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We’re done with half of 2023 and many of its fantastic horror games, though there’s more on the way (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alan Wake 2, and the Silent Hill 2 remake are still due out). That means we’ve willingly subjected ourselves to lots of stone-cold death scenes—enough to compile in a list, which we’ve done here.
I don’t usually think too hard about video game death. It happens to me too frequently, so I see it more like a locked gate or puff of gnats in my face; it’s a momentary irritation to swat away and move past so that I can get to the next, more exciting thing. Can you blame me? You’re immortal when you play a video game, and immortality makes you lazy.
But death is harder to ignore in the context of a horror game, which, if successful, will let fear bother you in real life, reaching out from the black “YOU DIED” screen the way fog slouches out of a forest’s boundaries. Though dying in a horror game isn’t any more real or consequential than it is in any other kind of game, your fear is.
My “favorite” death scenes this year, then, have been the ones that make me worry. They might be gratuitous, popped bags of blood or quietly insidious, barely discernible ghosts at night. Regardless of how they happen, these impressive deaths remind me of how much of what happens to me in a day is beyond my control.
“The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death,” Hegel writes. “It is […] the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water.”
Most of these game deaths are more gruesome than that, but they’ll do.
While I think death in The Bunker is slightly overshadowed by its monster’s constant snarling and thumping—by the time you die, it’s more of a relief from constant anxiety than a surprise— it’s still an important part of the game’s emphasis on trial-and-error.
When I first tried to force my way through a narrow hallway stuffed with rats, I didn’t realize the pests would nip soldier protagonist Henri Clément’s legs until his vision went red and he toppled over and died. But, um, yeah, they did. I also didn’t realize that the gas grenades you can hurl at the monster to, ideally, discourage it from tearing off your arms would slowly poison Henri and make him leave a fragrant snail trail of blood until he, again, died. Well, at least I tried.
There are many gross representations of the fragile body in the Resident Evil 4 remake; it’s to be expected in a game where there are more parasites than thriving human beings. One of my favorite examples of how the game discourages people striving for more than their fallible bodies can handle is also one of the nastiest: Ramón Salazar’s death.
By the time you face Salazar in his boss battle, the Las Plagas superorganism has already mangled him beyond recognition. He looks much more like a squashed spider, or a carnivorous plant with a halfway decomposed fly stuck in its jaw, than a man. His death is at once alien (blood bursts from the fleshy flower he protrudes from) and familiar (“Please help me,” he whines while sticking out a limp hand). But he’s beyond saving.
I’m more amused than contemplative when himbo protagonist Leon Kennedy dies in RE4, partly because I know I’m responsible for it, and I feel like me and him are locked in birdbrain solidarity.
Though, I feel sorry for him when the blood-spattered Chainsaw Man mauls him with his revving weapon. In that death animation, sheets of blood spurt from the chainsaw rumbling in Leon’s chest, but it’s not brutal enough for the Man. He rips out the chainsaw just to shove its teeth straight through Leon’s back, and the screen is tinged with wine-red while a blood fountain gushes from Leon’s exhausted body. He’s too handsome to go out that way.
All of the deaths in Dead Space are notoriously violent, but I can really feel it when hero Isaac Clarke is ripped apart by The Hunter, a deformed Cthulhu with bony fangs for arms. Such a creature should never exist, and especially not in space, where no one would be able to save you except, maybe one day, an Elon Musk bot that requires four Dogecoin to operate.
When The Hunter comes for Isaac, it’s with the energy of a monster that won’t be caught. It swings its pincer arms back to gain momentum for a huge push into Isaac’s chest, making him groan as purple blood starts to spill out his back. Isaac struggles a bit as The Hunter swings him into the air like a lamb on a skewer, but it diffuses any hope for survival by impaling his stomach repeatedly.
Somehow, Isaac is still alive when The Hunter whips him back down to the ground. There’s no time to scream (though Isaac tries) before it chops his head off in one, simple swing, slamming what’s left of him to the floor like it’s as hollow as a drained soda can. Dead Space, indeed.
Butcho the Clown is my least favorite Dead Island 2 boss and in the running for my least favorite game enemy this year. Though his fighting style isn’t radically different from the other titanium-head zombies that drool and claw at you throughout the hack-and-slash, he is capable of regaining health by munching on nearby zombie flesh. On account of Dead Island 2 being a game where you pummel undead like there’s candy in them, there is always a lot of nearby zombie flesh.
I was so glad when he died I nearly screamed, but when playing the game solo, it wasn’t easy. Butcho’s skeletal pointed arms can deflect a number of attacks, including the heavy-duty gun ammo I relied on for ranged combat. Plus, he moves fast, pattering toward you like a hunched animal and impaling you quickly with his toothpick arms.
But there isn’t much excitement when you deliver the final blow, once you manage to cut down his health. Butcho just flops over with the weight of your attack, and a number of health items and rotten body parts drop from his slack body. I ruminated on my success for a minute, though.
The Outlast Trials is a ridiculously perverse psychological horror co-op, and so its deaths are, likewise, depraved. From the game’s first-person perspective, they are swift and somewhat expected—the guy that’s hunting you down in a level finally catches you, makes an obscure remark about the texture of your skin, and then cracks your face open with an axe.
But when you’re playing with friends, watching them die seems like a lesson learned. You can intervene, but it’s hard to want to. The Night Hunter, an enemy equipped with glowing green night-vision goggles and a machete, might impale you in the stomach then strike down, straight through your crotch. “Beautiful. Like honey,” he says as blood surges forward. Or maybe dirty cop Leland Coyle will straddle you while smoking a cigarette, leaning his crackling shock stick into your chest until smoke becomes as dense as a pillow around you.
“I wish your mama was here to see you die,” he says.
Ew! Gross! Detestable! It’s rare that a video game seems capable of breaking your spirit, but The Outlast Trials certainly comes close.
Supernatural fishing sim Dredge has the least visceral death scenes on this list, mainly because they all happen to you while you’re on a boat. I’m not particularly gifted at steering this boat, so when monsters come for my humble ship in the middle of the night, it seems easier, sometimes, to let them kill me.
A creature with massive octopus tentacles is my most frequent assailant. It seems futile to try avoiding its giant limbs, so when they begin to sneak out of the gray water, I chug my little boat away while anticipating the damage it’ll do.
It can be comforting when I die in Dredge. I know I’ll wake up at my last save point, practically a friendly hometown compared to the unknowable mysteries of everything else.
What are some of your favorite death scenes this year? Let me know in the comments.