Video GamesDeath is not the end: video games wrecked my idea of mortality
Video Games have gradually turned death, the most (only?) influential and thought-provoking aspect of human existence, into a nearly-unexamined cliché. Let's examine it.
It's 1991. I'm six years old, sitting in my parents' living room playing Super Dodge Ball for the Nintendo Entertainment System. An older neighbor has let me borrow the game, and I slowly suss out its premise: Playing as the American national dodgeball team, you travel around the world and defeat other countries at a sport that's apparently universal enough for both Kenya and Iceland to field competitive squads. Eventually, an opposing player throws the ball at my team's captain and I fail to press a button in time to catch it. My captain reels back, hits the ground, and transforms into a pixelated, halo-wearing angel. The angel floats towards the sky, and his name disappears from my team's roster. A dodgeball player--one with a name, one who looks surprisingly realistic for 1991--has died, thousands of miles from home, as a result of my actions.
Super Dodge Ball
Super Dodge Ball, 熱血高校ドッジボール部
Arcade RELEASE November 1987
Developers: Technos Japan (Japan), Leland Corporation (North America)
Super Dodge Ball, it turns out, is a bloodsport. The player is meant to play until every member of one of the teams is dead. As a little kid who had spent some time on a dodgeball court, this felt unsettling and more than a little bit sad. I was only six years old, and an 8-bit dodgeball had knocked loose my sense of mortality. But when you're six, a new video game is a new video game, so I played through the discomfort.
In the years since my incompetence ended the life of that virtual athlete, I've experienced seemingly every conceivable manner of in-game death. I've crashed planes and fallen into vats of acid. I've been shot into space. I've been decapitated by more things than I could possibly count. (I've even died of old age.) My deaths have both caused and prevented the end of the world. Experiencing death is a cornerstone of nearly every video game above a certain scope and popularity level. Which, given the informality (occasionally even levity) with which games tend to treat death, feels strange.
When a player dies in a video game, they experience death in first person (as in, via the player surrogate), in real time (as in, not as a flashback or flash forward), and as a direct result of their actions. In many games, this happens almost constantly, with death having almost no practical consequence. In other games, when a player's character dies they die for good, and the player is forced to continue with a different surrogate. The second case is unusual enough that what would otherwise be the world's most unnecessary portmanteau--"permadeath"--was coined to describe it.
↑ What about a dodgeball video game made its creators decide to offer arguably the most emotional ingame death available at the time? How are these teams moving from country to country if nobody is paying to watch them play? What about a thrown dodgeball can kill a man? These are only a small fraction of the questions I have for Super Dodge Ball's developers.
When a player dies in a video game, they experience death in first person, in real time and as a direct result of their actions.
Video Games have gradually turned death, the most (only?) influential and thought-provoking aspect of human existence, into a nearly-unexamined cliché. Whether the Tetris blocks reach the top of the screen or a character wearing realistic camouflage and holding a gun you can buy at a store gets his throat slit on a Middle Eastern battlefield, "I died" has become shorthand for being unsuccessful in a video game.
Ontologically, and when compared to other artistic mediums, this is bonkers.
Pac-Man (パックマン Pakkuman)
When death began being hard-coded in games' DNA, it must have felt inevitable. Graphical restrictions made the black expanse of outer space a sort of default setting for early video games, and it's tough to imagine a failure state in space that doesn't involve at least one fatality. At first, however, those same technical restrictions forced death to remain something of an abstraction. In Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Galaga, you see your ship explode, but nothing is said about the possibility of an escape pod, or hey, maybe there were only drones aboard. Q-Bert's biological deal is never explained, and when he runs afoul of an enemy he doesn't even look hurt, he just swears.
No matter how vague a representation he might be, however, Pac-Man was an exception. He has 'man' right in his name. They eventually gave him a wife and son. What happens to Pac-Man when he collides with one of those ghosts is a pretty intuitive representation of what might happen to a creature like that when it died. Players' repeated attempts to keep Pac-Man from getting haunted to death caused video games' popularity to skyrocket, and a gold rush ensued. At some point, "play/die/restart" just became what a profitable arcade game was.
Initially death was a failure state because it required little explanation and was easy to quantify from a programming and visual standpoint. As developers' toolsets increased, however, death became a common result in part because in most types of games it's impossible to create a fully-formed narrative route for every single failure condition. Death, in that respect, acts as an easy, (occasionally) plausible out.
At some point, "play/die/restart" just became what a profitable arcade game was.
