‘Is that the point of the game?’
‘Depends what mood you’re in, really.’
So I have this peculiar and quite morbid fascination with death sequences in video games. Mostly confined to games set in some kind of third-person perspective, these animations are apparently gratuitous both in the sense of being violent/shocking/gruesome (or just plain sad) and in the way in which they rarely seem to have any particular purpose in the game. What is the point in programming an extra few seconds of animation which adds nothing to the gameplay, is sometimes in dubious taste, and which many players might miss altogether?
In a multiplayer game, an elaborate death scene (like the infamous and briefly controversial ‘fatality’ sequences in the ‘Mortal Kombat’ series) is more often than not a cause for celebration, a ritualised occasion around which players congeal to beat on a lump of pixels or polygons which may or may not conceal a real person. Conversely, the effect in single-player games is markedly different. It is a more intimate experience, as though the game were punishing the player by showing that what seemed to them the indecision of a moment can have very serious (and graphic) consequences.
Jane McGonigal has some interesting things to say about the nature of failure and death in her recent book, ‘Reality is Broken’. She reports an interesting statistic courtesy of game researcher Nicole Lazzaro: ‘Roughly four times out of five, gamers don’t complete the mission, run out of time, don’t solve the puzzle, lose the fight, fail to improve their score, crash and burn, or die.’ So death is not really failure in most games. It is not even death. It is just another part of life. McGonigal goes on to suggest that the great paradox of failure in gaming is that it makes us ‘excited, interested, and most of all optimistic.’
I don’t quite share in her optimism. For me, the irritating thing about ‘Reality is Broken’ is that for all its fine observations, its basic thesis revolves around the notion of gaming as a kind of shared pleasurable work, anticipating a bright future of gamers as happy digital pixelserfs toiling towards utopia. It is good on process but light on content and context; there is a lot of quite interesting stuff about ‘epic meaning’, but the book spends so much time dwelling on how games might mean that the idea of what and why they might mean just kind of disappears.
Given that my own personal experience of video games has been an introverted, absorbing, solipsistic and largely single-player experience, I find all of this a bit tedious. McGonigal is right in the sense that a well-designed game death restores to the player something of their own sense of agency, even while it whisks control away from their fingertips. Though she notes that hurling primates into the wide blue yonder in ‘Super Monkey Ball’ can be oddly satisfying, she sticks to the clean, safe and friendly regions of videogame death. Taking her argument to its logical conclusion, why not make player death a game in itself? Already the ornate death sequences of many titles induce a kind of perverse Pavlovian response in which the player can end up repeatedly committing suicide if only for the thrill of it all.
‘Dead Space’ and its sequel contains some of the most horrible and innovative and downright weird ways of doing away with the player I’ve ever seen. (Handy compilations are widely available on YouTube for the curious). This, however, seems to me to be a rather laboured effort to turn a not-scary survival horror game back into something which is frightening again. The big problem with ‘Dead Space’ is that it ultimately dumps ‘Alien’ in favour of ‘Aliens’; once the player has weapons and armor potent enough to take on however many creatures are hiding in the shadows, it becomes kind of hard to be frightened by anything the game throws at you unless it has more teeth than whatever came before. And so the game toughens up the baddies and amps up the death sequences, but despite the lashings of blood and hysterical furniture, it’s never really frightening. Not really.
(When I was a kid I have a vivid memory of playing a demo of a game called ‘Creature Shock’. It was a sort of hybrid FPS with FMV-movie enemies and shooting sequences on rails, and I don’t think I ever really worked out how to play it, but I’ve never forgotten the range of deeply unpleasant CGI death sequences the game threw at you at every turn. ‘Dead Space’ owes a great deal to it in terms of sheer body horror.)
There was a mystery about death sequences in the old games. I suppose partly this was a product of technical limitations; for a long time there was just a twiddly little minor-key sound effect and Mario fell into the abyss or whatever, and if the timing was right that was sometimes magnificent. But then I remember playing ‘Return to Zork’, a CD-ROM adventure game which offered a great many ways to die in ways which were, looking back, pretty tongue-in-cheek – but to my young self they seemed incredibly serious and utterly bleak. Above all there was that chapel scene after each death which depicted the manner of one’s demise in stained glass, with the options ‘Load’ and ‘Quit’ hanging above the player’s own coffin like strange harbingers of something worse to come.
There is a deeply mysterious quality to the fixed, looping style of those death scenes in the now almost wholly expired genre of Full Motion Video games. It persists to some extent in third-person action/adventures like ‘Fahrenheit’ and ‘Heavy Rain’, but it is a quality which aspires to the cinematic – in fact, beyond the cinematic. You could see what they were trying to achieve. They were genuinely ambitious. It was as if they really thought that with this new fangled CD-ROM multimedia technology, we could have a whole work of art with the greatest aspects of cinema, literature, film and TV condensed into one game – and only spread across, like, twelve game discs! And somehow they did well for a while – Dennis Hopper was in The Black Dahlia! Christopher Lloyd was in Toonstruck! And though much was lost in the effort to become game-like while maintaining a photorealistic style, all those hours of terrible writing and woeful acting have a feel to me which is as unique to its period as that other haunted late-analogue media: fax machines, dial-up modems, tape drives, floppy disks. It is all in the grain.