Kevan Davis achieved this with Urban Dead, a browser-based massively multiplayer game that pits humans and zombies against each other in a quarantined city. Survivors who succumb to the undead don't die; they merely rise up as member of the hoard's moaning ranks. There's no dying as a zombie either - losing a battle with a human only knocks the player down temporarily.
As a human, it's terrifying to know that one poor decision could terminate your humanity. Sure, Resident Evil, the seminal mainstream zombie game, has its thrilling moments, but there's no real consequence for dying. The screen goes black, the words "You Died" splash across the screen, and zombies devour your avatar. Then, moments later, you're back in a safe room, certainly not as worried about the scenario that just felled you. By contrast, I'll never forget the first time a zombie claimed me in Urban Dead, and I never made the same tactical error again.
Perhaps it's time for the mainstream videogame industry to follow suit. There are signs that AAA developers are thinking a bit harder about how to incorporate mortality into their narratives. BioShock had its Vita-Chambers, a kind of respawn point that was part of the world's technology, but some gamers rejected them because it made dying in the game seem pointless. (The irony, of course, is the trivial nature of death in any game with save points.) Dying in The Darkness merely upsets the titular demon that inhabits the protagonist, because his duties aren't finished - he merely spits the player back into the real world for another try. But those two examples still return the player to an earlier point in space or time - death is an intermission rather than a finale.
If games are to move beyond death as punishment, the change has to be deeper. Designers should look to games like Karoshi, Passage and Urban Dead for inspiration. I fantasize about a mobster game that doesn't thrive on body counts, but still harbors a violent subtext. Maybe there's an occasional shootout, and if the player fails, the avatar's friend dives in to take the bullet. You would feel the consequences for the rest of the game, and you'd learn not to make the same mistake twice.
I could be getting ahead of myself, though. After all, as soon as you remove the keystone that equates death with failure in videogames, the whole structure that's existed since Spacewar! will crumble.
Is that such a bad thing?
Jared Newman is a freelance contributor to The Escapist. Visit his blog at http://www.jarednewman.com/blog.