Dying and living to tell the tale
What is confusing, when I write this, is that game death is not at all the same as real death.
Death is completely different in the world. Death seems to suck meaning, seems to suck purpose away. Videogame death is nothing like that. It has no cost, no permanence. If anything, I am rewarded for dying – rewarded with knowledge of how the game works, of how to beat it “next time”.
Death in games quite literally gives meaning to life in games.
Permanence and absence are death’s key values in the world. How can games, with their INSERT COIN TO CONTINUE, replicate that?
They can’t. But they shouldn’t necessarily try to. Death in games has always been a metaphor. Has always HAD to be a metaphor. It can’t possibly be real.
Some games have tried, though. Tried to put a cost on all this failure – create worlds where the value of life is inestimably lifted through how they treat death.
“Although touching aliens will cause the player to lose the game, and killing aliens awards points, the aliens will never actually fire at the player. This calls into question the player’s mission, which is never explicitly stated, only hinted at through classic game mechanics. Is the player supposed to be an aggressor? Or merely an observer, traversing through a dangerous land?
Why do we assume that because we are given a weapon an awarded for using it, that doing so is right?”
“The game explores what it means to kill in a videogame,” says Gage, and to do that, he has to give death a real value, and murder a real penalty.
How many have I killed? How many monsters squashed, bad guys shot, monsters blown up? But just as games do not feature real death, this is not real killing. It is overcoming obstacles; doing what is asked of me to “win”.
Games are so often about conflict: not necessarily war, nor killing, but struggle – and the outcome of that is catastrophic loss. That might be death; but even when it’s not, it may as well be: chess pieces knocked from a board; a pokemon that “faints” when it runs out of health; a team knocked out of a tournament. They’re a space where the metaphor of death runs deep, even if the reality doesn’t; players will use the words “dead”, “killed” even when the game fiction suggests they shouldn’t.
Tthe player can choose what it means, and make an informed choice. I may be shooting a lot of things in this game, but these deaths are meaningless, like numbers in a spreadsheet. Or: I may choose to sacrifice a character I’ve developed over weeks or months; only one death, but so much more significant to me as a player.
We, as players, choose what to make of the metaphor that we’re engaging with.
When we play, we get to ascribe our own meanings. So don’t underestimate players ability to create meaning where the was none – and don’t undermine the value of that meaning.
It’s 2001, and I’m playing Resident Evil 2: Capcom’s classic survival horror, a pastiche of George Romero’s zombie movies.
I am fighting off the undead in a city, hampered by limited resources. There’s never, ever, enough ammunition. I have descended to the underside of a train station to fight the corrupted, now mutated scientist William Birkin. I think I’ve killed him for good, but he mutates again, into a new form, and attacks me. I have a handful of ammo, a knife, and no herbs to heal with. He has sucked up everything I brought down here with me. There is no ammunition in the room. I attack him with everything I’ve got, reduced to just the knife, and hack away, but he’s too strong. Leon Scott Kennedy succumbs to his wounds.
And so that was where I left things. I had no chance of survival: I was already too low on equipment in the previous save game. I had turned the game into the classic, 70s horror movie ending: there were no survivors. I rejected the story of survival the game was fixated on, and let my actions, let the rules speak for themself. Leon was dead. He had never had a chance. No-one was coming. The city was overrun.
I left his body there, and I’ve never played the game again. I had made my own narrative bullet.
So close to the end, but deliberately unfinished. For me, Leon is dead, and to try again undermines that. It makes his death less meaningful. And I mean that: this mess of low-resolution textures and polygons means more to me when I can’t play it again.
Death in games is not death in the real world, but it was never meant to be. This is confusing because it shares a name with something bigger, stranger, both more and less meaningful. The purpose of death in games is to tell us about life. To remind us to try things we don’t know. To push when we’re afraid to. To see what we can be. To investigate how things work. To fight for the best path through the one world we have. To understand that to change the past – to have another go – might not always be as meaningful as the single path we chose with no do-overs.
And why do we play these games? To visit other worlds, to live other lives. In that sense every game is an extra life. And in those games we navigate a branching multiverse; some paths are cut short by this thing we call “death” that is not, and we rewind, take another life, and take another path, until we get to a canonical, critical path where the game ends successfully, and another virtual life is well-lived.
To make a medium that is so often about living other lives must be to make a medium that is somehow about death. But not this airquoted “death” I have dwelt so much on; rather, the death when we step away from a game and return to the real world. A little death as we leave a life behind, and are left richer for it.