Spectacular Mortality

Intersections of Punitive & Educational Player-Death

Essay - Player Death

Meghan Blythe Adams is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Her main areas of interest in game studies are player death, difficulty settings, and the submissive elements of play.


Death in the game is a rupture not merely of the narrative of the game or the experience of play, but the player’s fundamental identification as player-character. Player-death meant to function both punitively and educationally models this conscious separation through various degrees of spectacle and even partially relies on it in order to function. Within the scope of this essay, I will compare different degrees of spectacle in death scenes in Skyrim, Too Human and the Call of Duty series before raising questions regarding how spectacle or the lack thereof in Skyrim and Dark Souls compare against the balance between punishment and education in a particular game’s version of player-death. Ultimately, this paper is intended less to provide definitive answers to these questions than as a launching-point for further inquiry into the intersections of death, the spectacle, punishment and education in games today.

Player Death

How player-death functions as a spectacle must be unpacked before we look specifically at its punitive and educational aspects. Games often stage death specifically as a visual spectacle; rather than merely fading to black in an approximation of losing consciousness, the game often attempts to represent death, whether it flashes a variation of the common “GAME OVER” associated with the hey-days of the arcade or, as is a more recent fashion, shows the player-character fall with a death-sequence that extends well-past the moment of death. This death-sequence is of particular interest to this commentary in terms of its similarity to the ritual sacrifice described by Georges Bataille as “sacred horror: the richest and most agonizing experience” (196). The way in which games stage player-death varies widely but two particular representations of interest are the beautiful, drawn-out deaths found in Skyrim and Too Human, as well as the various forms of the KillCam of the Call of Duty franchise. Skyrim’s death-cam is always presented from a third-person perspective, even if the player was playing in first-person. The death is performed at reduced speed as the player watches their in-game body fall, looking almost like a dance. This particular form of player-death doubly removes the player from the player-character; first, the potential focal shift, and second the sudden inability to intentionally control the player-character even as the player can still see their falling in-game body. This slow, potentially beautiful but likely frustrating death enacts the kind of ritual sacrifice described by Bataille: this kind of player-death is visually sumptuous, expressing the frustration (even agony) of the player-death through what looks like a ritual dance 1.

In a variation of this, the death sequence of Silicon Knight’s Too Human has a similarly tainted beauty.  The game’s respawn sequence is infamously drawn-out: a glowing valkyrie descends to the ground, folds her impressive wings, picks up the player’s body and slowly ascends. Almost universally castigated for its excessive length by the game’s reviewers and players, Too Human’s death sequence extends the aftermath of the rupture of game-death, and thus draws out the time before the player can return to their sense of being unified with the player-character in play. Like the Skyrim death-cam, Too Human’s death sequence cannot be skipped. Both scenes fetishize the beauty and frustration of the player-character’s death, specifically drawing out and drawing attention to the cessation of the process of play. Bataille claims that “In order for Man to reveal himself ultimately to himself, he would have to die, but he would have to do it while living—watching himself ceasing to be” (194). Games that focus on the deferral of the return to play allow the player to watch her in-game self cease to be and consciously wait for the chance to return to the state of play. Like Bataille’s imaginary Man watching himself die, the player reveals herself to herself through this spectacular, beautiful and frustrating death, particularly the limits of her ability to play.

Call of Duty’s KillCam, however shows the player’s death from the killer’s perspective. Often following the trajectory of the killing blow, it privileges the replaying of the moments before player-death.  The pre-death focus of the KillCam enacts a personalized, external view of the rupture of game-death when once the player experienced moving as a unified, in-game whole. Where Skyrim’s death-cam and Too Human’s death sequence enact the profane and frustrating beauty of prolonged sacrifice from a non-personalized perspective, the Call of Duty series KillCam re-enacts a more straightforward humiliation through the eyes of an enemy. While the scenes of the beautiful horror in games are frequently unskippable, the Call of Duty player usually has the option of simply respawning rather than reliving the manner of her death from her killer’s perspective. These forms of representation hint at stereotypes of the game’s personality (reverent and stylized or competitive and business-like, in these cases) but also indicate the role of death in the game’s structuring of player experience. In Skyrim and Too Human (particularly the latter), player-death is a sacred horror that contains the wrenching reminder that our identification with the player-character is always short-lived.

Death & Consciousness

As closely as we identify with our player-character bodies just until the moment of death, games’ representations often drive home the limitations of our nearby-ness to the experience of death. Consider the classic spectacle of player-death, the announcement via on-screen text, the “GAME OVER” in grim letters. This tells us that ‘we’ on-screen have died, leaving the ‘we’ outside the game separated from its in-game self. After our death is announced (or narrated, or shown) to us, we often revert to a title screen or an earlier save. We get ejected not merely from our character but our game (to varying degrees) at the moment of death. Ultimately, every representation of player-death rings false. The screen saying “YOU DIED” not only tells you something you already knew. The fact that it must be said and can be said tells you immediately that the essence of the message is patently false. The punitive and educational functions of player-death, the second focus of this commentary, specifically depend on that falsity of game death, whether presented spectacularly or not. Player consciousness continues past game-death and the severing of player and player-character and the player’s ability to be punished and educated relies on this extra-game continuity. Francoise Dastur claims, in her reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, that “nothing can be verified by death, because, as negation of any datum whatsoever, it does away with self-consciousness whatsoever” (27). Player-death is not, however, the end of player consciousness, and the continuation of player consciousness is the mechanism of player punishment and education. Games in which death is intended to be primarily punitive often focus on the moment of death, whether through humiliation, such as the KillCam or the capital lettered “YOU DIED” of Dark Souls, and as a result, it is easier to note surface connections between the spectacle of player-death and its punitive elements than it is to read player-death as educational spectacle. However, if we consider the relation of spectacle and game structure, we have the opportunity to raise further questions regarding the complex interconnectedness of spectacle, punishment and education in player-death, as I hope to below.

