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Persnickety Perspective: A Beautiful Death?

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Though death is an inevitable part of life, most of us take it for granted until it is knocking on our door. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the Seventh Seal and the latest episode of Dexter, it has been a major theme for many creative works. Games are far from being an exception, but the portrayal of one’s demise carries much more weight when an interactive medium is in question. It doesn’t matter whether we are playing checkers or Quake, losing one of “ours” feels painful, taking one of theirs feels great. Not only that, the latter is encouraged.

Many things, both good and bad, have been said due to this aspect of gaming. Thankfully, we’re not going to repeat them yet again, but rather focus on something slightly different: the aesthetic of death.

Phrasing it like that does seem odd, maybe with a possible hint of a disturbing fascination; however, the way a game presents the end of a virtual existence also inevitably sets its tone. Probably the first thing that comes to one’s mind is the goreporn of modern, “realistic” titles. You could easily say that death has a far greater role in Mortal Kombat than it does in Super Mario Bros, but another perspective could argue that it is more present in the latter, while much, much louder in the former.

When we look at Super Mario, the message is clear: you dying is bad, your enemies dying is good. Aside from the obligatory loss of a life and coming closer to a Game Over screen, the player is punished by an abrupt, unpleasant sound, while the rest of the world freezes. It is in clear focus that yes, you died, and yes, it is a bad thing. But the speed of the whole process also indicates that it’s supposed to be a frequent occurrence, as the player is not left waiting long before he can play again. It’s one of many things that early Sonic games “stole” from Mario, because it simply works well with the genre on a mechanical level.

The glorification of enemies’ demise in Super Mario Bros comes from the exact opposite approach. Enemies die quickly, in groups, almost as an afterthought. The sounds they let out are even pleasant, creating a unique, happy jingle as you chain kills and become rewarded with an extra life. It is a simple indication of “My life is more worth than theirs.”

On the other hand, coming back to Mortal Kombat, death is much louder as a theme, but actually taking part in it is less frequent. Partially due to the player versus player nature of the game, dying is balanced out. Your opponent is as difficult to kill as you are, and a fatality is as gruesome to behold whether you are on the receiving end or not. Of course, certain characters revel in the act of killing more than others, but when context is ignored and we filter only the actual event of taking or losing a life, we are left with a far more balanced outlook than in many much more innocent games.

These are, of course, only two examples of many. Old Sierra adventure games tried to make fun of the player dying, to brighten up the frequent game over screens. Roguelike titles like Dungeons of Dredmor even celebrate death, embracing it as an integral part of gameplay. However, how many games try to display death in a beautiful way? Both King’s Quest and Dungeons of Dredmor show death as it is: your character dying (usually) in pain, but the reaction to it is what’s positive.

What there is a possible lack of in gaming is death being aesthetically pleasing. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I am quite certain there are people who think that Sub-Zero ripping out someone’s spine is the equivalent of virtual sculpting, how many games put an effort in making death “beautiful”?

Obviously, this is something that a game with realistic aesthetics would have a far harder time of achieving than a stylized game. It is also something that is extremely difficult to execute. Many cultures don’t have as negative of an approach to the event of dying, but the act of taking a life is far less tolerated (with good reason). So, what would the goal of portraying killing in such a way that it is pleasing be?

Possibly to add weight to it, but then we have two issues. The first is that if we are dealing with a game in which you take down many foes, adding weight to each death will obviously lead to them all having the same impact. If it is a game where every single death is carefully and sparsely set, the actual narrative context will add the weight necessary. So from this perspective, it makes very little difference.

What we could achieve with this kind of tool is alter the perception in a game. If you recall, I mentioned that the way a game handles death sets the tone. A game like, for example, Destroy All Humans! does an inversion from a solely narrative perspective. It is not the usual “Good ol’ Humans versus Bad Aliens”, but the other way around. However, the actual visuals are still the same way we still perceive the world as humans. In essence, it is just changing the camera angle.

Going one step beyond and actually changing what a life fading away looks like would be a far greater, and possibly more effective change of perspective. Not in the sense of extreme examples, like Valve’s Meet the Pyro video which displays the world through the eyes of a mad person, but maybe through the eyes of something like a ghost, or maybe even a psychopomp?

We thankfully live in an amazing time for gaming, where indie developers can take creative risks which weren’t all that common before. Not exactly tied to the focus of this article, but games like the upcoming Proteus show how aesthetics can affect how we perceive something we would otherwise take for granted. Undoubtedly, given time, we’ll see a title that will make us say “Death is beautiful.”

