Death might be the most vast and most common topos in games. Since the beginning of gaming, players “died” on screen, losing one or multiple “lives.” The metaphor of cheating death pretty soon became a real option for players, be it through gaining extra lives or willingly manipulating the games’ core functions via cheat codes.
When games got stronger and deeper in terms of narrative, death became part of that. Death–as with literature–became a character. Sometimes it was the villain (Hades in God of War 3), sometimes an NPC, and sometimes the player became death itself as some sort of (anti-) hero (Grim Fandango, Darksiders 2).
But it’s not until quite recently that more and more games started to deal with the impact of death on us as people, as humans. How do we cope with the loss of a loved one? How do we manage to grasp our own mortality, when it is thrown into our face like a punch? A fatal disease, a car accident–these things happen to us in the physical reality of our daily lives. And games can aid us when we struggle with them.
In part one I will take a closer look at some examples, namely In Between and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. In part two I will talk about Life is Strange and Fragments of Him. I will reflect on presentation, narrative, gameplay, and background of these games and try to find similarities and differences. I will examine how these games resonate with the philosophical concepts of death, e.g. the Kübler-Ross Model, monism and dualism. Obviously, this text contains some heavy spoilers, but I will try to keep them at a minimum.
In Between and the Five Stages of Grief
In dealing with the death, the Kübler-Ross Model is without a doubt the most well-known and discussed way of coping. The model is named after Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who published her theory of the five stages of grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. These five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The stages do not necessarily happen to every person dealing with death and they have no specific order or linear structure.
In Between by Gentlymad studios is a game that uses the Kübler-Ross Model both as a narrative and as a gameplay mechanic. It tells the story of a middle aged guy who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. While he is in this mental state of being neither dead nor alive, we as the players have to navigate him through the five stages of dealing with his fate. Here, dealing with death is transformed into a 2D-platform game where you have to navigate through rooms full of spikes and traps. However, the ability to change the direction of gravity gives this game an additional spin. Just like in real life, we go back and forth, spinning our thoughts up and down.
The different stages are represented in various chapters with specific threats. While you play the depression chapter for example, you are constantly chased by a wall of darkness, which only recedes for a short time if you face it directly (facing your fear so to speak). If it touches you, it swallows you and you have to start again at the beginning. Anger on the other hand shows up as red bubbles, which explode if you touch them. Make no mistake, this game is hard. It’s really, really hard. That makes it very frustrating. I haven’t beaten the game until now. Maybe we aren’t supposed to beat the game at all. Because, you can’t beat death. And dealing with that is also really, really hard.
Thanatology in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
A different approach to the dealing with death topos is Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The studio behind it, the Chinese Room (Dear Esther), takes a more philosophical look at the concept. The game is played from a first person perspective, but we never find out who the person is–or if it is even a person. This makes it significantly different from In Between. We perceive the game from a far more direct and closer point of view. Moreover, it’s not our own death we experience, or the death of others we witness, but how several people deal with the loss of someone. In a way, this mode of narrative draws us both nearer to the experience and gives us an outside perspective on the events at the same time. We can’t change the events, we can only watch and listen–and maybe learn.
Throughout the game we explore the fictional English town Yaughton in Shropshire, whose inhabitants have mysteriously disappeared. We are guided by floating spheres of light, but we don’t have to follow any given route and can explore the town as we choose. However, to reveal parts of the story, we have to discover certain locations in a specific order. We can also interact with objects, such as doors, phones, and radios to find out what happened.
Basically, two scientists at the local observatory discovered a certain pattern of light and sound, which they deemed extraterrestrial. Although this pattern tried to communicate with the living beings on earth, it seems that nobody was able to answer. As a side effect of the (failed) communication, the pattern killed animals and people, causing brain tumors and spontaneous human combustion. While the one scientist, Stephen, tried to fight the pattern and stop it from spreading, the other scientist, Kate, continuously triedto find out more about how to communicate with it. In the end, Stephen failed and Kate succeeded. Stephen ordered an air strike with poisonous gas from the military, killing everyone in the town. He hid in the local bunker just to discover that the pattern survived and was able to leave the town. Kate somehow merged with the pattern, finally able to understand it, but also leaving her body behind in the process.
The interesting and philosophical aspect here is how the different town folks are dealing with these strange and ghastly events. Upon realising that they are about to die, each of them reflects on their life. The local big farmer, Frank, lost his wife some time before and, having pushed the loss out of his mind to avoid the pain, now finally allows himself to think about and deal with it. In the end, he deeply regrets that he was too much of a coward to stand by her in her final hours. In admitting his feelings of fear, he comes to terms with the death of his wife and accepts whatever happens next. Another story we discover is the one of the local priest, Jeremy, who saw the event as an act of God; a sort of test for him. As more and more members of the community disappear, Jeremy concludes that he has failed as a priest. But still, as the end comes, he has faith in his belief.
Only in the experience of the death of a loved one do we understand our own mortality. As a consequence, death is always there, always around us, without happening to us. The loved one who died is gone and leaves a void not to be filled. And that is what makes it so hard for us.
With the various characters as its agents, the game studio employs the two basic contrary schools of thought in the philosophical field. Since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers there was dispute about what happens when we die. On the one side stood the school of monistic anthropology (monism) and the dualistic anthropology (dualism). Monism states that body and soul are one single substance, the human organism, so death is final and there is no afterlife. Dualism on the other hand proclaims that body and soul are separate entities and if the body dies, the soul persists. As philosophy is not a question of belief (like religion) but of rational argumentation, it can be critically assessed. Furthermore, philosophy looks at the question “what is death?” and asks further: is it something good, evil, or neither? The idea that death is something bad has been rejected by philosophers very early on. Plato is one of the representatives of dualism and death being something good–but only if you’ve lived your life in a “good” way. So when you die, your soul goes to a place of solace, peace, and serenity. We find that idea embodied in the priest Jeremy. Another school of thought is Epicurus, who considered the fear of death to be useless and unreasonable. Being a follower of the monistic idea, he proclaimed that we can only judge a thing good or evil if we somehow experience it ourselves. Since nobody can experience death before dying, it is neither good nor evil. Death doesn’t concern us, because once we are dead we can’t feel anything anymore. The English philosopher David Hume continues this approach in the 18th century in his essay “Of the immortality of the Soul.”
The question of how we empirically know death is what Max Scheler and Paul Ludwig Landsberg focused on. How do we even know about our death? Only in the experience of the death of a loved one do we understand our own mortality. As a consequence, death is always there, always around us, without happening to us (“present in absence”). The loved one who died is gone and leaves a void not to be filled (“absent in absence”). And that is what makes it so hard for us.
At the end of the game, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture doesn’t give us an answer what truly happened in that town. The developers at the Chinese Room don’t want to impose their idea of death and the afterlife on us. They show us different ways of coping: facing the pain of loss, keeping faith, surrounding ourselves with loved ones. They simply want to make us think about death and that maybe, death isn’t such an evil or bad thing that we should be afraid of. Maybe we should accept that death just is.