The save file mechanic2 is one key, common example of such a game structure that impacts player-death. In a game that uses the mechanic of save files like Skyrim, it is the player, not the player-character who bears the continuing punishment and education of game death after the particular instance of character-death. The player-character dies, certainly, but it is the player who has had their time invested in play divested of its rewards and the player who must revert to an earlier save, retaining their memories of play and the effort involved but not what they earned in their playing (achievements, items, levels, etc) since that save was filed.  The implementation of the save mechanic upon player death radically changes the player’s temporal, spatial and material relations with the game, hence its ability to punish. While the save file mechanic itself allows the game to temporally revert, the save mechanic also effectively unmakes any in-game spatial progress, specifically in terms of ground covered or areas accessed. Similarly, the loss of items and experience points punishes the player at the level of their in-game material gains. This encourages the player to defer death for as long as possible, not merely in order to extend their play experience, but to avoid the temporal, spatial and material losses that add memorial insult to in-game injury. As a result of the reversion innate to the save mechanic, it is the player, not the player-character who learns. Save files leave the burden of memory to the player herself. It is the player who benefits from knowing what most recently killed the player-character; she can correct her next attempt accordingly. Within the game, that death never occurred; indeed, several experiences and gains up to the point of that death may also never have occurred. Yet the player remembers the loss of that death as a temporal event, even as no evidence remains in-game. As previously mentioned, the player’s unique extra-game position allows them to learn precisely what from, in the game, never happened. The spectacle of player-death is as negated as the items acquired since the last save. We could even go so far as to say this kind of punitive education sacrifices the spectacle, but in doing so memorializes that fleeting moment of the profane sacred for the player even as it denies it to the player-character. While Skyrim’s save file mechanic punishes and teaches, the game is ultimately more about spectacle than substance and its death-sequences.

Habitual Death

Compare this ritual sacrifice of spectacle to the normalized player-death of Dark Souls. Unusually for a video game, Dark Souls, like its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls, has death interrupt the flow of play without forcing the player out of the game or taking away the player’s items. This lack of a temporal re-set like that of the save file mechanic suggests that the game designers want to incorporate death into the play experience rather than punish the player by automatically ejecting them out of it and robbing them of their time and in-game experience. Dark Souls denies player-death as a spectacle, making player-death routine, unlike the lovingly depicted but ephemeral death-scene of Skyrim. Another normalizing force of player-death in Dark Souls’ is the Darksign, which returns you to your last-used campfire at the moment of death. The Darksign is an in-game object rather than a structural mechanic like Skyrim’s save file. Dark Souls even allows the player to recoup losses of experience in the form of the death-stain that when touched returns the player’s collection of souls that function both as experience points and currency. This recuperation only occurs if the player learns from their previous death and successfully returns to it without dying an additional time, making Dark Souls a potentially harshly punishing game, but one in which the player ability to learn from death is a central part of her success. In this game, the spectacle of death is not allowed its own space as with Skyrim and Too Human, but after the all-capital message “YOU DIED,” death is ‘business as usual,’ squarely within the scope of the game, not so much as a ritual as a habit. Specifically, by down-playing spectacle, Dark Souls ups the ante of both the punitive and educational effects of player player-death.

As previously mentioned, this exploration is intended to assert the differences between different types of spectacular player-death and the potential relationship to a game’s perceived balance between punishment and education.  Other questions we should consider include the following: what substance can spectacle provide? Are there innate limits to the educational powers of spectacular death? What are the benefits and costs of depicting death as habit versus death as ritual? While we’re busy watching ourselves dying, we should get some thinking done.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice.” Hegel and Contemporary Continental Philosophy Ed. Dennis King Keenan. New York: SUNY, 2004.187-204. Print.

Call of Duty: Ghosts. Santa Monica, USA: Activision, 2013. Videogame.

Dastur, Francoise. Death: An Essay on Finitude. Trans. John Llewelyn. London: Athlone, 1996. Print.

Dark Souls. Tokyo, Japan: From Software, 2011. Videogame.

Demon’s Souls. Tokyo, Japan: From Software, 2009. Videogame.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Rockville, USA: Bethesda Softworks, 2011. Videogame.

Too Human. St. Catherines, Canada: Silicon Knights, 2008. Videogame.

1. The intricacies of reading the death of the player and the choice to play leading up to it as a kind of self-sacrifice deserve further exploration, but fall outside the scope of this paper.
2. Whether save files are automatic, by choice, or a combination of both certainly affect the temporal ‘lives’ of the player-character and the differences deserve closer examination.