As you stand atop the still-warm pile of corpses left over from your battle, you slowly sink back to the floor. The bodies, like so many before, are absorbed into the stone floor of the dungeon and disappear. And again, you do not question it.
Video game developers have always had to use clever tricks to get the most out of the game engines under the hood. In Super Mario Bros. the clouds are the exact same art as the bushes, just to save a tiny bit of memory (and if you hadn’t noticed before you will next time you play it).
For any game engine, one of the more taxing processes is the game’s enemies. They’re not just pixels thrown at a canvas; they’re physics, artificial intelligence, collision detection, and a dozen more variables that have to be processed constantly. Get too many on the screen, and the hardware might not be able to handle them all.
Maybe you’ve seen the Skyrim cheese explosion:
The game’s performance slows to a crawl, and those aren’t individual, thinking characters or enemies—those are just wheels of cheese. The point is game engines can only handle so many things at a time, and when it comes to games with long battles that would otherwise leave the ground littered with corpses, developers get around this by making enemies disappear once you defeat them. Whether bodies just poof into a cloud, sink into the floor, disintegrate, or disappear in an explosion of confetti, almost all disappear into the ether eventually, usually a few seconds after you defeat them.
This is where games like Dead Rising 3 are technically impressive, the sheer number of zombies on screen at once seeming overwhelming. Each one has its own artificial intelligence, textures, physics, and more. Thousands of processes running at once, streamlined to all work without slowing the game down.
The trick goes back to early games, like an interesting mechanic for 1978’s Space Invaders: designer Tomohiro Nishikado discovered that the more aliens you kill, the faster the game’s remaining enemies become, because the hardware could process them more quickly when there were fewer of them. He left it that way so that the game would gradually increase in difficulty as you play.
Now games are expected to run at full speed all the time, and they make defeated enemies disappear to achieve that. Some games might intentionally subvert this trope, however, or use it to the game’s advantage—a disappearing body can be a tool for the developer to try something new. Here are some examples.
’SONIC THE HEDGEHOG’
The original Sonic the Hedgehog games had an incredible amount of detail. The game’s enemies were innocent creatures weaponized by the evil Dr. Robotnik, and rather than simply disappearing they would explode into the animals they once were. It’s a little effect that ties into how the game is so beautiful—the tiny details.
This has been a staple of the 2D Sonic series, tiny details in the background to give the world some movement and life. Waving foliage, animals hopping around, and innocent wildlife make up the beautiful worlds of Sonic, and the animals that appear upon enemy death are the cherry on top.
One of the original survival horror games, Resident Evil set the bar for many games to follow. While you remain in an area, a body will stay where it is, although leaving and reentering causes them to disappear. Some zombies, however, will play dead, lying down until you get too close before latching on to your leg. This can even happen right at the start of the game; the first zombie you kill can fall to the floor, then chomp on your ankle when you go past it later.
Resident Evil originally appeared on the PlayStation, and dead zombie behavior was changed in the 2002 Gamecube remake. Zombies that hadn’t had their head blown off or their kneecaps shattered, or been burned, will, between 30 minutes and an hour later, get back up as a much more dangerous “Crimson Head” zombie.
’SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS’
While the majority of creatures disappear upon death in Shadow of the Colossus, the Colossi do not. In fact, you can return to the fallen Colossi to relive the battle even after you defeat them. The choice to have the Colossi remain in place was deliberate, to cement the gravity of your actions as the player.
It is a reminder of the actions you take in games, sometimes going through the motions without really thinking about why.
A cult hit, Okami was a Playstation 2 game that used Japanese mythology and folklore as a basis in both its visual design and story. You play Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, and must remove the curse from the land.
To fit in with this theme, when enemies are killed, they explode and spread a bed of flowers, representing Amaterasu cleansing the land and bringing back the beautiful wildlife.
’SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD: THE GAME’
A surprisingly fantastic adaptation of both the graphic novels and film, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game has enemies, as you might hope, explode into a shower of coins, just like in the source material.
The use of this in the graphic novels is a reference to games in the first place, so it only makes sense.
Every game deals with the disappearing body trope differently. Some games allow the player to use the dead bodies of enemies as weapons, while others, like the Dark Souls series, don’t make them disappear at all, but instead leave them flopping around on the floor.
Maybe one day technology will let games keep their corpses around forever, and the dream of standing atop a mountain of your slain enemies will finally be a reality.
Hannah Dwan is a freelance games journalist who spends too much time rambling about her favorite titles. You can see those opinions at @hoeyboey.
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