First release King's Quest: Quest for the Crown, May 10, 1984
Throughout the Kings Quest series, mistakes that might normally result in a small-to-nonexistent setback almost always prove lethal. Rather than requiring the game to keep track of and react to these small failures (a tall order during the series' early-nineties heyday), the game just kills its hero off and restarts until they get it right.
In Sierra's King's Quest series, for example, mistakes that might normally result in a small-to-nonexistent setback almost always prove lethal, whether it's climbing a rope without the correct item in your pocket or asking for a room at the wrong Inn. Rather than requiring the game to keep track of and react to these small failures (a tall order during the series' early-nineties heyday), the game just kills its hero off and restarts until they get it right.
As games themselves became more sophisticated, their portrayals of death began to mature and mutate accordingly. If early games depicted death as abstract by necessity, their descendants were forced to reckon with far higher graphical fidelity and processing power. As games began allowing the player to literally experience death in first person, there was work to be done to avoid being broadly upsetting or traumatizing. Wolfenstein 3D sees the player's field of vision slowly fade into a wall of crimson static. Doom II, with its more advanced graphics, tints the player's vision red and has him fall to the ground with his eyes open. Not exactly a dance around the Maypole, but not necessarily an accurate portrayal of being rocketed to death by a Cyberdemon in the depths of hell, either.
In addition to a first-person perspective, both games offer a head-on representation of the protagonist's face in the bottom center of the screen. As he suffers damage, his face becomes more and more battered and bloody. His expression goes from one of icy confidence, to one of nervousness and fear, to one of total exhaustion. It's notable, however, that aside from these facial expressions, Doom and Wolfenstein both treat death as an essentially binary proposition. In games both old and new, in fact, death is everywhere and dying is strangely absent. From a gameplay standpoint, the hero is alive, then a switch is flipped, and then he is dead.
Doom and Wolfenstein both treat death as an essentially binary proposition. In games both old and new, in fact, death is everywhere and dying is strangely absent.
Since the Doom/Wolfenstein epoch, games have been inclined to dial back their realism when it comes time to portray death and dying. Games in which entire cities are simulated, where real-life military battles can be fought, where real-life hit songs can be listened to from behind the wheel of a real-life car, continue to portray death--usually what would ordinarily be a violent, gradual death--as kind of a goofy falling down. If the player is lucky, a taunting message appears onscreen.
The state of being dead is unsettling, of course, but to experience the details of life leaving someone--much less controlling their actions while it does so--makes the experience far more visceral and, well, real. If you asked a modern first person shooter what it looked and sounded like to die from a gunshot wound to the stomach, the game would describe the act of tripping over something and being too embarrassed to get back up.
This is not to say that games should casually depict the unthinkable realities of death with the same unflinching fidelity that they can now depict a fadeaway jumpshot or light bouncing off a moving car. However, as games become more and more realistic, they're forced to jump through more and more conceptual hoops in order to avoid portraying death in all its grandeur and terror. In some sense, this feels like games use death's thematic and emotional teeth without properly reckoning with its realities. As players, we're having our cake and eating it too.
— "Console gamers die 150,443 times per hour in Dark Souls II. That’s 2,507 deaths per minute, or 42 every single second. That’s 23 times faster than the real-world death rate."
There's something implicit in games, especially in simulations, that says "Here, this looks like chaos but it isn't. Understand this." Eventually, with enough time, a player can gain authority over their game. The process of gaining that authority can be a tremendously fulfilling and relaxing, but it's tempting to confuse mastery of a system's rules with a deep awareness of its content. Death is unknowable. Placing it in a system as something that can be understood alongside how to throw a fireball feels incongruous, but also kind of seductive. For nearly any video game in which one can die, there are multiple YouTube videos of players proudly strolling through them unharmed. In the worlds of Metal Gear Solid or Five Nights at Freddy's, these players have mastered death.
Games are able to teach players surprisingly complex, valid real-life lessons about everything from farming to urban planning. It's impossible to create hard-and-fast rules about where knowledge of simulations might end and where their applications to real life might begin, but for every assertion that games don't affect their players, there's a counterpoint about the muddy ways broad swaths of gaming culture consume and internalize ideas about masculinity, conflict, and violence. I don't believe anyone is legitimately confusing death-by-Bowser with actual death, but the two are intended to take up some of the same cognitive room; I can't help but wonder what effect that's had on those of us who have been experiencing it all our lives.
↑ The Grand Theft Auto games, above all else, hang their hat on simulating human activity down to to the highest possible detail. Once the ingame violence crosses a certain rubicon, however, the game opts for goofiness-- the dead aren't "dead," they're "wasted."
