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Link is fated to die} ?> So this sage fellow tells you that you’re the legendary Hero of Time, and it’s your destiny to save the land from evil. At this news, perhaps your soul puffs up with the righteous thought of your future victory. Or, if you’re like me, you get annoyed at the guy who’s not only telling you what to do, but what you’re going to do, as if you didn’t have a choice. Either way, let’s do this, you say. If it’s your destiny, after all, how can you fail?
But then, somewhere along the line, you die. Whether it’s because you let an Octorok spit one too many rocks at you, or because you couldn’t figure out the trick with the first boss, Link’s health will eventually go down accompanied by the annoying beeping and his slight gasp before he falls in slow motion to his doom.
Or so it would seem.
A second later, however, he’s up and at it with only a few missing hearts to show for his trouble. Now that’s what I call a Hero of Time.
Death seems to have found its way so readily into video games because it was the logical fail safe for arcades. You couldn’t have one quarter lasting someone for hours, after all. Pac-Man has to die sometime. Mario can’t avoid being bowled over by Donkey Kong forever.
Not only does this impending doom rake in the coins for arcades, but games just wouldn’t be fun without that chance of failure looming over the player’s head.
A lot of older games capitalized on the thrill of terror and release. As Churchill put it: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” I still have vivid memories of playing Jumpman for the Commodore 64, wandering too close to the edge of the screen to diffuse a bomb and jumping out of my skin because a bullet came out of nowhere with a bang and killed me. This was even more terrifying when I only had one life left, I was on level 15 and I knew I’d have to start over from the beginning if I died. Dying sure cost a lot more back in the 90s than it does now.
Newer games use this technique too; I recently made it past the Silent Realm trials in Skyward Sword, where you have to collect fifteen objects within a certain amount of time, or armored Guardians will wake up, chase after you and kill you in one blow (with frightening music playing in the background, of course). There’s basically no escape. It was terrifying, even though I knew I would revive if I failed.
Maybe that’s largely what gaming is for: experiencing the thrill without the cost, taking risks, failing, touching fire with our bare hands, exploring those dark places in our souls. Though I’d argue newer games, like Zelda, balance terror with the thrill of more complex gameplay, intellectual stimulation and, often, storytelling.
Though gamers are fated to die in most games, usually at the most, dying results in losing some equipment, health, or having to wait a short time before revival. Gone are the days where you have to start completely over, and you can’t blame this century’s developers for making that decision.
That doesn’t stop games from exploring death in other ways; such as a character death that is crucial to the narrative (I’m looking at you, Aeris), or members of your team dying in Mass Effect as a result of your choices.
Protagonist death, however, is not usually used as realistic narrative, but rather, as a learning tool. Mistakes resulting in my death cause me to think things through more carefully the second time around. Can I apply this to real life in other ways than wishing I had a do-over for all the times I make mistakes? Well it certainly makes me think about things like forgiveness and second chances and value them all the more.
And no, having an abundance of gaming lives does not make me feel immortal in real life, because even though I beat the pants off Ganondorf and made it to the end of the game, thus saving Hyrule from its dark fate, I died a hundred times to get there. Those mistakes I made before I revived and time was reset still exist somewhere in the multiverse, as I am well aware.
It’s my fate as a gamer to win and fail at the same time in a clashing set of universes, and I’m okay with that, for death has always had deep meaning and games are not disconnected from that. It’s not a game’s job to teach us death’s sting, it’s the gamer’s job to let fate take its course through those mistakes and on to the end.
The original version of this article was published in Push Select Magazine.