In video games, your character will die. Sometimes on boss fights, sometimes to average grunts and it generally means nothing, other than possibly making you a bit frustrated at the game. There are no consequences. There is no pain.
But your character’s death almost never means anything. Even in Metal Gear Solid, your aide’s screams of “Snake, Snaaake, Snaaaaaake” upon your death quickly become irritating and comical. I can think of only three games that make death mean something: Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls, Journey, and Crusader Kings II. In Dark Souls, the consequences of death persist in your ‘new life:’ if you fail to reach the spot where you died, everything you collected in that life will be permanently lost. This is the simplest way of making death worth my attention: make it cost. Make death hurt the player, instead of respawning their avatar in the same untroubled state as always.
However, fundamentally, it is still the same avatar, despite the undead/human distinction. Your sense of self has been preserved.
But it’s not the only way to make death have meaning. If you haven’t played Journey (and Fallout 3), I would suggest you skip this paragraph and move onto the next. Journey, as I interpret it, is fundamentally a microcosm of your life: you arrive on the world, alone and confused. You learn. You grow. You find company. You interact with the world that has been constructed for you, changing it. You confront your fears. And yes, you die. Despite the name of the related song (Apotheosis), I do not see your ascent to the mountain as an ascent to the divine, but the avatar’s coming to terms with the end of his (or her) own life. The snows nearly killed you, but you persevered, so you could die a noble death at the resting site of your people. In doing so, you do ascend to the next level: your soul is carried out from the mountain (as you see when you begin the game, with comets streaking out from it), and lands somewhere to be reborn. You have ascended. You brought that red-cloaked avatar through desert, through danger, through cold, and you willingly go to face your death. The entire mountaintop sequence lets you know that the end is coming, that the journey is tough, but that it is worthwhile. Compare this to the much-maligned end of Fallout 3: after a ridiculous ‘boss fight’ (with a poorly-armored human who can be killed in one shot), you are suddenly faced with a choice about whether you want to go into a dangerously irradiated area–which will kill you–to save the Capitol Wasteland. It comes off as rushed and anti-climatic, and outright breaks some not insignificant promises made by the gameplay to that point. You might very well have a companion that is resistant to radiation by your side: why not send them in, instead, sparing everyone’s life? Your freedom of choice up to then is reduced to a binary decision: should I die, or should Lyons die? Either way, you get an uninspiring slideshow ending. Unlike in Journey, your death is not a culmination of your wanderings, but an abrupt and unexpected end to a game that promises freedom, only to revoke it. (This ending is fixed with the Broken Steel DLC).
On the other side of the coin, is Crusader Kings II, a medieval dynasty simulator. You play a European noble (almost any European noble), likely beginning in the year 1066, the year of the Battle of Hastings. Your goal: keep your dynasty alive and gather more land. I rarely feel anything for my nobles: generally, my only feeling is despair if my heir turns out to have the “Imbecile” trait, while also being great at angering anyone within 20 miles.
But death is meaningful here because it is inevitable and, unless you save scum, permanent. Your first ‘character’ will die. He or she will then be replaced by a long line of heirs–all of whom will die, one way or another. And the act of dying and becoming someone new has an affect. Your pious, zealous Duchess is replaced by an hateful, excommunicated Cathar. The Cathar is then murdered in his sleep before his vassals can revolt, and replaced by a 6-year-old girl. There’s a penalty for being a new ruler, a penalty for being a woman ruler (think of how many people were happy about having Queen Elizabeth around, 600 years later), and frankly, everyone revolts when confronted with a 6-year-old, so suddenly, you are faced with the loss of half of your holdings. Even worse–it is entirely possible that if this 6-year-old dies, your game will end completely, because the game ends under three situations: 1) your dynasty survives for 400-some years, and reaches the end of the game; 2) you resign; 3) your dynasty ends because the last heir dies.
It is an entirely mechanical way of making death meaningful. Even better: you can never replay the game to get back your pious Duchess, not without save-scumming. It’s just as likely in a new game–begun with the same variable as the last–that the Duchess is never born, her husband never dies, and her children are never born. Instead, by that point in the game, you might very well be King, or the Holy Roman Emperor. Or maybe a bad revolt and a deposed liege has bumped you back down to Count. The game is warped by your presence–and the random number generator, that might bless your children with brilliance or curse them as barely-functional, inbred imbeciles, much like King Charles II of Spain. Maybe you’ll be maimed in battle. Or contract syphilis. Or be robbed by bandits and left for dead. Death becomes a force in and of itself: inescapable and potent.
And I like it that way.
For more on the Analysis of Death in games be sure to read: Life and Death in Games: Analyzing the Mechanics of Health and Death