Death Is Only the Beginning: Mortality in the Roguelike
There are few sensations more familiar to seasoned gamers than death. Since death is a common consequence for failure in play, we consider death and its attendant rebirth a necessary part of the play process. Some of us even revel in our constant flirtation with death: at its peak in 2014, an average of forty-two Dark Souls II player characters died every second. It is through death that we learn how to play games successfully, but many games treat death as a simple rewind: when you fail, your character dies and reappears at a predetermined point in the narrative prior to the death, with no indication that the death ever occurred. Thus, while games are in many ways primed to open a discussion of mortality, most prefer to pretend mortality is a non-issue.
Roguelikes, as a genre, deal very explicitly with death as a central mechanic. There are no save points in most roguelikes, so death puts you back at the very beginning of the game, with your progress and some or all of your upgrades erased. But as with gaming writ large, many roguelikes treat death as a simple mechanic to indicate failure, and neglect its narrative opportunity. But two recent roguelikes have taken the conceit of cyclical, death-based play and baked it into their stories. And from these, a bigger conversation about our attitudes about mortality was born. (more…)
Emma is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition who studies how play impacts learning. Her words have also appeared in Critical Distance and Unwinnable. When not writing, she enjoys passing the controller between friends for runs of Silent Hill. She can be found @kostopolus on Twitter.