Call of Duty (CoD)
It's hard to play a Call of Duty game
for more than five seconds without killing or being killed. Both usually come as sort of a surprise, but the men onscreen tend to lazily stumble onto the ground as if they do this all
Video games allow players to become experts at dominating and avoiding death, but they also allow players to die in a consequence-free environment. If a player wants, she doesn't have to run from death; she can greet it head-on, on her own terms, as often and in as many scenarios as she likes. As time has gone by, the consequences for in-game death have trended downwards, often allowing players to pick up right where they left off. That games permit the player to explore and experiment with death is arguably even more empowering than giving him the opportunity to avoid it. Dying in games sets our lives, such as they are, in a very slight relief. Fighting through death, even fake death, even poorly simulated fake death, can remind us more of our own endurance than our own mortality.
Even when it's comprised of swinging into the eager jaws of a pixelated alligator, being able to cause and experience a fictional death at will is an unprecedented artistic experience. There are surprisingly few games that take advantage of this quality, and the ones that do tend to feel like postmodern jokes: Ragdoll physics add an element of nearly-randomized physical comedy to in-game deaths, and the Souls and Resident Evil games' nearly identical "YOU DIED" game over screens serve as little more than a winking acknowledgement of their overall difficulty. There are certainly modern games doing complex things with death, repetition, and storytelling (The Stanley Parable and Spec Ops: The Line come to mind) but, when compared to the number of games that treat death as a bland foregone conclusion, the most apparent conclusion is that games are using this fatalism as a crutch, because they don't know what else to do with it.
Video Games have gradually turned death, the most (only?) influential and thought-provoking aspect of human existence, into
a nearly-unexamined cliché.
← Before DLC altered its ending, Fallout 3 saw the player inhabiting a life from birth until death. It was also so open-ended that it had to jump through heaps of logistical and narrative hoops in order for that to definitively happen, but after so much time spent role-playing it still managed to feel a little poignant.
— "The game received controversy upon release, including the use of and the ability to be addicted to morphine and other drugs including alcohol in the game for Australia, religious and cultural sentiments in India over the cattle in the game being called Brahmin, and sensitivity in Japan due to a weapon that launches mini nuclear bombs called the "Fat Man" and a quest involving the detonation/disarming of an atomic bomb."
Soon, the ceaseless march of technology will temper the current crop of softening techniques games use to sidestep death. And yet, AAA games' notoriously conservative fanbase has been trained to expect very little else. They've been inundated with experiences of narrative death while also being given the power to sidestep it. Anywhere games go from here would seem like half-stepping in comparison. Lots of games that even attempt to model the most crushing and mundane aspects of mortality--Passage, for example, or The Graveyard--are laughed off as boring. The train seems like it's moving too fast for games to get off.
But how consciously are developers and audiences insisting on continuing to skirt death this way? Flirting with the infinite, in lieu of attempting to reckon with it or abandoning it entirely, can be a safe or even therapeutic proposition--if we know the stakes. While there are plenty of games that exist only to flatten and cheapen death, that deal with its actualities the same way that Look Who's Talking deals with the actualities of becoming a parent, a conscious de-fanging of death can be an artistic achievement unto itself. However, games' uncritical repetition runs the risk of desensitizing us, of rendering death both emotionally and artistically boring.
Anywhere games go from here would seem like half-stepping in comparison. Lots of games that even attempt to model the most crushing and mundane aspects of mortality.
When I was six, a character giving his life for his country and dodgeball team shook me deeply enough that I still feel a twinge of pathos over two decades later. Super Dodge Ball is a minimal, stupid video game, and its unusually explicit treatment of death was probably a comedic afterthought. Acknowledging death with a laugh and a "this might freak out some little kids" is better than nothing, however; on some intangible level it feels more thoughtful than the anesthetized experience games have backed themselves into. A decades-old game about dodgeball feeling more resonant than a state-of-the-art game that prides itself on its total realism is absurd, inexplicable, and kind of corny, but so are video games. And, I guess, so is death. Rien à faire.
— "Hardcore characters are exactly the same as regular characters, except that they are mortal. When they die, they stay dead. Forever. No restarting in town; no restarting anywhere. The infamous "deeds" message displays upon death, so players are never in doubt as to their fate. Diablo III added a Hall of Heroes where players can archive their dead HC characters, though only to look at them as they were at death; not to access any of their gear or inventory."
Cover image: YouTube