As we all know, there’s always more than one way to end a game. Generally, this comes in two forms, specifically those famously summarised by Cersei Lannister: ‘you win, or you die’. But sometimes, there’s other ways, and I’m not talking about multiple endings like Silent Hill or Mass Effect. Sometimes you fuck up in just the right way to change the world.
Take XCOM for example, and scanning this spread for a moment you might realise why this particular game is on my mind. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its expansion Enemy Within, you can lose by enough Council nations dropping out of the XCOM project, after which you’ll be treated to a cutscene of the aliens mind-controlling the Council spokesman as he admonishes you for your failure. But did you know that there’s other ways to fail? One mission in Enemy Within (spoilers to follow, by the way) sees your base’s hidden location revealed, and wave after wave of aliens lays siege to the base. Failing here won’t just mean game over, but rather you’ll be treated to a cutscene in which the headquarters lay in burning ruins, key NPCs slumped bloodied against the smouldering walls.
Fail a certain stage of a certain mission in Hotline Miami 2 and your character will be dragged unconscious to a cell where they’re tortured and executed. You don’t even get to retry the level after that, it just moves on. Now that’s horrifying.
Sometimes, the non-standard game over isn’t a game over at all. In Dark Souls and Bloodborne, dying to a specific kind of enemy results in you being kidnapped and whisked away to a jail cell, rather than simply restarting at your last bonfire/lantern as per the norm. But why do developers do this? Why implement alternate means of failure? The answer is simple: because it’s unsettling as shit.
Dying is bad enough. That doesn’t really need explaining, I feel. But when you don’t just die, but die in such a specific way that the game pulls the rug out from under you and shows you something different from the ‘RETRY/QUIT’ screen you’ve seen a hundred times up to that point, it really has another effect entirely. You don’t just feel like you’ve failed; you feel off-guard and disoriented, and that’s a powerful thing indeed. As is the case with Chrono Trigger, it can also be an extra punishment: losing in this game’s final boss will force you to watch the world fall apart as you fail to save it. On the other end of the scale, it can be something as minor as your character dying in a spectacularly gruesome way, and Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 really take the cake on this one. Dying to a particular brand of los Ganados will treat you to a horrifying clip of Leon’s head being brutally sawn away, before his decapitated corpse collapses forwards. Meanwhile, Isaac Clarke is a record-holder in unique ways to die. You’d think the Necromorphs had a grudge over losing all those limbs with the way they treat his. Fail a certain stage of a certain mission in Hotline Miami 2 and your character will be dragged unconscious to a cell where they’re tortured and executed. You don’t even get to retry the level after that, it just moves on. Now that’s horrifying.
Losing a game is never fun, but in the hands of the most macabre developers, it can be traumatising, too. There’s a lot of games that won’t hold back out there, so maybe next time the stakes are especially high, you’ll be a little more careful not to let them have their fun with you.