stabbed through the windpipe scenes are disturbingly fetishistic.

As for memorable in a good way, the thing that keeps coming to mind is Resident Evil 2. It may not be anything special by today’s standard, but at the time, watching your character get chomped on while the iconic YOU DIED bleeds onto the screen was pretty great.


#5

This is amazing. I’ve only played a few minutes of SotN, but this alone makes me wanna dig into it. (That and I guess the years of praise levied from every corner of gaming culture.)


#6

Ooof, never played Too Human, but that sounds rough. I remember getting similarly frustrated with the gloating moments from Arkham Knight; they serve the fiction, and for the most part they’re appropriately ceremonial, but getting caught in a tough section of the game left me begging for the option to skip it. For more technically intensive games like that, I wonder how often long death animations/sequences are there to mask a loading screen?

In the vein of Tomb Raider but in a good way (I guess?) - INSIDE has some truly gruesome/disturbing death sequences, but they work because the game’s perspective doesn’t really allow for much gorey detail, and for the most part they’re quick and to the point. And they help drive the tone. Running from dogs takes on a real imperative when you’ve watched them chew on your sweet boy a couple of times.


#7

I’m putting this behind a spoiler tag and throwing in a CW; death/falling because the description is a bit graphic but in Mirror’s Edge when you fall off a very tall building (which is a lot) during the long free fall the screen would begin to blur from the motion, Faiths hands would flail around, and the sequence would end with the screen going black instantly as you hear a thud hit the ground and boy the quick sequence is disturbing enough for me to not want to fucking fall, ever. It makes the stakes feel particularly high and gives you a sense of how wild what you’re doing actually is, which is important for a game where you leap across skyscrapers for 7 hours


#8

I swear that the death animations in Tomb Raider were done by people who thought they were making a horror game, they were way too gross for that kind of game

Call of Duty’s deaths have always been interesting because as that series has grown it has (I think?) mostly kept the original tradition of showing you quotes about the futility and awfulness of war, which made a lot of sense for the original game but felt hilariously out of place as the series became what it is now

tho as far as death sequences go I do have to shout out Modern Warfare 1’s big PC death sequence as being pretty damn affecting


#9

The fact that death in NieR Automata is permanent in the sense that the body that’s destroyed stays dead for your next copy to find is both chilling the first time you witness it and perfectly concordant with the game’s themes in a way that death in games rarely is.


#10

I like the death re-cap in Binding of Isaac. Here’s how you died, here’s what killed you, here’s what you had, it sucks but feel free to play another game. Simple and clean and with just as much investment as I want in a game where death literally doesn’t matter at all.


#11

Yeah, Tomb Raider is particularly weird because there’s a huge number of unique death animations for each area of the game, enemy type, quick time event, climbing sequence, etc. They obviously put in a huge amount of animation and voice acting work to create all of those deaths. You can go on Youtube and watch a compilation video that’s literally 30 minutes of nothing but Lara dying in various ways (I don’t recommend this).
But, most of the deaths (besides a few tricky platforming sequences) aren’t particularly difficult to avoid, so I’d bet that most players only see maybe 1/20th of all the death animations. So I’m not quite sure what the intent behind them was.


#12

Something about the ‘Wasted’ screen in GTA just fits perfectly, the camera panning out in slow motion just works so well.
As you Mention MGS is definitely my top, especially with the weird mechanics of the fake death pills and different easter eggs.

Also, maybe this is a loophole, but when a sim dies in Sims and Death appears, that made me laugh out loud as a kid, I thought it was genius.