'Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.' Isaac Asimov said that and he probably never thought that I would take the quote and manipulate it to talk about videogames. He’s right, you see, but the troublesome transition isn’t between life and death - that’s something games often revel in. It is, in actuality, the transition between death and life.
The death state in videogames generally isn’t handled well. There are exceptions of course - various games with a few different ways of handling the death of players - and we’ll come on to these later, but first the primary and most common way of death handling needs to be explored, so we know what we’re mostly dealing with: the fail state.
If you think of any game at random that focuses on combat (not that one, don’t try and be awkward), the chances are that it uses the fail state. When your health can’t recharge fast enough, or you’re out of health potions, or trying to make an ambitious jump, the fail state kicks in. You're dead. Retry from checkpoint? Reload from earlier save? You’re now going to be replaying that content until you get it right, and don’t you dare think otherwise.
Dara Ó Briain can’t play games (contains some NSFW content)
It’s a problematic system for numerous reasons. Dara Ó Briain summed up his frustrations from a more casual perspective recently on the one-off show Gameswipe (video above). He pointed out that if he wasn’t good enough at a game then the content he had paid for was simply locked off. And yeah, of course there are arguments against this, but he has a point too. I’m sure we all have at least one game where we haven’t seen the end, either because one section was so frustrating that we quit, or because we hurled the disk through a window.
From a less casual perspective, the fail state is something that we shouldn’t have to tolerate. It’s rarely fun to slog through the same content again and again because we keep messing up one thing, and here’s the crux of the matter: death becomes nothing more than an annoyance. It’s not dramatic, it’s not emotional; at best it invokes an eye-roll at the prospect of fighting through the same goons again, at worst a mouse gets launched into a £200 monitor and we find ourselves mourning the loss of hardware more than the death of Super Soldier X, who is now deciding whether to retry from checkpoint or load an earlier save.
The Grim Reaper of Gaming
I'm not saying there should be a cutscene showing a grieving family every time a player dies, all surrounding a headstone in the rain (fade to black, cue slow string music), but neither should it just be an inconvenience to player. Because that’s all the fail state is - a break in pace, a non-canon event that happened, a message to say that 'what just happened was INCORRECT. We shall ignore it and try again!'
There are times where fail states seem appropriate - Hitman, Thief, Flashpoint - but it’s shoehorned into everything. From Alpha Protocol to Zeno Clash, the fail state is there because somebody didn’t think to do something different.