You know what I love? Dying. In those games where death is both probable and permanent, death might not be the victory I was striving for, but its inevitability gives a sense of intensity and foreboding while I still live, and a powerful narrative closure once it overcomes me.
Several games of late (and countless games throughout the years) have depended on the inevitability and permanence of death to create powerful, gripping experiences. Most recently, I’m thinking of DayZ and FTL.
In one of my first sessions of FTL, before I really knew what I was doing, boarders teleported onto my ship and took out my ship’s oxygen supply. I dealt with the boarders and, subsequently, with their ship. It was the toughest battle I’d yet fought, but I came through mostly unscathed. It felt overwhelmingly good. But then I noticed the red haze across my ship — the oxygen supply the boarders took out at the start of the game had not been fixed yet, and my ship was now nearly out of oxygen.
My four crew members ran across the ship to the O2 room, their little green health bars slowly depleting as they pulled out their spanners and desperately tried to fix it. But they were never really going to make it. One by one they died. I watched as my one last crewman just fixed the O2 system before he too suffocated and died. I was left with nothing but an empty, useless, practically unscathed ship just floating through space, silent and dead.
In DayZ, every single second could be my last. I am constantly on edge, waiting for the sudden sniper shot to end my life faster than I can blink. I can spend dozens of hours with a single character, scrounging around for beans, worrying about every spent bullet, and then it can just end like that. Sometimes, though, the deaths are less quick. Once my brother and I entered a city to look for a box of matches, but the horde of zombies we stumbled into had other plans. We managed to get out of town, and turned to finish them off. But little did we know we had run right up to another zombie-infested building, and more zombies heard our shots and flanked us.
My brother went down, and I fired two whole clips at the zombies piling onto his corpse before the game told me he was dead. Then I turned and ran, leaving him. I camped out on an apartment stairwell and used the last of my clip as the zombies piled through the door. As one finally got to me and knocked me down, I saw I was standing on a box of matches: exactly what we had ventured into this damn city to try to find in the first place.
In both these games, death is ultimate. It is the end. When I die, that is the end of that experience and everything I achieved during that session. I go back to square one — washed up on the beach, piloting an underpowered ship across the galaxy.
But far from rendering the time spent with each game meaningless, the fact that I am almost certainly going to die eventually is what makes each of these games so much more satisfying to play. It is death that, typically, is the story that I am left with that I want to tell people. I don’t play FTL or DayZ because I expect to ‘win’; I play them because I expect to die in a way interesting enough that I will always remember it.
FTL and DayZ are both interesting story simulators—they create experiences that I want to tell people about. And any story is only as good as its ending. That is why I love dying so much. It is the crescendo of the story, the narrative closure that posthumously gives every action up to that point a certain gravity. Dying doesn’t simply abolish my accomplishments; it immortalises them, tying up these little narrative arcs with a start, middle, and, most importantly, an end.