Persnickety Perspective is a weekly column that deals with nitpicky and overparticular thoughts on the gaming industry, culture and games in general.

Miodrag hails from the land of Serbia. He is currently a college student trying to learn Japanese and speaks English, German and Serbian (as well as all the jabber similar enough to Serbian). He is primarily a PC gamer, but knows his way around various consoles, old and new.
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JamiePatton
JamiePatton

This is intriguing, but I think there are a number of things to consider here.

Firstly, are we talking about making the death of a player beautiful, the death of an NPC/ally, or the death of an enemy? You dwell on this briefly but don't, ultimately, give an answer. This is an important distinction, though, because each scenario gives rise to very different emotions. The death of the avatar could be deeply saddening, but could also create a huge disconnect between player and avatar, effectively breaking the medium - after all, the 'game over' screen is possibly the most immersion-breaking points in gaming, since that connection between avatar and player is broken. Compare this to the death of an NPC - say, Aeris from FFVII - and the death of an enemy - to take your example, ripping out an opponent's spine in Mortal Kombat. Each scenario evokes a very different emotion in the player, so making each of them beautiful would have a very different effect.

Secondly, if we assume that the player's death is going to be made beautiful, is this a permanent death or only a temporary one? This will hugely affect the impact of the death scene. If the death is temporary - ala Super Mario Brothers - then the death (and its beauty) can be considered 'non-canon', so is largely meaningless. If the death is permanent then it makes much more sense: the final death animation and perhaps the process of losing your life bit by bit can be a requiem to that very life.

But thirdly, what exactly do you mean by 'beautiful? Do you mean emotionally stirring, but visually underplayed? Do you want to express some kind of emotional beauty by externalising it and rendering it as some kind of golden glow or saintly visage? Do you want the response of the other characters to be subdued, respectful and moving? The death of a character can be brutal, sudden and horrifically unfair, over in an instant, but the reaction of other characters - as they mourn the loss of their friend, reflect on their life and try to move on - can be deeply affecting. 

My problem, I think, is that 'beautiful' really doesn't explain to me what, precisely, you want this new stance on death to *do*. Do you want to glorify death? To mark it out as part of the natural cycle of existence? To dwell on the injustice of death when deserving characters are snuffed out by a cruel world?

MDKII
MDKII

@JamiePatton Heya Jamie, thanks for the comment!

First off, death in gaming or any creative medium is a really broad subject, so I kind of had to compress my point in this article (but definitely things I can and will expand on at some point). I was talking about death regardless of whether it's player character, NPC or enemy. You are right though that it ultimately has a great impact on how we view said death. This is why I tried to forgo narrative context and actually focus on the moment of demise. IE, rather than talk about Aeris's death in Final Fantasy 7, I'd talk about the presentation of the death of random encounters, or other things that you can isolate. I'm guessing I'm being a bit confusing, but basically, this article's intention is to talk about the moment of death aesthetically, rather than talk about it on a narrative level.

To answer you second question: both. But permadeath is a good point and since it's inherently tied to a gameplay mechanic, it can be used as part of the death aesthetic (you don't need to limit yourself to audio-visual only if we're talking about games).

As for what I exactly mean by "beautiful", I don't know at this point :) That is why I am raising the question of whether it's possible, how it could be possible and what it would be good for. It is not really a stance I am trying to present, but rather a different approach to a well-established mechanic. Ultimately, it is a mechanic that is either presented because of a game, or that affects the presentation of a game, all depending on how the developer prioritizes it. We've seen many indie titles clench to a single mechanic or aspect of gaming and build upon it or refine it. I don't know what a beautiful death would look like right now, but neither did I know what 3D graphics would look like until I set eyes upon the first PlayStation. So, this article is here in hopes that one day someone will be able to make me say "The way your game does death is beautiful" after I've downed a mook. What the motivation or intention behind such a presentation is doesn't matter.

Hope that gave somewhat of a reasonable answer. Thank you again for reading the article and taking the time to comment.

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  1. [...] The beauty of videogame deaths? “What there is a possible lack of in gaming is death being aesthetically pleasing. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I am quite certain there are people who think that Sub-Zero ripping out someone’s spine is the equivalent of virtual sculpting, how many games put an effort in making death “beautiful”?” [...]