Death, Taxes, Gaming.

“The only guarantees in life are Death and Taxes” is one of those old quotes that stand the test of time. Having been playing a lot of X-Com lately I caught myself doing something that I regretted afterwards which made me think about death in gaming a lot closer – and I realized I didn’t like what I found (with my own behavior). The stage is set.

X-Com is a tactical game where the goal is to defend the Earth from alien invaders. As you play you encounter new aliens and start learning why the invaders are there in the first place. Slowly but surely I have been piecing together the puzzle and while doing so, doing a pretty good job of keeping Earth away from panic. I have lost Mexico as a supporting state of the X-Com program but the rest are pretty safe and secure. (Sorry, Mexico). One of the great parts about X-Com is that the soldiers you use on field missions can improve with experience, and gain ranks and access new skills and strengths. They also die – permanently. All that being said they are generally devoid of any personality and the skill trees are standard – so you can have the exact same soldier where the only difference is name and nationality, plus some stats that influence how they behave in game. My favourite squaddie (short form for squad mate, I’m not sure if that’s standard terminology but that is what I use!) is “Pitbull”. She is an American support specialist. I don’t even know her real name (if squaddies live long enough, they are granted a nickname). Pitbull has saved my other squaddies and often has single handedly changed full outcomes. She is max rank now and never, ever misses a shot. She is amazing. I love seeing her lead missions and is the closest thing I have to a “super soldier”.  She has helped me advance so far in this game. She died yesterday, and I did something I never thought I would.

I reloaded the earliest saved game so I had her again.

This was perplexing to me. Reiterating here – I don’t even know her in game name, she is a “tool” in my toolbox to stop the alien invasion. She has no personality outside of her shared and easily copied skill set. The reason why this perplexes me is I was reminded of death in other mediums and comics, for example, I HATE when people are killed off and they are always brought back. It sours the experience. With that long winded intro I am going to look at a few games where I have experienced death, and some observations (and questions).


Thalen’s post “On Retcons” popped up on Anook this morning and it reminded me of my own views on death in the comics medium. I hate it. When Superman “died” the first time it was made out to be a HUGE event in the DC universe. I was a Marvel comics guy through and through but I still bought that edition so I had it preserved – a moment in history! It was in 1992 and I thought it was a brave, bold move and that the comic world would be shaken up forever. Think of the stories they could build off of this! The other heroes picking up the slack, how the DC Universe would change without Superman.. wait – what?

The death of death having meaning, you mean.

Superman taught me one thing. Death is temporary. Death lasts exactly three months in the DC Universe. That tainted comic deaths for me forever. Of course, Marvel is equally (if not more) guilty of this – my favorite comic book character is Colossus, from the X-Men. He has always been my favorite since I was a kid. Sure enough, read through his “life” here at the Marvel Wiki and its a disgusting ruin of an amazing base character. Deaths, rebirths, alternate realities, blah blah blah. I’ll never buy another comic. To me, there is nothing wrong if you run out of content and much like Thalen’s article (where Nick Fury was sun-setted quite nicely for his character and then brought back in a poor way) just let the stories end. Harry Potter ended. The world is fine with that. If you tinker too much with your assets they aren’t assets anymore.


I have four instances in gaming that stand out to me with gaming and death. The first is the aforementioned X-Com and “Pitbull” eating a Muton sandwich. The second is going a bit further back but very similar – to Blood Bowl, another turn based game that you can improve your characters and I had a whole post based around the antics of my Wardancer. I ended up losing her to randomization eventually – but she had to stay dead because it was a live game vs another human being.

The third instance  is in the Walking Dead – when the protagonist died (we all saw it coming) It clearly felt like a part of the narrative and the introduction of the true protagonist all along (the little girl). It felt satisfying how he died, and how he kept her safe for so long.

The fourth is in Mass Effect 2 – at the ending attack on the Collectors depending on what actions you took your squad mates would live or die. I cheated on this one too (shame on me) because I was emotionally invested in the characters I had spent so long developing with.

Inconsistent behaviors to me considering my comics stance? At the same time since they are different mediums, can I be excused? The Comics rant is pretty consistent with my Walking Dead experience – the narrative. At the end of it all I react to death in games on different motivators and in the above examples of X-Com and Blood Bowl I had ties with my characters through achievement. They weren’t fleshed out or personal but they helped me achieve things in gaming and because of that I wanted to protect them.

In Mass Effect 2 I wanted to protect them because I had developed a relationship with the characters and wanted to preserve that. Like protecting your little brother from harm.

In the Walking Dead I accepted the death as part of the overall narrative and that death actually improved the experience overall. Great story, great sacrifice.

So I ask you – do you go out of your way to save your protagonists or let the dice fall where they may? Is it different depending on game or genre? We all know MMOs care nothing of death or penalties, but what about other games when those deaths are more permanent?


