The Art of Your Death

We’ve come a long way from the days of the player character making a sad face as they fall off the screen to die. Admittedly we still get soft-looking death like when Kratos just falls over for a nap in God of War Ragnarok or Nathan Drake drops dead 10 from a fall of two feet, but in reality, the evolution of technology has seen a real uptick in grisly player character death. To the point where you better do something mighty impressive to elicit a response

You could probably point to Resident Evil 4’s horrific chainsaw-induced death of Leon Kennedy as the real rise of brutal player character death in single-player terms, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention Mortal Kombat’s role in all this. One-on-one fights to the death where yes, you could just fall over like a sissy and just lose, but you could suffer a more barbaric fate in the form of the now iconic Fatality. However you paint this picture, these are two examples that need to be featured on the finished masterpiece.

Good player death is art you see. It’s a cruel and uncaring bit of brutal finality (negated slightly by the fact you can just try again, but work with me here) that should make you chuckle in incredulity and leave you slightly disturbed. I could do a lengthy blog post thing that name-checks all the great examples, but fuck it, I’d rather do a listicle of my personal picks for games that do player death. So here are four of my faves.

The Last of Us

Considering the sadistic levels of violence this series goes to, it’s perhaps surprising the most effective death scenes are the player ones that cut to black just before the grisly payoff.

There’s something truly affecting about The Last of Us’ player deaths because it doesn’t give you that finality. It’s like a glimpse at what could have been and leaves just enough blanks to fill that it sets the mind afire.

The key example I always come back to is the bloater in the school gymnasium section. Let it catch Joel and you’re treated to a frankly harrowing sight of the bloater starting to pull Joel’s face apart. The bulge of the eyeball, that slightly too exposed gumline. It gets to the perfect point before putting the lens cap on and resetting the scene, but damn if it doesn’t stay with you.

Much worse will happen to Joel that’s permanent, but that moment, which doesn’t officially count as any kind of canon, has burned itself into my retinas for far longer than Joel’s actual fate in The Last of Us Part II.

Dead Space 2

Many games have employed brutal player death in the years since Dead Space 2 and even before it, but there’s an almost comedic mean streak to how Visceral treated Isaac Clarke’s failures. If you fucked up as Isaac, Visceral sure did make sure you got the message that you really did fuck up in the nastiest, goriest ways possible.

The disturbing yet silly plop of Isaac’s torso to the ground as he gets cut in half by a pressure door. The guy that basically melon balls Isaac’s eye. Watching him be decapitated and then possessed by a necromorph, watching along as his now reanimated corpse continues to shuffle along out of your control. Isaac may not officially die in these moments, but they are so absurdly bleak that they carry weight.

The absolute worst death doesn’t even come at the talons of a necromorph though. It’s when you botch the eye laser segment, already a stressful and gross segment. It just fulfills every fear you might have had about it in the bluntest and most brutal way possible. I don’t think any video game protagonist has had to cop as much shit as Isaac Clarke. Fictional he may be, but I bet he was the only person who was bloody relieved when Visceral was swallowed by EA. Guessing he’s less happy now though as he’s gonna have to relive it all over again.

Whatever Supermassive Games Puts Out (But Mostly Until Dawn)

Very specific title, but it’s very true. Regardless of what the individual game’s qualities might be, Supermassive knows how to kill a player character in inventive, nasty, and downright absurd ways.

Supermassive was the inspiration for this article as I’d just been playing through the latest Dark Pictures entry The Devil In Me, and found a couple of the deaths I encountered to be among the best the developer has ever offered up. Yet beyond that, Supermassive has been great at delivering memorable player character death.

Understandably, it’s a bit early for discussing the deaths in The Devil In Me, so how about we focus on perhaps the most prominent member of Supermassive’s roster instead?

Until Dawn kicked things off nicely. This game revels in lingering on the death throes of its protagonists. The fading of life in the eyes of a freshly-severed head is a favorite of the developer in this one, and it’s certainly effective. Then there’s the instance where one unfortunate soul has the elongated fingers of the wendigo shoved down her throat and yanked down to tear her jaw off in a disgustingly detailed fashion.

There’s also eye-gouging, the worst version of the sawn-in-half magic trick, and it’s the only game in existence where you can see an Oscar-winning actor get his head splattered and shattered like an egg.

Tomb Raider 2013

As if the Tomb Raider franchise hadn’t punished Lara Croft enough by almost tanking her career with Angel of Darkness, the 2013 reboot made it very personal.

Tomb Raider may not be viewed as a horror game, but it not only features mystical creatures and an island that defies natural law. But it doesn’t spare the player the sight of Lara’s failures. 

The details are once again key. The magic is either show a bit too much or just too little for full player death impact and Tomb Raider is in the former camp as it shows the panic and recognition in Lara’s eyes as she’s brutally impaled on something. There are lots to get impaled on it seems. Worse still is the fruitless frantic scrabbling of her hands at the offending item.

Even now, there’s a bit of shock value left in seeing an iconic character die horribly.

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