When I first began to study video games for my undergrad thesis, I looked in vain for a source which thoroughly examines the role of death as a game mechanic. Despite several writers commenting on the inherent repeatability of games, very few looked in depth at the way death plays into this cyclical nature. Perhaps I simply missed a source, or perhaps Jesper Juul’s newest book, The Art of Failure, looks more deeply into the topic. Regardless, it seems clear to me that there is room for further discussion of the issue. So here is my small contribution: a look at how Braid and Limbo deal with the death mechanic.
Juul, in his first book Half-Real, succinctly addresses the inherent quality of repeatability in games when he says “When we speak of a specific game, we generally speak of it as being a repeatable event” (45). To go back before the creation of the video game medium, renowned game theorist Johan Huizinga puts the relationship between repetition and play even more strongly: “In this faculty of repetition lies one of the most essential qualities of play” (10). But few writers explain in any detail how death ties into this essential quality. In the majority of video games, to repeat is to die and retry. Think, for example, of the earliest arcade games: the player continues the game until death, at which point he re-spawns and re-attempts the level until he is out of lives, getting the “Game Over” message. Even then the level can be replayed, if the player pays more money. The cyclical nature is clear, and the cycle is repeated through the mechanic of death and rebirth.
Jason Tocci, one of the few theorists to address the issue of death at length, writes disparagingly about this aspect of conventional video games. To him, the death mechanic is detrimental to the experience of gaming as it is “an unnecessary narrative disruption” breaking flow and immersion. Few games, in his opinion, avoid this fate. Gears of War makes it easier for the player to stave off death. Bioshock narratively incorporates the death mechanic by dealing with it in an unusual way. Grim Fandango dispatches with the death mechanic entirely. Generally, Tocci seems to feel that the Grim Fandango approach is the best. The death mechanic, whenever possible, should be avoided as a relic of arcade games: “The die-and-retry approach is a shortcut in game design, a holdover from an era when games were more limited in their ability to tell stories.” But in both Braid and Limbo, death is nearly unavoidable, and occurs again and again.
So why would game designers like Jonathan Blow and Arnt Jensen create games where the die-and-retry mechanic features so prominently? And what makes their treatment of this mechanic special or different? On the surface, these two games are quite traditional platformers: the player jumps around the map, avoiding obstacles to complete the level, dies and has to repeat a section of the game. There is even a dorkly bits video poking fun at the supposed difference between these games and Super Mario Bros., a game released in 1985. The video is funny because of the truth behind it: these games are in many ways derivative. But by looking at the ways these games treat the death mechanic, we can get a sense of how these games are both unique and innovative.
Braid: Narrative and Death
Rather than being an obstacle to be overcome, a mark of the player’s failure, or a nuisance, death in Braid is an integral part of the game. Very early in the game, the player is made to know three important things: she can reverse time to repeat what she has just done, she will die (many times), and by reversing time she can undo death. The death mechanic is then subsumed into another mechanic, that of reversing time. While this mechanic is also present in other games, like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, in Braid it becomes integral to the game both for its functionality and its metaphorical purposes.
The majority of Braid‘s challenging puzzles can’t be completed without reversing time. Failure, enforced by the death penalty, is so common it becomes banal, mundane, and expected; the thematic power of death in Braid doesn’t come from its shocking or emotionally affective qualities. Instead, Braid ties this mechanic into the themes of the game’s narrative. Without giving anything away, the game tells the story of a man named Tim searching for his “Princess,” dealing with failure in relationships, and attempting to move on from or correct these failures. The mechanics of the game reflect these themes, and in doing so contribute to the overall narrative. The player attempts to collect puzzle pieces and reach the end of each level, fails many (for me, countless) times, and reverses time to either make productive use of the error or to attempt to avoid it next time. This may sound vague if you haven’t played the game, but what I hope is clear is this: death is not just used to indicate failure, but as a means of exploring the themes of failure and redemption. While on the surface the death mechanic looks and feels the same as it has since Super Mario Bros., Blow’s thematic treatment of the mechanic is far from conventional. It is innovative in its subtle reworking of this aspect of video game tradition, linking it to narrative to make it meaningful. This is not the only seemingly conventional trope which Braid treats in this way, but it is indicative of the way the game plays with the platforming tradition.
Limbo: Atmosphere and Death
I want to come right out and say that I am aware that Limbo has been criticized by Eric Swain for relying on its atmosphere and lacking other meaningful elements. I do not want to dispute these claims here, and I think there is a lot of validity to what Swain is saying. I also think that the rebuttal to Swain’s argument by belovedsanspoof makes many good points. I’m staying out of the argument. What is important to me is not if Limbo is a good game (though I will say I enjoyed it), but what makes Limbo different from other games, what makes it unique. And as in Braid, the innovative aspects of Limbo can be analysed in part by looking at how the game deals with death.
The death mechanic of Limbo is not woven into what little narrative there is of the game. The protagonist attempts a puzzle, dies, and is re-spawned at the beginning of the section almost immediately and without explanation. As with the majority of video games, death functions as a signal of failure rather than as a narrative element. But death in Limbo serves another function as well: it contributes to the game’s atmosphere. The death animation never stops being horrific and surprisingly disturbing, and in being so unsettling the death mechanic contributes to the ominous feel of the game. While the treatment of the death mechanic is not the only factor creating the atmosphere (the art style and frightening enemies are huge contributors), it serves to reinforce the imagery and tone of the player experiences. Limbo is a frightening and tense game, and despite its repetitiveness death remains affective and doesn’t become banal. This can be said of Limbo in general: the game doesn’t really innovate any of the mechanics of the conventional platformer, but by imbuing an otherwise conventional game with a powerful atmosphere, Limbo provides a unique gaming experience.
(There are some spoilers in this video)
Conclusion: Death is not Everything
Braid and Limbo are two games that take common and tired platformer mechanics and use them in creative ways. Death is one of these common mechanics, and by looking at how these games deal with death, it is possible to get a sense of how they treat conventionalism more broadly. What Tocci seems to miss in his essay is that the die and retry function of games he condemns has become a core element of video game history. And any game that wants to creatively draw on this history must deal with this mechanic, in one way or another. Braid takes the traditional narratives of platformers, and the tropes they rely on, to explore in a very medium specific way some complicated themes. Limbo uses atmosphere to turn the typical puzzle-platformer game into something more ominous, threatening, and dark. While these are two very different approaches to conventionalism, what the two games have in common is this: they don’t discard the old ways of making games, as Tocci recommends, but build from video game history to make something new.