4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. The immortality of characters in superhero comics is one of the great strengths of the medium. It’s not, of course, unique or original to comics. It’s a structural foundation of the serial form in any genre. The revival of Sherlock Holmes after his falsely-reported death at the Reichenbach Falls is the most famous example.

    It’s vital that major characters should be allowed to continue in these serial formats. Without that continuity the form loses much of its power. These aren’t literary novels or auteur movies, telling a specific story for a specific purpose known only to the author (assuming you don’t subscribe to the Intentional Fallacy Theory, of course. I sort of do and sort of don’t, so let’s not go there…).

    Serial fiction is a much more collaborative form of art than those. To go on with the example of Superman, he was created by Siegel and Shuster but the simple fact of their having created him did not give them rights over his future. He went on to become a gestalt of images and conventions drawn from a myriad of interpreters. The Fleischer movie cartoons did as much to form the popular image of Superman that we have to day as anything that ever appeared in the comics. So did Christopher Reeve. And George Reeves for that matter.

    I was still buying comics regularly when Doomsday stomped Superman into the Metropolis sidewalk. Superman was (and still is) my favorite superhero. I’d been reading his adventures for almost thirty years by then and the whole “Death of Superman” sequence was immensely moving and significant to me.

    I always knew, though, that he wouldn’t stay dead for long. That’s the whole point of Superman, just like it’s the point of Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood or, on the other side of the fence, Dracula. These are characters who are immeasurably more important than any creator that might, temporarily and ephemerally, enjoy the privilege of curating their lives.

    Imagine if Superman had really died in 1992. Died and never returned. That could only mean one thing: no-one was interested in Superman any more. The only series characters who die are those no-one cares about. The fact that they keep popping up every time some writer knocks them down proves that no writer owns these heroes and villains. They’re owned by their audiences and only when there’s no-one left to care will death come as a true and final end.

  2. Great comment.

    I think the Superman example just perplexes me – don’t kill him in the first place. Have him go missing, have him trapped interdimensionally, all sorts of arcs. Or have him in a coma, and dying. It just felt like it was a commercial death. DC sales are down, I know, let’s kill Superman! That will sell millions of copies…

    Death should be a serious choice for super heroes or any literal characters, and not to be taken lightly – but it is taken lightly, isn’t it? Just kill him/her off, we can bring her back in any number of ways. It desensitizes the importance of death and even worse, that character to begin with. Death is meant to be a sort of permanence.

    Now, there is some room with arcs – for example the various Spiderman characters. One that had to use science for web, one that had one built in. The Amazing Spiderman was very different than the Spectacular Spiderman and due to the serial fiction aspects you mention I am fine with that. But in a certain arc, if one dies, he dies. Move on to new arcs or new Spiderman (men?) – just don’t kill off Parker in an arc, and find out that he really isn’t dead a few months later. Kill him and end that arc, or don’t kill him.

    You can always start another arc.

    It would be interesting to see at this point how many comic book heroes have died and been reborn – I think it would be an awful lot of them. I’d expect more creativity from the comic books companies.

    This is just my personal view on it all – I am sure there are a lot of people much more into comic books than I (I used to be huge into it. Image, Marvel, had 200 X-men comics throughout the amazing years (Morlock Massacre, etc.) – anyway, many comic book connoisseurs that can’t wait for the next major hero death and how they are brought back. It just feels like its part of a character’s life cycle now =)

  3. Death in comics (and most Hollywood shows/movies) has become meaningless. You know the hero isn’t ever going to actually die even if they appear to be in jeopardy of death and it ruins the suspense. It’s this trend that makes books like the Game of Thrones so special. No one is safe from death so you actually worry when they are in danger.

    I think death can really add a lot to a story but it needs to be part of the story to be meaningful. The random death of one of my soldiers in X-Com doesn’t have meaning and doesn’t drive the story. It’s just an inconvenience so I too reload the last save and undo that death because its faster than rolling a whole new character and being weaker until he or she is replaced. When my lvl 1 soldier died in the tutorial I didn’t reload, I didn’t care. That said I’ll never forget when Aerith died in Final Fantasy 7 and how I tried to reload and find a way to avoid her death… to no avail 🙁 I didn’t see that one coming. The Walking Dead is famous for its deaths and you’re more surprised by who survives than who dies but each death has meaning and moves the story forward making the story and deaths memorable. Are any of the Superman stories more memorable because he ‘almost died’? Superman is memorable because of who he is and what he stands for not because of any one story or close call.

    I don’t think its inconstant to want meaningful death in comics and video games. X-Com has a meaningful death system, if your soldiers were comic book heroes they’d never actually die and you’d just march them head long into danger instead of strategically playing the game as cautiously as possible. X-Com gives you the choice to live with your losses or to undo your mistakes and try again either option is better than no death at all. I hate when I see players commit suicide in a game just to get back to town faster because this game has no death penalty. I’m the kind of guy who reloaded his save file half a dozen times to save the meaningless merchant in Skyrim who was scripted to die in Markarth. The death has meaning even if I stopped it.

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