Can Game Characters Die?

Can Game Characters Die?

"This cart is now a coffin", posted UK games writer Richard Stanton, adding "RIP Hamlet the best Labrador in the world :'(". I can't help but wonder what's happened to Hamlet, trapped inside that little plastic bit.

In the case of a Nintendog cartridge the end is probably swift and painless, and certainly nothing like the weird images I have of a floating disembodied puppy conciousness drifting through a void.

But that's not to say more intelligent computer systems can't have a death experience.

Below, for example, is a 'death dance' choreographed by a creativity machine.

A creativity machine (or a variation called an imagination engine) is a trained neural network that's goaded into creating things beyond its training thanks to a range of disturbances that include "dying". In this case the dance was spontaneously improvised by a computer experiencing "simulated cell death" after only seeing 12 different poses.

One of the most well known names in the field, S. L. Thaler, says these "trained artificial neural networks spontaneously 'dream' potentially useful information that transcends what they already 'know', once they are properly stimulated by random disturbances." The article linked in the previous paragraph mentions a far more chilling way of putting it: "As the machine approached death, it began to output not gibberish but information it had previously learned — its silicon life flashed before its eyes, so to speak."

Can Game Characters Die?


So is there a future where gaming AI could have something even approaching feelings about you shooting it? A famous example of lower level AI apparently not wanting to die involved the CG characters created for the original Lord Of The Rings movies. Rather than hand-animate battles featuring thousands of participants, the orcs and humans were fitted out with AI provided by Massive Software and left to fight it out procedurally.

Until the elephants arrived.

When that happened the human forces turned and ran. Initially it was reported that they fled in fear although it was later explained as a bug. However, the perception of it being fear was very real, and as AI gets more complex, who's to say we won't see NPC's behaving in a way we perceive as real even if it's not?

And, if the code driving it all is complex enough, could there be creation machine-like death experiences as the average grunt expires in COD 47, way, way off in the future?

I remember being disturbed in COD 3 (of all things) by a melee mini-game where you wrestle with a German, Private Ryan-style, for your life. Hammer the buttons enough and you win and 'kill' him, in the process of which the soldier's face switches from anger to fear. The first time it happened I actually had a moment of uncertainty — the human brain is programmed to do a lot of things like recognise faces or emotions and even though the simulated Nazi was clearly not real, and the system at play incredibly simply (mash button to make pretend thing pretend dead) a part of my brain still responded.

Obviously games with AI complex enough to actually have an opinion on their own mortality are so far off as to be science fiction. Experts currently peg anything artificial being even slightly close to having any ethical implications as about 50-odd years off. And that's for complex robots and real research, so video games are unlikely to have any troubling moral implications just yet.

The important thing here really is that Hamlet didn't suffer.

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This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.


    Having played a little of shadows of mordor last night and seeing the nemesis system in all its glory, i can see this becoming something that occurs.

    I watched an orc scramble, run then fall at my blade all while screaming "no get away noooo NOOOOO!!!" as i stabbed him in the face >:D

    Last edited 02/10/14 10:37 am

    I really am surprised that fear is not used in FPS games more.
    The little guys in Halo would bail and run, but it is in so few other games. I always thought it would really change a game if a soldier begged for his life if you tagged him in the arm and he went down. If a character whipped out a picture of his kids and was sobbing as you approached him, it would be a very different decision then to shoot him.

    It would also be far more interesting if you shot two out of three guards if sometimes the 3rd one just attempted to surrender, or just ran for it. It is an area of FPS games that seems oddly missing.

      But the brodudes just want to shoot stuff.

      I have seen this in a few different games, but never with an actual choice that makes a difference, can't remember if in FPS or a different type of game, but enemy is like "oh don't kill me etc etc".

      Ok, I'll be a good character and leave them be. But then either you turn your back and they attack you again, or the game simply gives you zero choice and you have to kill them. One day..

        man imagine if you did let them go and they somehow aided you in your quest later... maybe gave u a map to a hidden treasure, took a bullet for you, provided a medikit when you were low etc. that opens up so many options!

        The earliest example I can think of is (believe it or not) Duke Nukem 3D. It made no real difference, they died by themselves anyway, but sometimes the aliens wouldn't die straight away and seemed to beg for their lives. I never really felt like delivering the final blow at that stage.
        More recently, Spec Ops: The Line. If you shot enemies in the arm, leg, etc then often they didn't die and when you got close gave you the option to execute them. I avoided executions wherever possible (there's one place from memory it forces you) and most of the time found myself aiming for non-lethal shots, once I'd worked it out. It lead to a lot of soldiers crawling around and moaning, which in some ways was worse than the corpses.

    I saw TRON in '82, have felt guilty about every gaming character death since.

    Ever since a teacher confiscated my Digimon way back when and it died, I have known characters exist outside of my immediate interaction with them.

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