Garwulf’s Corner #28: Playing with Death

Originally published March 2, 2016

I received the word that the column would be coming to an end in mid-March just after I had sent in the drafts for installments 29 through 34. The accidental early posting of installment 27 meant that we now needed to pick one to fill the three-week gap that had been created by it. I chose this one — originally installment 34 — for a couple of reasons. First, having done so much about outrage culture in the previous few installments, I didn’t want to close up the column on it. Second, this was a good, powerful installment about endings, which worked thematically.

IT IS AN odd thing that video games — a medium that entirely consists of simulation — has so much difficulty doing justice to the one constant in life:

Death.

No matter who you are, where you live, or your social class, you will face death. If you are lucky, you will see your grandparents and parents go first, and your own life will end with the knowledge that your children will go on living their lives to the fullest. If you are unlucky, you may live to see your children pass on. We may not be guaranteed success, happiness, wealth, or even a full belly in life, but we are always guaranteed that it will end.

And yet, the medium that should arguably be the most immersive of them all — a medium that operates by making you the participant in the story, rather than a mere observer — almost always drops the ball when it comes to death. Video games where a character death approaches the power and impact of death in the real word are few and far between, and in three decades of playing and watching video games, I’ve only ever seen two games — Valiant Hearts and Ori and the Blind Forest — come close to the power of my own experience.

I was in the hospital, being treated for my first Crohn’s flare. Across from my bed was a fellow who had once been quite strong and robust, but severe diabetes had taken his sight, hearing, and at least one of his feet. By day, he was in the company of his wife, and by night, he called out again and again, asking the time. I could not help but answer, even though I knew that he would never hear me. He died on the anniversary of their meeting. She had come in wearing the same dress she had worn on the day they had met decades before. And quietly, in her presence, he passed on. I heard and felt more than saw it — I stared at the M*A*S*H episode I was watching as though my life depended on it. I heard the privacy curtain drawn, and her wails of grief. And then I left the room with the members of my family who had joined me earlier that day. By the time we got back, the bed had been removed, and she and her husband were gone.

Even now, I cannot truly describe the power of that moment. I was in the room when a life passed. I can’t remember their names, but I remember the feeling, and that moment where I was mere feet away from death is forever burned into my memory.

You’d think that video games could simulate that powerful moment better than movies or books, and yet, they don’t. The necessity of playability gets in the way.

The closer you can get to a story, the more powerful it becomes. Everything that stands between you and the story — such as a television screen, or game controller — is a barrier that the story must overcome. It has to make you forget that it isn’t real, and engage you. A video game has a layer that movies, books, television, and radio lack: an interface, along with game mechanics.

There are still a few ways to make a character death have power, but the best remains to place it in a cut scene, removing the mechanics and interface. Otherwise, the player is too aware that they are playing a game, and the character becomes more of a puzzle piece than a person. If the character dies in the action, your first reaction won’t be to mourn, or feel sadness, but to reload and try again. Or, put another way, the more agency a player has in a character death scene, the more that player will react by trying to repeat the scene and prevent it, and the more the power of the moment will be lost.

I mentioned that this is odd, but it also isn’t surprising. We have some measure of control over most things in our lives, but not over death. Part of what makes a life ending so powerful is that we are helpless to do anything about it. In the end, the only way to truly simulate the feeling of witnessing death is to stop the gameplay and leave the player powerless — just as we are in the real world.

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Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.