There is a lot of death in gaming. PAC-MAN gets eaten alive by cannibalistic ghosts, and poor Mario falls to his death, has a thrown hammer cave in his skull, or gets trampled by a Gorilla. Gaming has evolved its scope of genres but death is still a common game design choice to signify failure.
The first console games aped the arcade philosophy of intense challenge that resulted in frequent deaths. The arcade games were designed this way to entice the user to spend more quarters on lives and continue playing. The early console games would give the player ‘lives’ and ‘continues’ to replace quarters. Run out of those and it was back to the beginning. The games could usually be beaten in a handful of hours by a skilled gamer, so it was the learning process that gave the game most of its value. The JRPG model was much more punishing, usually sending you back to the title screen after a death. If you hadn’t recently saved, that was too bad.
Over the years lives were abandoned for unlimited attempts and checkpoints with auto-save became the standard (wordpress is auto-saving as I type this). This was a fantastic solution to avoid the terrible feeling of lost progress, but it can lead modern games to feel like less of a challenge, and more of just a matter of time before you cross the finish line. Like a walking marathon or running for President, almost anyone can do it if they devote the time.
Demon Souls is usually brought up when discussing death. The steep difficulty caught many off-guard but the rewarding feeling of completing a Souls game only exists because of that difficulty (I’ve never finished one, kudos to those that have). Beyond the difficulty, Souls used a risk reward system after a death. Players have one opportunity to recover the resources left behind at the spot of their demise. This brilliant mechanic fit the Souls theme perfectly and added automatic tension to any potentially fatal encounter.
The death of the player avatar is mostly used as a fail state and the death of enemies is success. As the gaming industry expands we continue to see more examples that have no death at all (what is this, Sweden?). This isn’t a new concept of course as Sports games (except for Mutant League Hockey/Football) and others have foregone death for decades. But it’s worth nothing that 2016’s most popular game Pokemon GO has no death at all (other than careless players wandering into hazardous areas).
From Pong to Call of Duty, countless video games have been created that rely on objects hitting other objects. It’s a simple and effective way to measure progress and make a ‘game’ of some kind. Death is also a powerful narrative device. It adds weight to a story and informs the user that any character could die. Final Fantasy VII’s biggest claim to fame is a certain death scene after all.
Death isn’t going anywhere, just like real life.