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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