Death. It’s primed and ready to catch all of us someday, but for gamers it comes far more often. I’m, of course, speaking of death in video games themselves. It’s a healthy part of gaming that over the years we’ve grown to accept as a sign we need to improve, or that we need to learn a level better. Or that, in the case of Dark Souls, game developers hate us. A lot. However, we don’t often look at it in terms of the art of games. It’s stuck in the status of punishment, and not as a part of the expression itself.
After awhile, death stops feeling like a punishment as much as it just feels like the natural swing of things. It loses it’s relevance after the thousandth “Game Over”. Death has especially stopped mattering in recent Nintendo games like New Super Mario Bros. U or Yoshi’s New Island where, after you die a few times in any given level, you’re handed super powers that borderline on game-breaking so you don’t get held back.
Some games thrive on death. I Wanna Be The Guy sticks a sharp fork in your eye every time you move, unexpectedly killing you with anything and everything without warning, laughing as your pixelated blood splatters on the ground. Some games see death as unnecessary, like Kirby’s Epic Yarn which sheds the concept of death in favor of adorable, albeit sometimes equally frustrating, gem-spilling. But all of these games don’t really do much to twist death in any meaningful way. It’s still just death.
Can it be more than that? Can death become more of an art in games?
LIMBO: DEATH AS AN ART IN GAMES STORYTELLING
Coming out of a little indie studio from Denmark called Playdead in 2010, Limbo was an indie darling almost immediately. With it’s moody and oppressive atmosphere, simple-yet-elegant gameplay design, and stunning silhouette-based art style, it was primed and ready to be exactly what it became: a hit.
It’s almost certain that the first playthrough of Limbo will be filled with death. Vicious, brutal death. Stepped on a bear trap? Beheaded. Upset that giant spider? Skewered. Crushed. Electrocuted. Drowned. Thrown into some saw blades and puréed into a squishy goo. Death comes for our little hero, and it comes frequently and abruptly.
But we just keep popping back up. Almost instantly, you’re dropped back into the game only a few steps before the trap that turned your innards into “outtards”. Death isn’t a punishment as much as it’s a learning tool. We’re still not breaking any ground here, lots of games let you learn from your deaths in order to get passed a difficult obstacle. Super Meat Boy, for instance, loves killing you to teach you that “I should wall jump there. So I don’t become Super Dead Boy…”
As you progress through the game, you start wondering what’s going on. Why has this game kept quiet on it’s story? Why is no one explaining why you’re running through a foggy forest, ripping limbs off a****** spiders, flicking brain-controlling slugs off your face, and generally being creeped out by psychopathic murderous forest children? And why is a kid being put through such a terrifying ordeal.
This isn’t your usual kid hero platformer. Where death is taken lightly, usually played up by cartoony exaggeration. This is raw, graphic violence being committed on a child. And it’s done in a way that begins to give you a sense of meaning. As though these deaths are purposeful. Like they’re a punishment? Naw, that can’t be. It’s not like we’re in limbo or something! Oooooooh…
Throughout the game, death is being used as a narrative device. It’s never mentioned, but as you play, watching the young boy fall into a pit of spikes or get run over by a burning tire, simply serves to strengthen your attention to the world and what’s going on. This both serves to make you more mindful of the challenges, but it also causes your brain to interpret what’s going on and figure things out for yourself.
Limbo leaves itself wide open for interpretation, with an ending that could be taken many different ways. With no clear-cut answers as to what is going on, no exposition dump to give you context, and certainly no closure, it allows you to be the storyteller. While a lot of games give you these kinds of interpretation-dependent open stories, not a lot of them manage to work the game’s very systems into the experience. It’s giving death a meaning, not just in the gameplay of puzzle solving, but also in how the game decided to tell it’s story. It’s the perfect example of how to make death into an art in games. To transform it into something that has more meaning to the overall experience.
This is one way to make death into a meaningful process in a game. And while not many games can benefit from this kind of design, it does open up the concept of dying in a game. Proves that it still holds potential for being more than just something that happens when you make a mistake or fail to accomplish a challenge.
DEATH AS A GAMEPLAY FOCUS IN LIFE GOES ON
Limbo was doubtfully the first game to play with death a bit differently, and it’s hardly the last. Take for example Infinite Monkeys Entertainment’s upcoming Life Goes On, releasing April 16th on Steam. A puzzle-platformer where death isn’t punishment, it’s the solution.
Instead of playing as one character, you play as a legion of them. A group of fearless knights with no sense of self-preservation. Running forward into certain death, in order for their corpses to be used in whatever way the next knight in line deems necessary. Leaping off the heads of your freshly dead brothers-in-arms is certainly morbid, but it’s played in a oddly comical way that makes it rather charming. Making you forget that you’re making orphans out of children in order to reach your goal.
These are clearly two extremes in example. One plays death in a silly way, while the other turns death into an exercise in dread and despair. But in both cases, death becomes more than simply a result. It becomes a part of the experience that manages to define the games themselves as something different than other games in their genre. While these are simply looking at one genre in particular, there is room for this approach to death in almost any kind of game.
Going forward, I’d like to see more games toy with death as a process. Taking death out of being a mere afterthought, and more of an art in games. Making it less something that simply happens, and more meaningful to the overall experience. If death is such a defining part of our lives, than it should come as no surprise that it can be more prevalent and important in our experiences with games and art in general.