I can’t remember much about the first time I died in a video game, but I do recall being distraught—taken aback at the sight of my avatar fading from view, replaced by a black screen and the ominous words “Game over.” Nevertheless, this is something I’ve since had to get used to.
I’m a modern day Rasputin—I’ve been incinerated, drowned, shot at, stabbed, poisoned, and more, though not every death has yielded the same results. Whereas some games like to state your fate in big, bold letters, others instead choose to present you with a different sight, either informing you of your own mistakes or prophesying the future after your character has perished.
Here I’m going to attempt to chart the evolution of these screens, as well as highlight some of the trends that have emerged throughout the history of video game death screens.
Let’s start with the most famous example of all: the “game over” screen. In the beginning there were arcades—cathedrals of light and sound where gamers could enjoy a wide selection of amusements, as long as they could afford to appease the machine with nickels or coin tokens. It was here that players would first encounter the iconic phrase—”GAME OVER”—illuminated on the frame of electromagnetic pinball machines and on the screens of arcade cabinets like Night Driver (1976) and Star Fire (1979) and games from even earlier decades.
Quickly becoming a staple of the early gaming experience and vocabulary, it surprised no one, then, when home console versions of arcade games, like Space Invaders (1980) and Pac-man (1982), opted to retain the use of the phrase.
From there it would become the industry standard, with other famous examples including the depressing fail state from Donkey Kong Country (1994) carrying an image of the defeated hero (above), and the iconic death screen in Metal Gear Solid (1998), where your in-game superior Roy Campbell screams out your name while the display slowly spells out the familiar phrase.
It seems the wolf caught up with you and is discussing dinner arrangements.
But while the game over screen is still in common usage even to this day, we’ve seen many interesting variations on it over the years. One such variation, which became especially popular during the early 1980s, was the practice of replacing the “game over” slide with a message to teach the player about their mistakes. Potentially inspired by the descriptive deaths that were present in interactive text adventure games like Zork (1980), it became a common sight in adventure titles developed by Sierra On-Line, being used to show the player where they had gone wrong so that they could avoid the same fate in future play sessions. They were also renowned for their disparaging humor and for breaking the fourth wall.
An early occurrence of this can be seen in Sierra’s King’s Quest (1983). If the hero King Graham is mauled to death by a wolf a message appears soon after reading, “It seems the wolf caught up with you and is discussing dinner arrangements.” This note helps the player to understand the actions that have just unfolded on screen and also hints that the wolf can be avoided if they manage to escape quickly enough, all while taking a subtle dig at their failure.
The intended effect was to reduce the chance of the event happening again, easing progress. And this wasn’t the last time that this technique would be employed. In later Sierra games, such as Space Quest (1986) and Quest for Glory (1989), more extravagant messages and deaths followed, with the core principle always remaining the same: to inform the player of how they died and how they could prevent it from happening again.
As mentioned before, there have been numerous variations of the death screen. Another, which went to even greater lengths than those that preceded it, had players witnessing a bad ending upon dying, to show them what would happen if they were to lose entirely. This became a beloved feature of many video games during the ‘90s, appearing in titles released by the developers LucasArts, Nintendo, Black Isle Studios, and Rare, among others.
One specific example is Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992), by LucasArts. Following the player’s demise, it presented them with a brief message regarding the fate of the game’s other characters—both to entertain you and to provide motivation to keep playing.
Banjo Kazooie (1998), developed by the British company Rare, also did this for exactly the same reasons—should the player die at any point in the game, they’re treated to a similar cutscene, this time showing the villain of the story, Gruntilda, succeeding in her plans. Do you have what it takes to wipe the smug grin off her face? Only time will tell.
These variations are notable for being both imaginative and complex, though it should be stated that death screens don’t actually need to be ostentatious to have an impact on the audience, as shown by more recent titles. Both the Resident Evil games (1996-present), from developer Capcom, and the Souls Series (2009-present), by From Software, hearken back to the simplicity of the arcade years with their basic blood-red declarations of “You are dead” and “You died” respectively. These have shedded any superfluous information and special effects, yet in spite of their plainness these screens are often the first aspect of these games that comes to mind when you think of them.
There are three factors that I believe go a long way to explaining why: 1) the punishing difficulty of the games, 2) the frequency with which these death screens appear, and 3) the matter of fact way in which they deal with the player. Aren’t good enough? Then prepare to die. In these examples, the fail state constantly prods the player to take a more tactical approach, goading them to learn the systems that are in place. Should the person playing remain ignorant of these, they’re likely to keep dying again and again.
As you can see, developers have taken many different approaches to handling death in their games. But it’s possible to highlight a few trends that have occurred throughout the years and to chart their usage: from the phrase “game over,” which has been recycled ever since its deployment in the 1950s, to the messages that accompanied character deaths in adventure games during the 1980s and beyond. By examining all of these, we’re able to observe that fail states can function in a variety of ways beyond just telling the player that they’ve died—acting as education, entertainment and motivation.
I might not be able to call to mind every time that I’ve died in a video game, but I do remember the lessons I’ve learned and the many hours of enjoyment I’ve experienced as a result.
RELATED: Pam Battles Dark Souls 3’s Toughest Enemies: Other Players